Social reproduction and women’s work in the Global South

This post is written by Sara Stevano who is Lecturer in Economics at UWE, Bristol.

When I began my research in Mozambique, in August 2011, I wanted to understand women’s participation in remunerated work. Informed by literature on rural labour markets and changing livelihoods (e.g. O’Laughlin, 2002), the study set out to capture various forms of casual, seasonal and task-based wage work, and cash-earning activities. It became immediately clear that unwaged work, such as farming own and family’s land as well as fetching water, care and domestic work, was central to women’s lives and deeply intertwined with gendered dynamics of participation in remunerated work. I chose not to focus on a specific sector – instead, I observed multi-faceted labour relations in markets that are predominantly localised, i.e. not linked to global production networks and at best hinging on regional networks. In this blog, I consider how a social reproduction lens can contribute to the conceptualisation of women’s work in the Global South by reflecting on my research.

Social scientists are showing a renewed and growing interest in social reproduction. Understood in various ways, a social reproduction perspective has been embraced to overcome divides between ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ analyses (LeBaron, 2010), to extend Marxist frameworks and develop a theory of reproduction of labour power (Bhattacharya, 2017), and to discuss gender, generational and class tensions in processes of capitalist development (Cousins et al., 2018). The various debates around the concept notwithstanding, my current interest in social reproduction is motivated by two considerations. First, this framework provides the basis for a unifying theory of inequality, which allows us to see how gender, race, class, age, citizenship status (and others) inequalities are co-constituted (e.g. Bannerji, 2011). Second, drawing on Katz’s work on geographies of social reproduction, these help us trace the connections between global processes and local realities.

Contemporary labour regimes in the province of Cabo Delgado, northern Mozambique, are highly precarious. Scattered pockets of employment in export-oriented agro-industry, tourism and natural-resource extraction are surrounded by vast localised labour markets in which classes of labour combine (casual) wage work, small-scale farming and income-generating activities to sustain their reproduction. The common practice of diversifying income sources is gendered in that men’s earnings enable, constrain and regulate women’s participation in paid work. For example, in women’s income-generating activities that entail selling and trading goods, it is often men’s earnings that are used to purchase goods or cover transport costs. The necessity to engage in multiple occupations is a manifestation of the struggle for social reproduction that poor households constantly face. The fragmentation of livelihoods and means of securing social reproduction shows how globalised capitalist systems come to shape labour relations in contexts that are seemingly detached from global production processes.

Women work as farmers, task-based wage workers in agriculture, trade and sell agricultural produce, prepare food and drinks for sale, sell firewood, work as casual wage workers at food markets and local shops. Essentially, they juggle various forms of work, which differ in regularity, earnings and mobility. In relation to men, women are concentrated in lower-paid work, such as selling vegetables as opposed to fish or clothing, home-based cash-earning activities and perform tasked-based wage work on a less regular basis. This confirms a key insight from feminist political economy scholarship that women’s disadvantage at home and in society is reflected in the terms of their participation in paid work. However, material living conditions differ and a social reproduction perspective can help us capture important aspects of differentiation. For example, traders are often younger women with no (young) children and those who can rely on the help of someone else to look after their children, a finding that illustrates the centrality of familial and social relations for care provisioning. Furthermore, proportionally more women in rural areas engage in some form of paid work relative to women living in urban areas, which signals the centrality of household composition, sources of income and gendered division of labour.

Social reproduction also entails the maintenance and reproduction of social relations. In settings where the public provision of social services is minimal, gendered obligations towards social reproduction are essential to ensure membership to a social group and its reproduction. For instance, the longest interruptions of agricultural work I encountered in my research were due to the need to take care of an ill family member and, in some cases, entailed relocation to another household for a certain period. Also, it is common to participate in task-based wage work to be able to make an economic contribution to a funeral or wedding in the family or kinship. These dynamics show the unity of production and reproduction and, importantly, how social reproduction imperatives determine gendered participation in remunerated work.

In sum, social reproduction can help us see women’s work as shaped by global processes of capitalist development and commodification, which dialectically interact with configurations of household gendered division of labour and material social practices that maintain and reproduce social relations. The failure to consider social reproduction constrains our understanding of the structures of women’s oppression because it does not capture the reality of living and working conditions of women, and how these are intertwined with class, generation and ethnicity relations. A social reproduction approach may, therefore, generate useful insights to study gendered labour processes across contexts in the Global South characterised by fragmented classes of labour.