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What I learned from the BEES about women’s empowerment and nutrition

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About four years ago, I started coordinating a knowledge and learning network, which we ultimately named Business, Enterprise and Employment Support (BEES) for women in South Asia. This network was a first for the Bank in South Asia because it comprised leading civil society organizations in eight South Asian countries* —not our typical clients—and it focused on sharing knowledge across borders about what works for women’s economic empowerment. I remember being told at the time to focus only on economic empowerment of women—don’t give in to “mission creep.” That was impossible. 

“My wife does not work”

The ironic
This is the poster I came across in my travels
with the BEES Network.  BRAC introduced
it to me, and according to my Google search,
it was designed by a Bangladeshi NGO called
Banchte Shekha. It so perfectly captures the
plight of too many women.

That’s the ironic caption to a poster I came across when I was traveling with BRAC and several BEES members in a village outside of Dhaka. The caption appears around a picture depicting all of the unrecognized and unpaid work a woman in Bangladesh does.

Women are the ultimate generalists. They cook, clean, gather food and shop, raise children, care for the elderly, nurse the sick, sew clothes, get water, plant and care for crops, take care of the livestock, make handicrafts, work as day laborers, and much more. A Bangladeshi BEES member, Manusher Jonno Foundation, put together data to determine the burden of women’s unpaid work. Tracking the unpaid activities in households, they found that, on average, men spend about 2.5 hours each day on unpaid work, while women spend about 7.7 hours. They also estimated that the cost of replacing women’s unpaid work with a service provider was roughly equal to 76.8% of Bangladesh’s FY12-13 GDP. 

I took away 2 messages from this: (1) we can’t burden women further when we “empower” them; and (2) there are huge economic opportunities that can lessen the burden on women if we act strategically.

What does this have to do with nutrition?

The challenge for development agencies is that these very overworked women are the critical change agents for improving household nutrition. They keep the seeds, plant the kitchen gardens, tend the livestock, operate the farms, make the meals, have and care for the children, and (if they have the power) influence how household income is spent. We need to reach these women, help them become more productive, instill in them the importance of proper nutrition, and all without adding to (and hopefully even reducing) their already unmanageable work burden.

The problem sounds insurmountable, but this is why I started my blog with the BEES Network. One of the best ways to help women be more productive, contribute to economic development, and generate jobs is by developing the care economy

The last BEES Network meeting in Nepal emphasized the potential of the care economy—formal and informal enterprises that provide the specialized services that ease women’s unpaid work. We have this in urban areas—especially in the United States and Europe—but it’s sorely lacking in most parts of developing countries.

  • Child care is one of the biggest reasons women fall out of the workforce, and women who must work often have to take young children with them to hazardous worksites.  SEWA Child Care Centers, Tarayana Foundation’s Daycare Program, and SERP’s Community Managed Childcare Centers are examples of community-managed or social enterprise service providers that can operate sustainably to ease the burden of care on women.  All three programs have also incorporated child nutrition and healthy meal preparation training for mothers.  It would be interesting to see if the same approach can be applied to elder care enterprises.
  • Gathering or shopping for food and processing grains is time-consuming and labor intensive.  For the poor, a healthy food basket can also be prohibitively expensive. Manusher Jonno, Tarayana, and SERP have demonstrated that community-managed food banks can make a wider variety of food available to families at a lower cost, thus facilitating healthier eating throughout the year.  SEWA has turned this into an enterprise, Rudi Multi Trading Company Limited, which provides jobs to women (“Rudibens”) who purchase, process, and sell packaged food at the doorsteps of poor households—safe affordable food available with no time investment for the buyers!
  • Meal preparation is the channel for good nutrition, and this chore falls primarily to women. However, lack of time can hurt the nutritional quality of meals.  Our BEES member in Sri Lanka, Viluthu—using a grant from the South Asian Food and Nutrition Security Initiative—developed an enterprise called Sanjeevi that trained women in preparing nutritionally balanced meals made from locally available ingredients, costing less than 35 rupees.  The women then opened retail stalls to sell the meals within their villages.  They sold out by 11:00 am every morning.  We’re going to work on the business model to be able to take these to scale. 
The care economy can help women create a specialized local economy that serves their needs and lessens their time and work burden.  There are so many other enterprise options—transport services, sanitation, hygiene, health, extension support and more—that can create jobs (for women and men), ease the burden of work on women, and make better nutrition possible for women and their families. 

The BEES network drove home the point that to improve the condition of women in one area, you must work on all areas in a holistic approach that first organizes women and helps them visualize a better future for themselves and their families. With creative problem-solving, we can improve nutrition while generating jobs and income. 
*Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka


Melissa Williams

Senior Rural Development Specialist

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