Kusum BK is a resident of a remote village in Jumla District, Nepal. She is 37 years old, and lives with her three small daughters aged five, four and one. Her husband, Kundan (40 years old), works as a seasonal migrant, working in India for seven to eight months of the year as a daily wage labourer. Her two eldest daughters attend the kindergarten in the nearby government school. Kusum herself is illiterate. Kusum and her husband separated from their extended family a few years ago, and with her husband away most of the time Kusum takes care of the household and their daughters on her own.
While the household survives primarily on Kundan’s income, Kusum is also involved in paid work such as breaking stones, carrying sand and agricultural labour, albeit intermittently, as her husband’s remittance is not always regular and sufficient and he often spends most of it on alcohol. She will work for eight hours a day, breaking stones by the roadside of the Karnali highway, which is 10–15 minutes’ walk from her home. High childcare responsibility has severely limited her mobility to go out and work regularly, and as a result she breaks stones closer to home whenever she can:
I have daughters at home so cannot leave them and go out. There is no one to look after my children [aged 5, 4 and 1]. So, I go nearby to break stones. I keep my daughters inside the house, bring the stones and break them at a place close to my house. I cannot go far for work.
Kusum usually leaves the children at home while she is working, and she is constantly worried about their safety. She feels that there are not enough paid work options available for women with small children as employment programmes often exclude them from working in the absence of childcare facilities: ‘It is good for us only when the programmes give us an opportunity to work along with the facilities to keep our children with us at work. Instead, they restrict us [women with small children] from working.’ She also points that unless care work is redistributed at home, men participate in employment programmes targeted at women, as women are bound by home-based care responsibilities.
Kusum also carries out all of the care tasks single-handedly. Daily care activities such as collecting firewood, cooking, cleaning, feeding the children and taking and picking them up from school leaves her with very little time to engage in any regular paid work. In addition, in the absence of other carers at home, Kusum often has to ‘stretch time’ in order to manage childcare as well as other care tasks. Despite her efforts to prioritise childcare, she is often forced to take actions that put her children at risk, such as locking the children at home and going to the forest to collect firewood, because of the lack of a support system at home.
I leave for the forest at 4am, it takes two hours to collect the firewood. Then I have to be back by 8am to get the children ready for school. I give them food and leave them at home. I have to take the risk… I lock the door from outside.
While her intermittent income supports meeting daily household expenses, Kusum feels that high childcare responsibilities have limited her paid work aspirations. She feels she could make a significant contribution to the household income if there were provisions for childcare (by the state as well as by employers): ‘I just feel like my life will pass looking after my daughters… I wish somebody looked after the child. I keep thinking that I would do so much work if only there was someone to look after the child.’