Addressing Time Poverty Around the World


SEATTLE, Washington — When Melinda Gates visited Tanzania, she shadowed a young woman named Anna throughout her day. Anna started her day at 5 a.m. and finished at 10 p.m. Her day mainly consisted of cooking, cleaning or retrieving resources, leaving little time for other opportunities. Anna is just one of many girls around the world that take on important but time-consuming domestic and caretaking tasks. In 2016, Bill and Melinda Gates published their annual letter, which discussed two superpowers the couple wished they had. Melinda Gates wished that she and women around the world had more time. Time poverty is an issue that affects people in poverty all around the world.

What Is Time Poverty?

The amount of time one has free from working directly impacts their opportunities and health. Time poverty affects people in poverty more because they usually engage in long hours of low pay or unpaid work with no choice to do otherwise. Women disproportionately take on this type of work, which is usually domestic or caretaking. Unpaid work can include taking care of children and the elderly, cooking, cleaning, hauling water, etc. In poorer communities where technology is less advanced, these activities can be more physically demanding and take much longer than they would in more technologically progressed societies.

The Borgen Project spoke with Dr. Afshin Zilanawala, a senior research fellow at University College London’s Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care. Dr. Zilanawala has done research on what factors are likely to make someone time-poor. She discussed how time poverty is generally worse for mothers due to “constraints around parenthood and work. The more children and the younger they are, the more physical care and supervision they need.”

In almost every country around the world, women lend more time to unpaid work than men do. The amount of time ranges from 45 minutes in more developed countries up to five hours in countries with high poverty rates. On average, women around the world spend 4.5 hours doing unpaid work.

Why Is Time Poverty a Problem?

When women spend a disproportionate amount of time doing unpaid work, they have less time to pursue an education, make healthcare visits, earn money for their households or take on leadership positions outside of the household. According to Melinda Gates, “If women participated in the economy at as much as men,” it could increase the global GDP by 12%.

Researchers suggest that reducing time poverty could create a path for social mobility. As a result of women being unable to escape unpaid work, they can become locked in a cycle of poverty, robbing them of their potential. Additionally, men’s role in the household can also be affected when women do most of the domestic and caretaking work. In parenting, men whose fathers did not participate equally in domestic and caretaking work are less likely to participate equally themselves.

How Can Time Poverty Be Addressed?

Much of the unpaid work needed around the household is because of inescapable chores. For example, some families need to fetch water from water sources that are not close to their homes. Although it can take a significant portion out of their day to retrieve the water, the resource is a necessity. Even though this work needs to get done, this should not mean that women should be condemned to doing a large proportion of this work.

One path to reducing time poverty, especially in impoverished areas around the world, is to lessen the amount of time it takes to complete unpaid work. For women who spend time chopping wood to help cook dinner for their family, stove innovations could minimize the time that they spend on cooking. Washing machines, access to a local water source and access to electricity are all innovations that could be incredibly helpful to communities in poverty. Creating affordable and sustainable infrastructure can help reduce time poverty in these areas specifically.

Better Distribution of Household Work

One of the most important ways to help counteract time poverty for women is to address cultural norms that assume it is the woman’s responsibility to do unpaid work. According to Gates, families must have conversations about reallocating the workload. This discussion can also be discussed on a large-scale platform.

Cultural normalities surrounding women’s paid leave can be reshaped into paid family leave instead. This change would create an incentive for the redistribution of the workload at home. In addition, building equitable pay structures is an important step in promoting economic incentives for women to engage in the workforce.

Dr. Zilanawala also emphasizes that “women who have partners can offset some of their time poverty if caregiving and the accompanied household responsibilities are shared with the partner. Having another partner in the house also potentially means more economic resources. This can also offset some of the challenges of juggling paid and unpaid work.”

Moving Forward

As Melinda Gates says, the best way to address time poverty is to “recognize, reduce and redistribute.” Although time poverty continues to be a major issue for women and girls around the world, the first step to making a change is to recognize the issue.

Camryn Anthony
Photo: Pixabay


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