Menuka Dhital is a 35-year-old woman living in a remote village in Jumla District, Nepal. Her family consists of her husband, five daughters (13, 10, 7, 5 and 3 years old) and a son (1 year old). Menuka’s husband, Mahesh (45 years old), is a wage worker. He used to go to India as a seasonal migrant, but has stopped because of his frail health. He breaks stones and does whatever wage work is available in the village, but remains unemployed most of the time because of a lack of work. They have a small plot of land where both Menuka and Mahesh do subsistence farming. Menuka has never been to school.
For the year 2016, Menuka’s household was selected for the road construction project under the Karnali Employment Programme (KEP), a public works programme initiated by the Government of Nepal. They worked for ten days before being given a month-long break for farming. Menuka and her husband take turns to do the KEP work. It takes about two hours to reach the worksite on foot – the roads are not accessible by vehicle. Menuka works for eight hours per day at the KEP worksite. The difficult geographical terrain and drudgery of the work (carrying stones and cement) make it difficult and physically depleting. Moreover, lack of regular and decent employment opportunities renders her unable to negotiate for better working conditions:
We have to carry the cement bag. Sometimes, it might crush us. It is very heavy. My back hurts, but if I say I won’t do it, then how would I earn money? If I am doing others’ work, who would say you sit and we will do your work? Who would actually say that they would carry stones for us?
Since there are no childcare facilities at the worksite, Menuka either leaves the youngest child with her relatives in the village or carries him on her back while working. Besides the KEP work, Menuka also sells firewood and herbs from the forest as and when available. Menuka’s income through these self-employment activities, supplemented by her husband’s wages, is just enough to cover the daily household expenses and children’s school stationery.
Menuka is also responsible for all the care work inside and outside of the home. Besides the farm work Mahesh does not help with any care activities:
He does not look after the children… if I tell him to cook, he never cooks. I argued with him just now … What to do! I prepared lunch, and have to take the children to school. He can at least stay at home while I am not here.
Menuka’s eldest daughter helps with the cooking and looking after her siblings, especially during weekly holidays. Despite her work burden, Menuka realises the importance of educating her children and does not burden them with care work:
We cannot keep them from going to school. We have to send them to school. We are the thumbprint people. I don’t want these children to be like us in future. I do not know what will happen in their homes after they get married but we have to educate them here.
Instead, she single-handedly looks after all the care activities simultaneously with doing childcare: ‘I have to do everything carrying my son on my back. If I do not do it, no one does.’ However, having an infant and no support system at home has increased Menuka’s mobility constraints and difficulties with doing activities such as collecting fodder and firewood from the forest. When there is no one to look after the child, Menuka is forced to take her son to the forest while collecting firewood. Even when she leaves him with neighbours and relatives, she is constantly worried about his safety.
Even after you walk for four hours, you do not find firewood… And if the child cries at home, I have to come back in a hurry. The other day, while I was coming back fast, I fell down and sprained my leg.
Drinking water is available in the household (through a targeted non-governmental organisation programme); however, there is no electricity or transportation services in the village.
The imbalance of paid work and childcare responsibilities has affected Menuka’s physical as well as emotional health. She rarely gets time for rest and personal care, and her time poverty has been further magnified by the increased responsibility of childcare after the birth of her son:
How can we take rest, it is not enough. I was sad when the son was born, sometimes I cry. How do I work? I am alone in the field, I am alone at home to prepare lunch, I am alone in whatever I do, so I think what kind of fate I have. I think that way often.
Menuka realises that if Mahesh supported her with the care activities at home, her work burden would get much lighter; however, she is not very hopeful of that happening. In addition, she also shares that having childcare facilities close to her workplace would help her participate in paid work more regularly and efficiently:
It takes two hours to reach there… if it were nearer, I could leave the child on the ground. But there are rivers around where we work. How could we work there? If there was someone who would hold my son, thinking it is difficult for me to work carrying the son, it would have been easier for me.
Furthermore, she wishes there were more and better paid work opportunities for women from low-income households like her.