The two tasks that are the most time-hungry for African women is fetching water and collecting fuel, typically taking up half of a year's work (Photo/ Flickr/ Albert Gonzalez Farran, UNAMID)

What Has Men’s Love Of Sports Got To Do With Women Collecting Firewood? You Will Be Surprised

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IN A previous post, we ascribed a country’s Olympic success partly to participation of women in sport -fielding fewer female athletes simply means fewer chances to win medals.

Olympic medals, in that roundabout way, could thus be considered as a proxy indicator of the status of women in a country.

However, the reason why there are fewer women athletes in most Olympic teams – and more broadly, women in sport -isn’t often a question of outright, blatant discrimination against women.

It has its roots in the more subtle, far less visible structural ways we organise our societies. And it has everything to do with time -who has it, who doesn’t have it, and why.

Perhaps nowhere is the asymmetry in the obligations of men and women more apparent than in patterns of time use. We all know this intuitively -domestic chores are ‘women’s work’ for example.


But what is less clear is just how inefficient allocation of duties by gender is. Its broader social cost is invisible to us.

Development institutions call it ‘time poverty’, in that wonderfully NGO-ese phraseology that they like to wield.

Women are more ‘time poor’ than men because they must add up domestic and care duties, as well as their market work -such as working on the farm or selling tomatoes by the roadside, which is also tends to be women’s work.

It is a double workday that few men need to do (and sustained by the notion that women are ‘able to multitask’).

The cumulative effect is that time as a resource is more scarce for women than for men, and ultimately women and girls are forced to forgo many opportunities.

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This is not because men hate women, or even actively discriminate against them, but because this is how we have structured our society.

The best example is school, of course, where girls are needed at home to help in fetching water, cooking, cleaning and taking care of younger siblings.


If a family’s budget is tight and it has to make the choice on who will go to school, it may choose to educate the boy over the girl not necessarily because they love the son more, but simply because household duties are inelastic and the girl is needed at home anyway.

As adults, there are many better-paying jobs that women cannot take up because they have domestic duties too -such as working eight hours in a factory or riding a bodaboda (motorcycle taxi). They need to be close to home.

In that way, poverty is not only a function of income, it is also a function of time. Female-headed households, one World Bank report states, struggle more to make ends meet primarily because of time poverty -especially when there have no other adult women to help with domestic work.

They face greater time and mobility constraints than do male heads or other women, that in turn leads to lower paying jobs more compatible with childcare.


You now begin to have an idea why sports, Olympic medals, and bars, for example, are dominated by men: Men have the time to love sports. They have time to have hobbies and acquire addictions.

Ethiopia football

Football in Africa: One must have time to become an enthusiast of anything; it takes time to acquire addictions. (Photo/ Flickr/ ECADF)


The data showed that the two tasks that are the most time-hungry for women is fetching water and collecting fuel.

What would happen if all households in sub-Saharan Africa were no more than 400 metres (about a six minute walk) from a water source – a national target once set by the Government of Tanzania – or if woodlots or other sources of household energy were no farther than a 30-minute walk?

In the Mbale district in Eastern Uganda, more than 900 hours per year could be saved if these proximity targets were met. This is the equivalent of half a year’s work, the report states.

In this way, service provision, such as for roads, water, energy and sanitation are not gender neutral. Technology isn’t gender neutral. Take rural modernisation, for example.


A good African government may want to improve its people’s livelihoods by providing them with tractors to increase yields. This is a good idea, obviously.

But it may have the unintended effect of reducing the man’s labour burden, while increasing the woman’s.

The man, obviously, will drive the tractor (that is a “man’s job”); shortening the time it takes to prepare the land, and bringing more land under production.

It works marvellously, and the yield is twice as big as last season’s. But with a bigger harvest, the woman will now have to take more time to sort the grain and pack the granary (a “woman’s job”)as the man goes off and celebrates with his friends on what a great farmer he has become.

“In these conditions, any programme of rural modernisation will soon reach its limits, unless planners can force [or persuade] men to work more on agriculture, and also to release women from part of their workload,” the researchers conclude.

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