Module 9: Physical Labor and Women


As New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof remarks, “one of the puzzles of the developing world is that women frequently do some of the hardest physical labor”.(1)  Carrying heavy water buckets, for example, is “women’s work” in culture after culture, especially in the developing world.   On International Women’s Day, Kristof posted a video about women in the Congo, asking why some of the hardest physical labor in poor countries is reserved for women.

There are many theories for why this division of labor exists.  Some believe that impoverished women have the lowest social status, and therefore have the least choice over which tasks to perform.  Women in developing countries are not recognized as equal to men and they suffer from stigmatization and discrimination.  Because of this low social standing, women must take more responsibility for domestic chores as well as demanding physical labor.

Types of Physical Labor

Women perform the labor for tasks essential to survival, such as fetching water, collecting fuel wood and gathering food, and in many cases, tasks involved in subsistence agriculture.  In poor households, fuel collection to meet a household’s energy needs is the burden of women and girls. In rural areas this translates into several hours a day collecting wood loads of 20 kilograms or more.(2)

“Housework in developing countries also consists of continuous, difficult physical labor. A woman is likely to work from before daybreak until dark. Most families can't afford modern appliances, so cooking and cleaning tasks must be done by hand—crushing corn into meal with heavy rocks, scrubbing laundry against rough stones, kneading bread and cooking gruel over a blistering open fire.”  (3)

Most of this labor is performed without recognition or compensation. UN statistics show that although women produce half the world's food, they own only 1 % of its farmland. (4)  In many developing countries, the work that women do is not considered a “real job”.   For example, should a woman wish to take a factory job, she is expected to keep up all her duties at home in addition to her new ones.

Given limited time and energy, the simultaneous demands of competing needs can be too much. A woman's welfare and nutrition, as well as the health of the household members, can depend on how a woman allocates her time and expends her energy.(5)(6)

Health Repercussions

The health effects of women's labor often go overlooked in the face of other more visible health risks such as HIV, TB and other infectious diseases. While many women suffer from these diseases, their health status is further diminished by the harsh realities of malnutrition, injury, and fatigue due to long hours of demanding physical labor.  Intense physical labor may be detrimental to health as it disturbs women’s energy balance.  For example, the low-calorie diet and high workload for women in developing countries is often associated with ovarian suppression and poor reproductive functioning.(7)   If intense physical exertion continues during pregnancy, it may be predictive of adverse reproductive outcomes.  

Many studies have suggested that strenuous physical activity is associated with reduced infant birth weight, lower pregnancy weight gain, shorter gestations, intrauterine growth retardation, spontaneous abortions, fecundity and some congenital malformations. (8) In one study, increased physical activity, as measured by work in farming or gathering water, was associated with infants of low birth weight, smaller head circumference, smaller mid-arm circumference and lower placental weight.(9) (10)

Case Study – Reproductive Functioning in Rural Poland

A study of rural Polish women found that seasonal changes in workload correlated with seasonal changes in ovarian function.(11)   For example, during the summer when physical work was most intense, low values of progesterone levels were observed, indicating ovarian suppression.  The high energy expenditure of summer months occurred during activities of harvest and haying, whereas women were not involved in agricultural work during the fall and winter.

In the small agricultural village in which this study took place, families own small fields on the mountain slopes which are often highly fragmented and spread over a substantial area. Due to the localization and isolation of most fields, mechanized equipment is rarely used and the majority of the work is done by hand and requires participation of the whole family.  In these conditions, women’s involvement in agricultural work is very high.

In addition to seasonal work, women are involved daily in housework, animal care, and child care.  Sexual division of labor is quite pronounced, and women are rarely involved in work requiring the use of horsepower (e.g., plowing, sowing, fertilizing with manure). Men are generally not involved in housework or animal care, and only occasionally help with childcare.  The findings of this research and similar studies reveal that women are often subject to the demands of harsh physical labor, which can have negative effects on reproductive functioning.  Additionally, anemia may occur when energy expenditure is high and micronutrients are scarce.  This can cause severe fatigue, inhibiting the ability of women to continue their vital work.


It is important to address health problems that occur from intense physical labor. The social status of women can be increased through empowerment programs, and the introduction of new technologies may help to assist women in their work. However, global health and development workers must make sure that new programs and new technologies do not unintentionally increase gender inequities by intensifying women’s work burdens. Some social enterprise efforts are oriented toward women, but tend to be superficial and marginal, often confining women to such tasks as sewing, menu-preparing and child-care. (12)  Such a trend may hamper women's integration into broader development and perpetuate sexual discrimination.

Even the newer ‘appropriate technology’ projects, which often contain sincere efforts to include women's participatory action, have not avoided some of the traditional biases and problems, and still tend to perpetuate male-oriented dependency relationships, patriarchal organizations and technocratic approaches.” (13)

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(1) Kristof, N. What Are You Carrying? 2010. International Women's Day: What Are You Carrying? The New York Times. 8 Mar. 2010.

(2) "Sparknet." SPARKNET: Sustainable Energy Policy and Reseach Knowledge Network - Power Without Poverty - New Energy for Rural Africa.

(3) Mullins, J. Gender Discrimination. Rep. Children In Need.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Wisner, B. 1981.Social factors affecting fuelwood planning in Kenya: basic needs in conflict. Nairobi, Beijer (Ministry of Energy Fuelwood Project).

(6) Tinker, I. (1982). Women, energy and development. Equity Policy Center.

(7) Kramer, K., & McMillan, G. (1999). Women’s Labor, Fertility, and the Introduction of Modern Technology in a Rural Maya Village. Journal of Anthropological Research 55:499–520.

(8) Eskenazi, B., Fenster, L., Wight, S., English, P., Windham, G. C. & Swan, S. H. (1994) Physical exertion as a risk factor for spontaneous abortion. Epidemiology. 5: 6–13.

(9) Rao, S., Kanade, A., Margetts, B. M., Yajnik, C. S., Lubree, H., Rege, S., ... & Fall, C. H. (2003). Maternal activity in relation to birth size in rural India. The Pune Maternal Nutrition Study. European journal of clinical nutrition57(4), 531-542.

(10) Hatch, M., Ji, B.-T., Shu, X. O. & Susser, M. (1997) Do standing, lifting, climbing, or long hours have an effect on fetal growth? Epidemiology. 8: 530–536.

(11) Jasienska G., & Ellison, PT. 2004. Energetic factors and seasonal changes in ovarian function in women from rural Poland. Am J Hum Biol. 16:563–580.

(12) Carr, M. 1982. Appropriate technology for women: two essays. London, Intermediate Technology Development Group.

(13) Thrupp, L. "Women, Wood and Work: In Kenya and beyond." Unasylva: An International Journal of Forestry and Forest Industries 36.146 (1984). Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: Corporate Document Repository.