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International Labour Review, Vol. 122, No. 4, July-August 1983


Technology and rural women
in the Third World


Iftikhar AHMED *




Introduction
Rural women in the developing countries essentially perform two roles.
As housewives and mothers, they are responsible for the daily chores which
involve, in addition to child care and their normal" tasks around the house,
long hours of strenuous labour (e.g. in fetching water for household use over
long distances and collecting fuel wood). As active agents of production, they
are responsible for growing the field crops (producing subsistence food crops
and assisting the men in the cultivation of their cash crops),' for poultry and
livestock rearing, for home-based industries (such as food processing and
handicrafts) and for marketing, transport and trade. Furthermore, in some
countries women are actively engaged in construction activities.2 This typical
pattern of the sexual division of labour clearly emerges from evidence
available for rural Africa reproduced in table 1; although it varies from
culture to culture,3 among different groups of women in a given rural area,
and between rural areas with different levels of male out-migration, it may
generally be said that the cumulation of tasks performed by rural women has
led to underemployment among men in rural areas, whereas women are
seriously overworked.
Apart from this unequal division of the burden of daily work, rural
women work long hours throughout the developing world. In some rural
areas of Asia, for example, the daily workload of women and even very
young girls is consistently higher than that of men in practically every age
group (table 2). In Pakistan women in small peasant households work
15 hours a day even in the non-peak periods (Khan and Bilquees, p. 261). In
Zambia the workday of a rural woman is estimated to be as long as 16 hours
during the planting season (UNECA, 1974). The wife of a small farmer or
farm labourer in Central America has to start her day at 3 or 4 a.m. (Fagley,
p. 19). There is some evidence that such overwork can affect the life
expectancy of rural women.4

International Labour Office.


Copyright International Labour Organisation 1983









International Labour Review


Table 1. Division of labour between men and women, rural areas of Africa (% of total
labour)

Task Men Women


Land clearing
Turning the soil
Planting
Hoeing and weeding
Harvesting
Transporting crops from farm to home
Storing crops
Processing food crops
Marketing excess crops
Trimming tree crops
Carrying water and fuel
Caring for domestic animals
Hunting
Feeding and caring for children, men and the aged


* With or without some help from children.
Source: United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, African Training and Research Centre for Women:
Women of Africa: Today and tomorrow (Addis Ababa, 1975), p. 6.


Table 2. Daily workload of rural population by age and sex, Indonesia and Nepal,
1972-73 (hours)


Age group Indonesia Nepal
M F Index for F M F Index for F
(M=100) (M=100)


3.6 3.5
3.3 5.4
4.8 8.7
8.0 10.2
8.7 12.0
9.3 11.9
8.4 10.5
7.3 8.4


3.7 4.9 132
6.5 8.4 129
7.5 9.9 132
9.5 11.3 119
10.4 12.1 116
11.2 14.1 126
10.4 12.7 122
9.3 10.7 115


Source: Computed from M. Nag, R. C. Peet and B. White: "Economic value of children in two peasant societies", in
International Population Conference: Mexico, 1977, Vol. 1 (Liege, International Union for the Scientific Study of
Population, 1977).



What then, one wonders, is technological progress-with its undoubted
capacity to save time and effort-doing to alleviate the excessive workload of
rural women and improve their lot in terms of income, employment and
labour productivity? This article begins with a brief empirical overview of the


6-8
9-11
12-14
15-19
20-29
30-39
40-49
50+







Technology and rural women


impact of technological change on rural women in the Third World. It will
then discuss the problems of predicting the impact of technological change,
and the mechanisms and causes of the female labour displacement which follows
it. An attempt will be made to assess the role of rural factor imperfections in
explaining sex-based inequalities in access to modem inputs, technology,
knowledge and skills. The implications of these inequalities for the choice of
techniques and the allocation of resources are also analysed. Finally, the socio-
economic and technical constraints to wider dissemination of technologies to
rural women are identified at both the household and policy levels.

Impact of technology
We shall now review the impact of technological change on rural women
with respect to some key economic activities pursued by them.

Agricultural technology
Equipment innovations introduced in agriculture are often used in the
cultivation of cash crops, while the women are primarily responsible for
growing food crops, mainly with the use of traditional technology. This is
usually the case in Africa, where the gap between levels of labour
productivity in the two activities is widening. Furthermore, the commercial-
isation of agriculture leads to an increase in the area under cash crops and in
some cases deprives women of land previously farmed by them for food or
leaves them with inferior land. In countries where rural women feed their
families on produce farmed by themselves, nutritional deficiencies may
result, since family food availability declines as the income from cash crops
accrues to men. Indeed, in a northern Nigerian village an inverse relationship
was observed between the area under cash crop and the level of household
food consumption.'
Cash crop cultivation following mechanised clearing of new land by men
may also increase the arduousness of women's work (e.g. in weeding,
harvesting and carrying operations). The dwarf HYV rice introduced in
Indonesia, for instance, requires the additional operation of crushing the
paddy stalks after harvest in the fields. This new job, which is necessary
because the paddy cannot be tied in bundles for transportation since the
stems are too short, is undertaken by women (Manuaba, p. 68). Paradoxi-
cally, this increase in the workload of some women goes hand-in-hand with
loss of livelihood for others. Traditional varieties of rice in Indonesia used to
be harvested by women with a small finger-knife (ani-ani) to cut stalk lengths
which varied. With the advent of the Green Revolution, when rice had to be
harvested twice a year, sickles were introduced and the crop was sold to
middlemen before the harvest. Although costs per hectare declined by 50 per
cent and grain loss in the field was reduced, the employment and distribu-
tional implications were disastrous. Labour use (women's) per hectare was







International Labour Review


reduced by over one-half and those who lost their jobs also lost the share of
rice output (12-15 per cent) that they formerly received. Furthermore, the
10 per cent of the grain which had been left in the field under traditional
harvesting methods and which had been gleaned by the poorest for food was
no longer available (Cain; Tinker).
A similar adverse impact on rural women of the introduction of innovation
in crop harvesting is observed in parts of Africa. Women traditionally harvested
with a small penknife with which they cut cereal stalks one by one. When scythes
were introduced to speed up the harvesting work, the stalk had to be cut further
down and this in turn meant that a much heavier load (mainly dead weight) had
to be carried to the home. It also resulted in severe cuts on the women's bare feet
when the crop was being threshed (Carr, p. 28). In general-and this holds true
for Asia (Khan and Bilquees)-the work burden of rural women-particularly
those from tenant and small farm households-has increased following the
adoption of HYV technology.

Food and crop processing
The impact on rural women of technological change in the processing of
a given food item may vary depending on the prevailing socio-economic
conditions in which it is introduced. For example, in Indonesia, following the
introduction of mechanised rice hullers to replace hand-pounding, many
women's income-earning opportunities were completely destroyed, the total
annual loss of earnings being estimated at $50 million (Collier, p. 106).
Women's incomes from home-brewed traditional beer are being
threatened by the introduction of corn and lager beer in Africa, both of which
are brewed on an industrial scale, the latter with elaborate and expensive
imported technology and raw materials.
Similarly, in West Africa women have been involved for decades in
making soap from palm oil. Traditionally, the soap was made simply by
mixing the oil with wood ash. However, imported soap, being more attractive
in colour, smell and shape, has posed a serious threat to women's soap-
making activities.6
In several Asian and African countries government loan, price support
and investment policies help larger industrial establishments processing food
items like rice, maize, fish, cane-sugar and bread, and thus threaten the
livelihood of rural women. However, the choice of appropriate technologies,
backed up by tariffs and excise taxes on imported raw materials, would make
it possible to protect and stimulate processing activities pursued by women in
rural areas (Baron).
Problems in the diffusion of food-processing technology have quite often
arisen because social and cultural factors have been neglected. For example,
although hand-held maize sellers and pedal-operated grinding machines are
appropriate in terms of low cost, ease of maintenance and repair and use of
local materials, the former have proved to be less efficient than the







Technology and rural women


traditional manual method of shelling and the latter are not acceptable to
rural women in many parts of Africa because they have to sit astride in order
to operate them and this posture is considered improper (Carr, p. 28).

Trade and commerce
In West Africa virtually all of the market for petty trading in food and
drink is in the hands of women. They also dominate East African markets in
Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and much of Kenya (Lawson, p. 596). In
Bolivia, Peru and Paraguay rural women actively participate in trade and
marketing of family produce, including poultry and other livestock (Develop-
ment Alternatives, Inc., pp. 67-68).
However, the market trends noted in many developing countries show
the gradual erosion of women's role as market traders. The percentage of
women in commerce decreased in Dahomey (Benin) from 95 per cent to
89 per cent between 1961 and 1967, and in Nigeria from 84 per cent to
70 per cent between 1950 and 1963 ("Women...", p. 364), largely because
of the decline in their food-processing activities noted earlier. The existence
of other women's marketing enterprises is similarly threatened, as in the case
of those based on groundnut oil and presscake processing in Nigeria, where
the marketing co-operatives established among male groundnut producers
are guaranteed prices and markets by large-scale oil mills.

Predicting the impact of technological change
Prediction of the impact of technological change is made difficult by the
intricacies of the labour process (within the household and at times outside)
and the socio-economic factors determining the status of female labour.

Labour and production processes
The intricacies in the labour process7 operate in three principal spheres.
First, complexity arises from the sex-sequential nature of some of the
production processes. A simple illustration of this is provided by palm oil
processing. Palm nuts, which serve as raw material for processing undertaken
by women, are grown and provided by men. An innovation such as a small
hand-operated oil press raises the productivity of women's work and hence
the quantity of palm nuts required becomes greater. If there is no
corresponding increase in palm nut production, underutilisation of the oil
press will be the direct result. Conversely, if technological changes in
production (e.g. increased acreage through tractorisation) enable the men to
produce more palm nuts, the women will have to work harder to process
them if they continue to use low-productivity manual oil extraction methods.
Therefore, when technological change is introduced into sex-sequential
labour processes, where a woman's labour is put into specific tasks in a crop







International Labour Review


cycle that includes the labour of her husband and/or is initiated by him, it
may be more difficult for her to increase her share of the rewards for the
additional effort (work burden), since she may not have any control over the
additional output (or earnings) generated (Agarwal in I. Ahmed).
The second difficulty in predicting the impact of technological change
arises from the alteration it may produce in the distribution of household
tasks. For example, with the provision of water, rural women's time
disposition may not improve if household members withdraw their help
normally extended in other tasks. More time may be spent in non-economic
activities such as cooking, cleaning and washing, once both water and time
are available.
The third type of complexity in the labour process is related to the
compatibility between the tasks performed by an individual woman, essen-
tially her ability to undertake multiple tasks simultaneously. For example, in
rural Bangladesh (where seclusion is a cultural characteristic) a woman in her
homestead combines paddy processing with cooking, child-rearing, animal
care, household maintenance and other activities which do not require her to
appear in public. When the technology introduced disrupts women's
concurrent management and performance of numerous activities within the
household and requires them to leave the seclusion of the compound, they
are likely to shun the tasks it involves, which will then be taken over by the
menfolk. The impact on the same women would be different if the
technology were designed and introduced so as to avoid such disruptions.
It is clear from the foregoing that technological change which could
affect rural women need not necessarily take the form of innovations directly
aimed at them; they may also be planned or unplanned innovations in the
rural production system as a whole, exerting an indirect effect through the
sexual division of labour and family relations. It can therefore be concluded
that technological change does not always act equally on all the tasks that go
to make up a given labour process.

Socio-economic determinants of the status of female labour
Another feature of the agrarian structures of many developing countries
which complicates the assessment of how technological change will affect
rural women is the existence of socio-economic factors determining the status
of female labour, particularly in agriculture. The impact of technological
change will vary significantly depending on the social and economic
organisation of work and on whether women are engaged in wage employ-
ment or in family-based production (Agarwal and Whitehead in I. Ahmed).
For example, with the advent of the Green Revolution and the associated
increase in the demand for hired labour, wage employment possibilities for
women from landless households were increased. A peasant family, on the
other hand, makes intensive use of unpaid female family workers who (unlike
their counterparts from landless households) receive no payment at all. In







Technology and rural women


effect, the introduction of commercial farming in peasant families, which
places decisions regarding the negotiation of production credit from institu-
tional sources and the marketing of increased output in the hands of male
heads of household, has often simply reinforced the latter's patriarchal or
entrepreneurial role to the detriment of women.8 Large landowners, on the
other hand, whose womenfolk play more of a supervisory role owing to status
and economic considerations, find it more profitable to mechanise farm
operations, and in so doing displace hired female labour.

Are women a homogeneous group?
If we try to analyse empirically the impact of technological change on
rural women, it is clear from the above discussions that women cannot be
treated as a single homogeneous group. The broad groups identified include
women from (a) landless households; (b) small cultivator households; (c)
large cultivator households; (d) tenant households; and (e) female-headed
households.' Although women in all five categories perform the common
roles of reproduction, child-rearing and household maintenance, the degree
and mode of their involvement in unpaid and income-earning activities, and
the degree of change in these activities, vary between these groups, requiring
different policy solutions. Among these subsets of rural women, female-
headed households constitute the most disadvantaged and poorest of the
rural poor requiring the most urgent attention.

Mechanisms and causes of female labour displacement
The empirical evidence from Third World countries reveals that women
are displaced in certain activities in three principal ways: (a) by mechanisa-
tion of sectors using female wage labour; (b) by men taking over (at lower
levels of labour intensity) activities traditionally performed by women as
soon as they are mechanised; and (c) by men taking over such activities
following their commercialization. The trends are sumniarised below, and a
diagnosis points to two basic causes-factor price distortions and changes in
the scale of production leading to commercialization.

Factor price distortions
Capital/labour substitutions as a result of relative factor price distortions
in environments of surplus labour are by now well known. Such distortions
have led to a reduction in the price of capital below its equilibrium level (i.e.
its marginal value product) while forcing the price of labour above its
equilibrium. As a direct consequence entrepreneurs naturally tend to take
advantage of the relatively cheap factor (capital) and economise on the
relatively expensive one (labour). Although this simple economic principle is
rigorously applied to any economic activity irrespective of the sexual







International Labour Review


composition of the labour force, it still constitutes a very valid explanation for
the displacement of female wage labour in, for example, rice processing in
both Indonesia and Bangladesh. In Indonesia mechanical rice hullers were
well subsidized, since credit was available for their purchase at 1 per cent per
month interest, whereas regular village credit cost 5 to 10 per cent per month
(Cain, p. 133). As a result, the cost of commercial milling was low because of
the over-capacity of the many new mills set up in Java (Tinker, p. 73).
Similarly, in Bangladesh, the introduction of rice mills has displaced female
hired labour and depressed wages. The reason is that while the return on
labour when mills are used is roughly 150 per cent higher than the wage rate,
it is only 22-34 per cent higher than the wage rate when traditional (manual
dheki) technology is used (J. U. Ahmed, p. 125). However, in both instances
it has been noted that the labour-displacing innovations tend to occur in
women's work activities performed as wage labour. Therefore, because
women have no money to pay for milled rice, it is little wonder that hand-
pounding technology continues to be used for most domestic consumption in
Indonesia, accounting for about 40 per cent of the crop (Tinker, pp. 72-73).
Whereas the purchase and use of mechanical substitutes for hired female
labour is profitable in cutting costs in commercial farming, in family farming
the purchase of alternative inputs is not economically worth while because
women family workers receive no wages.


Scale of production and commercialization

There is some evidence in support of the argument that the production
of certain goods and services passes into the hands of men as soon as the scale
of production increases (owing to mechanisation) or production becomes
commercialised.10 For example, all along the coasts of India women could
formerly be seen marketing headloads of fresh fish. Preservation techniques
like salting and drying, which increased the shelf life of fish, were also mainly
in the hands of rural women. However, the Integrated Fisheries Develop-
ment Programme in Kerala, India, now uses trawlers to catch prawns and fish
which are frozen in factories and exported. Men have taken over the
marketing and transporting of fish by means of trucks and bicycles. Rural
women's jobs and livelihood from fish trading and processing have been lost,
and they have no alternative sources of income and employment.
Traditionally, dairy production and marketing were mainly carried out
by women, particularly of the poorer castes, in Gujarat, India. At present,
with the introduction of a modern dairy complex, not a single woman has
been recruited for training in the use of the new technology that has taken
over women's traditional tasks of making butter and cheese.
Thus changes in the scale of production and consequent commercialisa-
tion facilitate the acquisition of skills by men and enable them to encroach
upon sources of women's livelihood.







Technology and rural women


Factor market imperfections
The existence of a high degree of factor market imperfection in the rural
areas of most developing countries is by now fairly well documented. The
main feature of this imperfection is that access to factors of production is
much easier for some groups than for others (Ahmed and Freedman). Even
in the absence of technological change, the existence of such a phenomenon
affects the allocation of resources, the methods of production and the
distribution of rural incomes. With technological change, when there is a
greater need for credit, modern means of production, knowledge of new
technology, extension services, participation in rural organizations, etc., the
question of the access of disadvantaged groups to these factors is of crucial
significance.
Analysis with respect to rural factor market imperfections has almost
always been focused on class-based inequalities. It has nevertheless been
convincingly established that inequalities may be sex-based as well in that
rural women are systematically denied access to land rights (and hence to
collateral for loans), tenancy, resources, training, farm inputs, extension
services and the modern means of production. Furthermore, there are biases
among male extension agents who regard women as deserving of advice only
in the area of home economics. Such discrimination is due not only to
ignorance of women's roles but also to the fact that the household is treated
as the unit of production with all services being channelled through the male
head."
Sex-based discrimination is most glaring in cases where female-headed
households managing large tracts of land are ignored by extension agencies,
despite the fact that women farmers are as efficient and progressive as their
male counterparts in some countries, such as Botswana, Tanzania and Kenya,
even though they do not enjoy the same advantages (I. Ahmed). This
efficiency may be due to more intensive use of female family labour and
better farm management. Just as high labour intensity on small farms is a
manifestation of the existence of rural factor market imperfections, rural
women's predominance in labour-intensive sectors is another manifestation
of this phenomenon.


Diffusion of innovations
Certain combinations of economic, technical and socio-cultural factors
have favoured the diffusion of innovations; others have prevented their
wider use. Multidisciplinary assessment of the suitability of technologies is
therefore necessary to determine which of them are likely to succeed. In
Ghana, for example, despite the high levels of economic and technical
efficiency of certain technologies, these were rejected by women (e.g. beliefs
about fertility prevent the use of the broadloom in weaving); similarly,
introduction of animal-based cultivation was not possible, since local customs







International Labour Review


forbade women to touch cattle (Date-Bah in I. Ahmed). Successful adoption
has, however, been observed in cases where improved technologies are
locally developed with the active involvement of their users. It is of course
quite clear that a major obstacle to wider use is the lack of awareness of the
intricacies of the household/rural labour and production processes which
need to be taken into account at both the technology design and implementa-
tion phases.
Measures taken at the household level for technology dissemination will
have to be supported by macro-policies, including those favouring the choice
of appropriate products.
It is often assumed that time disposition is a binding constraint on
women's ability to take advantage of income-earning opportunities, but
empirical evidence shows that this is not necessarily so: women are more
likely to be inhibited by the level and quality of resources and technology
available to them than by their labour time per se. However, where time
disposition is genuinely a constraint to income-earning opportunities, the
benefit/cost ratio for investments made in labour-saving devices (e.g. in
water collection in Ghana) has been of the order of 3:1 when the time saved
is entirely reallocated to the new activity (Date-Bah in I. Ahmed).

Technology and welfare
Conceptually, indices have been formulated and a set of conditions
identified for quantitatively capturing the impact of technological change on
the welfare of rural women in terms of income comparisons and time
disposition comparisons, before and after technological change (Bhaduri in
I. Ahmed). However, even if women's income were to increase following the
introduction of technological change, the division of cash and consumption
within the household tends to be in women's disfavour. In some instances, as
already remarked, the actual physical burden of women's work could
increase as a result of technological change.

Concluding remarks
A brief empirical review of the impact of technological change reveals
that changes that accompany modernisation have, for the most part, led to
the concentration of women in domestic and non-market roles and labour-
intensive activities. Moreover, men take over responsibility for women's
tasks as soon as they are mechanised or when they are transformed from
subsistence into market production. It is also observed that technological
change often means that women have to work harder for longer hours
without a corresponding increase in the economic returns for their labour.
Labour-intensive technologies may thus be appropriate for rural women
inasmuch as they preserve their income-earning opportunities or, in other
words, prevent any decline in women's participation rate. However, tech-







Technology and rural women


nologies which are labour-saving in tasks which are burdensome for the
women, although bringing them no monetary or other economic returns,
could also be considered appropriate. The first step in helping rural women is
to find out exactly which tasks they would like to be relieved of through the
application of appropriate technology. However, it is also important to find
out whether they are willing to trade off income-earning opportunities for
technological innovations relieving them of the burden and difficulty of work.
In Tanzania, for example, replacement of women who were hired to carry
water from a village supply point by a diesel pump which stored the water in a
tank deprived the women of income equal to 7,972 Tanzanian shillings
(Macpherson and Jackson, p. 112). Predicting the impact of technological
change on rural women is complicated by the intricacies of the household/
rural labour and production processes and by the lack of appropriate
indicators for measuring women's welfare. Because of socio-economic
factors determining the status of female labour, the impact of a given
technological change has varied among different categories of women.
Furthermore, since rural women are not a homogeneous group, policy-
makers would do well to consider urgently how technology may best be used
to benefit certain subsets of women (e.g. female-headed households in Africa
and small peasant households in Asia) who constitute the poorest and most
disadvantaged of the rural poor.
The economic forces which drive male hired labour out of jobs operate
in the same way for women. However, when the scale of production increases
or mechanisation is introduced into women's activities (with consequent
commercialization), the men tend to take over primarily because the
corresponding skills, training and knowledge are made available to them,
while the women are excluded from the new opportunities created, often
owing to institutionalized sexual biases.
Rural factor market imperfections hitherto used to explain class-based
inequalities, choice of techniques and resource allocation in rural areas are
equally applicable to those based on sex. The existence of such imperfections
in the factor market has contributed to women's concentration in labour-
intensive sectors marked by low productivity and low returns. Biases in the
agrarian structure and the extension services are largely responsible for the
institutionalisation of discrimination against women (who also suffer from
"contractual" inferiority). Treating the household as the basic unit for data
collection and policy making has institutionalized discrimination in two
respects: (a) the intra-household effect of technological change is not
analysed by sex, and (b) subsidized inputs and government extension services
are channelled to the male head of the household.
For the effective diffusion of innovations, a multidisciplinary approach is
essential at both the design and the implementation phases. In addition, the
intricacies of the labour and production processes and the socio-economic
determinants of the status of female labour have to be understood,-and
imperfections in the rural factor markets removed through a combination of








International Labour Review


policy measures, structural changes and bold institutional reforms, if
improved technologies designed for the target group are to reach them in
practice.






Notes
1 Women perform between 60 and 80 per cent of the agricultural work in most African
countries (Carr, 1978, p. 62).
2 Evidence from Kenya reveals that women constitute 80 per cent of all self-help labour
(UNECA, 1975, p. 65). Their heavy participation in the building trade is a characteristic feature
of the Indian scene too (Boserup, p. 2).
For a description and cross country evidence see Boserup.
Indeed, in one West African country the low life expectancy of rural women has been
partly attributed to the extra strain resulting from the cultivation of additional land (Carr, p. 24).
5 Longhurst, fig. 1.
6 In Ghana an attempt is being made to improve the smell of the traditional soap with
perfumes extracted from local plants. Potash, which improves its colour, can also be produced by
women locally by burning cocoa pods and palm waste (Carr, 1978, p. 52).
7 The labour process is defined as the manner in which different tasks are organised within
the household.
8 This phenomenon is not unique to the Green Revolution belts of Asia. For instance, in
one African country (Zimbabwe) it has been observed that the increased demand for labour
(e.g. in weeding and harvesting) following commercialization of agriculture leads to an
increasing tendency to employ wives as unpaid agricultural labour. Such exploitation is observed
to far exceed the degrees of exploitation characteristic of peasant production systems (Cheater,
pp. 350 and 364).
9 For empirical evidence from Third World countries on these groups of households see
I. Ahmed.
10 In one instance where water collection became commercialised, the labour hired was
male (idem).
It has also been observed that the social structure relegates women to a status of
"contractual inferiority" in the rural factor market. For detailed cross-country evidence see
idem.





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Technology and rural women


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