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All work and no pay: The invisibilisation of women’s labour in public works programmes


Women's Day, we question so-called 'gender-mainstreaming'?It has been claimed that public works programmes represent gender-mainstreaming*

Anasuya Sengupta

On International Women’s Day, I want to bring attention to a silent scandal on the use of women’s labour within public works programmes, which are increasingly referred to as productive safety net programmes in many low-income countries. These are, as many of you know, good old-fashioned workfare schemes – usually donor-funded or supported – that have become increasingly popular in recent years. What I find very surprising though, is that those who champion the ‘gender-mainstreaming’ agenda of these programmes do not appear to have realised that a core feature of their basic design is profoundly gender-insensitive.

The promotion of Ethiopia’s donor-funded Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) as a major success – despite compelling evidence that participants have become poorer and more dependent – has encouraged other countries such as Rwanda, Tanzania, Mozambique and Uganda to implement similar multi-donor funded workfare projects. The exception has been India, which introduced – using its own funding – the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (or MNREGA), the largest tax-financed workfare programme in low- and middle-income countries.

‘Gender mainstreaming’ and even ‘women’s economic empowerment’ have been key selling points for the expansion of workfare programmes. Often the aim among those wishing to support women has been to ensure that women themselves are able to work on these schemes as much as possible, based on simplistic assumptions that targeting more women makes a programme gender-sensitive and that women working outside the home alongside men is proof of gender equality. A range of initiatives to increase their participation have been put in place, such as: special quotas; temporary provisions for direct transfers to pregnant and lactating women; facilities such as flexi-working hours; and, creches to balance childcare responsibilities etc.

Yet, the enthusiasts have managed to overlook a shocking fundamental design flaw that violates women’s rights: many women are obliged to work on these schemes without receiving a wage or any form of direct remuneration. This not only reinforces patriarchal structures but accentuates the ‘invisibilisation’ of women’s labour.

The invisibility of women’s labour arises from the use of household targeting. Once a household is selected to participate in the programme any adult household member who is able to work can participate. But, the payment for that work is given to the household as a whole and usually through the household head, regardless of who has actually worked and for how long. This is based on another simplistic assumption that these payments will be fairly allocated within the household. It is likely, therefore, that a high proportion of women are giving their labour for free while the male heads of their households receive and control the income that should have gone to those women.

Figure 1: Proportion of male- and female-headed households

Female- and male-headed households in three major social protection programmesFigure 1 shows, the majority of participant households in three major programmes in India, Ethiopia and Rwanda are male-headed; and most women on these programmes are working on behalf of their male heads of household. Just a quick review of available data confirms that, in India, 84 per cent of women working on MGNREGA are in male-headed households while, in Ethiopia, the figure is 54 per cent (see note for data sources).

 As of yet, we cannot estimate the scale of the problem as we have no idea on how much of these payments reach these women. But, we can safely conclude that many women have no direct control over the fruits of their labour. In effect, their access to their meagre wage is mediated by the male head who may, or may not, allow them to benefit from it. In India, there has been some attempt to address this issue in that some household members can have individual accounts. Yet, strangely these decisions are at the discretion of the local Panchayat (parish-level government) mostly controlled directly or indirectly by men. Moreover, unmarried women are not entitled to open individual bank accounts even if they are working on behalf of larger households.

We need to recognise that these programmes are, fundamentally, a violation of labour and economic rights. A core principle of decent human society is that the person who does the work should be paid. This is a basic right, that comes even before we can get to other design flaws in public works programmes that undermine decent work for women. And, of course, it’s not just women suffering: the violation of rights extends to anyone working in these schemes for no pay, including many unemployed young men (all points for more blogs!).

Anasuya Sengupta
Anasuya has a strong focus on gender equity and social exclusion, women’s economic empowerment, labour market systems and the Graduation Approach. She has over 10 years’ experience of qualitative research and advisory experience in Asia and Africa. More on her work.

So, let’s acknowledge the travesty of targeting households within public works programmes: large numbers of women end up working without pay. But, it is intriguing to see international donors – who should know better – promoting such programmes in African countries without any reflection on what should be obvious to them. Surely, they should rise to the occasion and fulfil their stated commitments to gender equity (I believe they can). Indeed, it is high time to reflect on the following: Are workfare programmes really an effective way to achieve gender equity? And, if women’s rights are fundamentally undermined by the design of these schemes, why are donors investing in them?  

All said and done, I am still struggling to fathom the logic of putting incentives in place for rural women in South Asia or Africa to work for no pay (in addition to domestic work). And to be honest, there are some disagreements here at our office over whether this can be called donor-supported domestic slavery. While I personally wouldn’t go that far (as some of my unnamed esteemed colleagues would – you can take a wild guess), this Women’s Day I would like to pose the question to our readers: what are your thoughts?


Information has been taken from the following datasets: IHDS, 2012, ESS 2015 and EICV 2014.

*Photo by Rod Waddington.