Radhika BK is 35 years old, and lives in a remote village in Jumla District, Nepal. She lives in a nuclear family with her husband (49 years old), four daughters (15, 12, 6 and 5 years old) and a son-in-law. Her husband, Dhan Bahadur BK, suffers from physical disability after breaking his back and legs in an accident, and Radhika has been single-handedly earning income for the family for the past five years. Her eldest daughter, who has dropped out of school, recently got married. The three younger daughters go to school. Radhika herself is illiterate. Her son-in-law also stays with them and is expected to do wage work.
Radhika is the primary earner of the family; however, her paid work is mostly intermittent in nature and includes agricultural and non-agricultural wage labour. Last year, she worked for 35 days in the Karnali Employment Programme (KEP), a public works social protection programme initiated by the Government of Nepal. She has been selected for the KEP work this year too, and again will be working for 35 days. Radhika spends a total of four hours walking to and from the KEP site; the roads are not accessible by vehicles. At other times, she works as an agricultural labourer and carries manure in others’ fields. She is also involved in non-agricultural wage labour activities such as carrying and crushing stones. Because of the lack of availability of paid work opportunities, Radhika does not even conceive of the possibility of bargaining with employers for better working conditions. The workers in the Karnali Employment Programme did not receive safety gear such as a helmet, shoes and goggles this year, however Radhika does not seem much affected by it as long as she is paid on time (there was a slight delay in payment last year) – she does not see much point in bargaining for better services.
Radhika is hopeful that now they have the addition of a son-in-law in the family they will have more hands to work and financially support the household. Her daughters support her with care tasks when she is away at work. The eldest daughter, Sheetal, goes to the forest to collect firewood and also works on the farm. The second eldest daughter, Tara, cooks and takes care of her siblings and her father. She also drops her siblings to their schools and picks them up. When Radhika is at home, she carries out most of the care tasks, both inside and outside the household. For her, collecting firewood is the most intensive and time-consuming task because she has to walk for more than two hours to reach the forest and then carry a heavy load on the way back. All the dalit households in the village have access to drinking water following a targeted programme by a non-governmental organisation; however, services such as electricity and transportation are not available.
Being the only earning member of the family, Radhika has to constantly look out for wage work opportunities. It keeps her away from home most of the time. Her two eldest daughters who are mostly responsible for the care tasks at home miss the presence of their mother, and the younger two daughters also do not get to spend much time with her.
I feel sad. The others have their mother at home but we don’t have enough to eat unless our mother goes for work… If I had some time with her, I think she would comb my hair, and we would talk.
My mother is never there for me… I wish somebody else could work in the stone breaking site [carrying and breaking stones] on my mother’s behalf.
Radhika’s income covers basic day-to-day family expenses but she struggles to meet even these expenses on days when she is not able to find any work. She is also not part of any women’s savings groups because she cannot arrange money for savings and would not be able to repay the loans. She takes loans from villagers whenever her income is inadequate to meet the family expenses.
Radhika has to rely on multiple wage work because of the sporadic and low-wage nature of the work that she does, which has not only led to a double burden for Radhika but also has overburdened her two eldest daughters. In addition, the drudgery of both the paid and care work that she does affects her physical health. She regularly suffers from backache, pain in her legs and arms and also often injures herself while carrying or crushing stones. Her husband and children also recognise her burden and get worried, but do not see any other possibility.
Sometimes her back pains, sometimes her legs. What to do. We are poor. If she doesn’t work, we can’t eat. What option do we have? If she gets injured, she puts khoto [bark of saal tree], if her chest pains, she rubs chamsur [a green leafy vegetable].
(Dhan Bahadur BK)
In addition, Radhika’s mental wellbeing is also affected because of the constant worry about care work during paid work, and vice versa:
I get worried about the household work when I am at work, on what has happened. Such thoughts come up. We work like that. We work at one place but our attention is somewhere else. I keep thinking I will finish this work, go home and finish household work.
In the absence of their mother, the daughters’ lives have also been affected as they have become substitute carers. The eldest daughter dropped out of school in order to support care tasks at home, whereas the second eldest daughter is also burdened with care tasks such as cooking and sibling care and often misses school.
It takes a lot of time. I have to wash the dishes, clean the house, wash clothes. I have to bathe, cook food and by then it’s already night. I don’t get to sit even once.
Well, everybody goes to school but I can’t. They roam around but I cannot. That’s how I feel… If we could do something we would not have to suffer like our parents.
Radhika feels that her work burden would lessen significantly if she did not have to do any paid work. However, it is not possible to sustain the family without her income. She wishes that her payments were proportionate to the effort and time she invests, as she would not have to take up multiple paid activities like she is doing right now.