Sumitra Khatri is a 35-year-old woman from a remote village in Jumla District, Nepal. She lives in a nuclear family with her husband (44 years old) and seven children: four daughters (18, 15, 13 and 8 years old) and three sons (10, 9 and 4 years old). All her children attend school. Sumitra herself has not received formal education but she has attended adult literacy classes. Her husband works as a mason and mostly lives away from home for work.
Sumitra belongs to a Chhetri family. Unlike other women from dalit households, she does not engage in wage work because of social norms associated with caste and ‘appropriate work’. She is mainly involved in several self-employment activities that are small in scale, agriculture-based and seasonal in nature. She grows vegetables in the kitchen garden located by the house and also on her farm, and grows apples in the orchard. The farm is a 15-minute walk from her home, while the orchard is a 30-minute walk away. While she is primarily responsible for growing and selling the vegetables and apples, she also has help from her daughters with digging and watering the farm. The roads in the village are not accessible by motor vehicles and therefore she has to carry the produce to the market, an hour’s walk away, on her own. Additionally, she goes to the mountains with her husband and fellow villagers to collect a medicinal herb called yarshagumba. The herb is used as an aphrodisiac and has a huge international market.
Sumitra is responsible for most of the care work at home although her two eldest daughters help her with the internal care tasks such as the cooking, cleaning, and taking care of their siblings and the cattle, especially when Sumitra is away at work. They also collect fodder during their weekly holiday. However, Sumitra does not allow her daughters to do a few activities such as collecting/carrying firewood and carrying manure as gender norms dictate that those activities should be exclusively done by married women. Her husband rarely stays at home and is not much help even when he is there:
It is the same when he is home, he does not do much. My difficulty stays with me. Where would the difficulty that I face go? If both [husband and wife] are same in terms of doing work, then they are equal. Before, he used to work a lot. Now that the daughters are grown up and help in the chores, he thinks I do not do as much work.
Sumitra finds working on the farm and collecting firewood from the forests particularly difficult because of the drudgery involved. Her husband ploughs the farm when he is at home, and Sumitra hires labourers in his absence as women are culturally forbidden to plough. However, she is able to reduce her workload on the farm to a certain extent by participating in parma, a cultural labour exchange practice popular in the rural areas of Nepal where a group of farmers, mostly women, support each other with particular activities such as planting and harvesting.
Although Sumitra’s paid work is seasonal, she provides a valuable contribution to the daily household expenses and the children’s education as her husband’s employment is not guaranteed either. However, she feels her paid work contribution is not recognised and valued by her husband:
I think that even if I do a lot of work, it is not enough. I feel like working more. If I could work well in the farm, I could feed my children well, buy good clothes for them, and so I feel like working more. [My husband says] what have you done? You eat from what I earn.
While Sumitra still bears the burden of care and paid work in the family, her burden has lessened since her children grew up and the two eldest daughters have been able to support her. She reminisces about her struggle when the children were small.
I used to take them with me in the farm, and sometimes put them to sleep on the border of the farm... I had put him [my son] to sleep on the border of the farm when he was young. He fell in the water and almost drowned… My sister-in-law was there. She scolded me, ‘Who told you to work on the farm like this?’ She told me to leave my son with the daughters once they come back from school and then come and work on the field. I told her ‘What to do, there is no one to look after him so I thought I would do a bit of work in the field.’ She said, ‘you would have killed your son while working like this.’ So I picked him up and came back and once the daughters were home, left him with them and went to the field again. It was so difficult to raise them. Earlier, I looked after my blind mother-in-law. She could not see from both eyes. She could just hold the babies but could not feed them. Wherever I used to go for work, I had to come back to feed them. But after my mother-in-law’s death, there was no one to even hold the babies.
The absence of crèche facilities in the community restricted Sumitra’s participation in paid work when her children were young. She has only recently been able to upscale the vegetable and apple farming since her daughters have grown-up and can support her in both care tasks and paid work. Since the nature of her paid work is seasonal and located near to the house, her paid work burden is not the same throughout the year. She takes on most of the care tasks and paid work herself since she does not want to affect her children’s education. The burden of paid work and care tasks, especially during farming season (May to July), affects her health and leads to time poverty.
There is rest only in winters. There is no rest in monsoon. In winters as well, I have to wake up early in the morning. If there is snow (on the roof or in front of the house), we have to throw them. We have to feed the livestock. And cook food. In winters too, we do not stay idle, but we cannot go far for work. We only go for work near the house. Only household chores. We will not have to go to the forest. We get free time only in winter, or else in monsoon, when do we get free time? Never. Until it is winter and there is snowfall, we do not get leisure.
She often multitasks and stretches time to fit in her care and paid work during the peak agricultural season. The farming season also affects the workload and studies of her two eldest daughters who support her with care tasks.
Sumitra thinks that provision of public services such as drinking water would help reduce her and her daughters’ care work burdens. At the same time, irrigation and roads would help to enable her to further upscale her vegetable farming venture. She also wishes there were more employment opportunities for women such as vegetable farming. However, she is still sceptical about redistribution of childcare services to the state or other institutions.