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7. An approach to the study of women's productive roles as a determinant of intra-household allocation patterns

Women in Development Division, World Bank, Washington, D.C., USA


Development projects often focus on improving the welfare of vulnerable individuals by providing resources to their households. The distribution of benefits derived from these resources, however, cannot always be assumed to conform to the priorities of the project designers. Households allocate resources according to their own priorities; it is therefore important for project planners to understand what these priorities are.

This paper suggests an approach to studying the factors which determine how household priorities are established. In particular, it focuses on women's productive roles as a determinant of their bargaining power within the household. Research on this and related questions would improve programme design by improving the understanding of how programme resources are likely to be used.

Women fill a dual role in most households, being both mother/caretaker and economic provider. These two roles, which complement each other in many circumstances, can also cause conflicts in time use and in the allocation of responsibilities. This dual role has led to what can be described as schizophrenic programming on the part of development agencies in their effort to work with third-world women. The question is whether women's income-producing work - which is increasingly recognized as crucial to the survival of poor families - results in an improvement or a deterioration in the health and nutritional status of their children, given the potential conflict with their caretaking role. Most women, however, have no choice about whether or not to work. For these women the issue is instead how to balance paid work (from wages or in-kind payments) with childcare responsibilities.

Welfare agencies generally focus on one or the other of the two roles. At the policy level, copious recognition is given to the importance of both roles, but, at the operational level, activities carried out by specialized agencies or divisions tend to focus on one role and ignore the other. A policy is often implemented through several separate divisions of an agency. One division may be charged with health and nutrition or family planning, and therefore would tend to focus on women as mothers, while another, charged perhaps with agricultural development, employment, or, more frequently, "women in development," may focus on women as producers.

Many of the issues raised by the trade-offs between women's mothering and productive roles remain unresolved. This not only hampers the wholehearted adoption of a more integrated programme approach by governments and donors, but also constrains the design of effective intervention strategies.

In recent years, a number of authors have reviewed the available literature seeking to clarify the issues and highlight what is known about the relationships between women's work and their child-care responsibilities (cf. Safilios-Rothschild, 1980; Engle, 1980, 1981; Clark, 1981, 1982; Nieves, 1981, 1982; Carloni, 1983; Dwyer, 1983; and, in this volume, Engle and Safilios-Rothschild). What is clear from all the reviews is that there is a great deal of partial and conflicting evidence. In numerous studies, the children of working mothers have lower nutritional status than those of mothers who do not work outside the home (Hart, 1975; Popkin and Solon, 1976; Popkin, 1980; Blau, 1981). However, these studies have neither controlled for the family's income level nor for other important variables, such as the presence of an employed male or the family's land tenure status (Carloni, 1983). Hence, the poor nutritional status among the children of working mothers in many of the studies may well be due to the conditions of poverty which drove the mothers to work in the first place and to the low wages which such women earn, rather than the fact of their working per se.


A framework which incorporates more than the roles of the mother is needed to identify the determinants of child health and nutrition (Carloni, 1983; Dwyer, 1983). A mere examination of the trade-off between the time women spend in income production time and in child care will not suffice. What is required is an investigation of how this tradeoff is itself conditioned by the economic and socio-cultural environment. It would be equally important to concentrate on the household' as the locus of the tradeoff; to know what other members of the family and kin group are also contributing in terms of domestic service and income, and whether or not these contributions influence household decision-making patterns in ways that would affect child well-being and nutritional status.

A growing number of detailed household studies include data on the time allocation and income contributions of individual family members (cf. Johnson, this volume), but most lack either the complementary data on child health and nutrition (Acharya and Bennett, 1981) or pertinent data on decision-making or income control (King-Quizon, 1978; Kumar, 1978; Nag et al., 1978; Cain et al., 1979; Mueller, 1979; DaVanzo and Lee, 1983). One of the key steps in understanding women's roles in the determination of child health and nutritional status may be a careful investigation of the process of resource allocation within the household. It is essential to understand gender-specific priorities for expenditure and the degree to which men and women control or influence various areas of decision-making. It is a difficult task, amenable only to limited quantitative measurement and statistical analysis. But the attempt must be made if we are to move beyond the accepted premise of the New Household Economics (Becker, 1965, 1981) that a single joint utility function can adequately represent the dynamics of household decision-making.

The joint utility concept is based upon a number of inaccurate and ethnocentric assumptions about the nature of the family. These assumptions are consistent with what both Yanagisako (1979) and Rosaldo (1980) have noted as a tendency in Western thought to idealize or sentimentalize the family as an "unchanging, nurturant, and altruistic core" which is somehow above the more instrumental and political modes of the public sphere. One of these assumptions is that all household members share the same priorities for the use of household time and resources. In the words of its own proponents, the assumption of a joint utility function "means simply that all household members agree to certain management rules regarding the distribution of income within the household and the allocation of household members' time" (Evenson et al., cited in Binswanger et al., 1980). Scholars from various disciplines (Fapohunda, 1978; Clark, 1982; Guyer, 1982; Roldan, 1982; Kumar, 1983) have called this concept into question. They cite data from Africa and elsewhere which illustrate that (1) household income is not always pooled, and (2) men and women often have separate, culturally designated obligations to meet different sets of needs within and beyond the conjugal family. In particular, it has been noted (Fapohunda, 1978, and Guyer, 1982, for Africa; Roldan, 1982, for Mexico; and Peluso, 19X0, for Indonesia) that women are often responsible for providing all or part of the resources needed to support their children. These studies and my own work in Nepal (Bennett, 1981, 1983) all indicate that what the "household" decides to do with its resources is not the outcome of spontaneous utopian "agreement," but instead grows out of serious bargaining (covert or overt) among its individual members (cf. Safilios-Rothschild, this volume).

This brings us to the two other assumptions commonly associated with the concept of the joint household utility function: (1) that all household members have equal bargaining power to enforce their own definition of utility; and (2) that all members benefit equally from the way resources are actually allocated. Any observed inequality in the distribution of household resources, therefore, is interpreted as the most efficient reaction to the prevailing wage-price conditions (i.e. as part of the household unit's maximizing behaviour). Folbre's (1984) reanalysis of time allocation and nutrition data from Laguna, Philippines, presents an alternative and more compelling explanation for reported inequalities in household distribution patterns. Among the more obvious disparities between men and women revealed by these data are the observations that men had significantly more leisure time than women, and that they consumed 101 per cent and 116 per cent, respectively, of their required daily allowance (RDA) of calories and protein, while women's diets were markedly deficient, providing only 87 per cent of their caloric RDA and 79 per cent of their protein RDA (see Appendix of Pinstrup-Andersen and Garcia, in part III of this volume, for exact values of caloric RDAs in the Philippines).

Folbre (1984) sees this phenomenon, and all inequitable household distribution rules, as arising from structural asymmetries in the economic, social, and legal position of men and women which give the two sexes unequal bargaining power. Rather than viewing the household as a single maximizing unit, she posits that the household is a group of maximizing individuals, "in which individual family members co-operate with one another primarily to further their own personal interest" (Folbre, 1984). Of course, there will often be a high degree of overlap in the allocation priorities of household members. The overlap, however, will rarely be 100 per cent. This ability to realize personal allocation priorities, which Folbre calls "bargaining power," appears to be affected by "the individual's contribution to the household income," by his or her potential earnings outside the household, "and even support from extra-household coalitions struck by members of the same class, race or gender" (Folbre, 1984, p. 3). From my own work among Hindus living in the hills of Nepal (Bennett, 1981), I would suggest that a number of additional social factors, such as support from family of origin, freedom to divorce and remarry, polygamy, and individual personality, also affect women's bargaining power. Moreover, I would add that the concept of "maximization," which is appropriate for trying to understand individual decision-making inside the household, cannot be understood within a purely economic framework.

Instead of assuming an exogenously given joint utility function or household distribution rule, it would be more useful to investigate how the rule itself varies in different cultural and economic settings and to uncover the process through which household members establish the rule2


This paper proposes a conceptual framework which could be used as the basis for empirical research into some of these questions. In it I have tried to set out relationships in quantifiable terms; what follows may seem very abstract and overly neat. The arrows and boxes may obscure the fact that some of the most important aspects of the household decision-making process cannot be quantified. Instead, they need to be captured through in-depth anthropological observation, what Geertz (1973) has called "thick description," of the social bargaining process within the family. Statistical correlations mean little without a thorough knowledge of the context in which they occur. In spite of the quantitative nature of the model presented here, the approach envisioned is similar to those used by Acharya and Bennett (1981, 1983), van Esterik (1983), and Nag and colleagues (1978, 1982). All these projects combine survey methods with an ethnographic approach involving extended residence in the community under study. Data from both sources then must be integrated at the analysis stage.

Focus on the Internal Dynamics of the Family

In the proposed framework depicted in figure 1, biological and environmental factors are bracketed and child health and nutritional status are analysed as outcomes of the social economy of the household.3 This procedure would document the income and services which flow into the household from each family member, and would examine the process through which these resources are allocated to produce welfare for each member.

The final welfare outputs in which we are particularly interested are the health and nutritional status of children in the household (particularly of infants and children under five). We recognized that there are many other welfare outputs which are crucial to the development of the child such as shelter, clothing, the child's own leisure and play time, education, support for special life-cycle rituals, and even the leisure time of the mother and father, which may enable them to be more creative and involved as parents. If data on these sorts of outputs are gathered along with the data on the child's food consumption and care time, etc., they can also be examined within the same framework. By expanding the data collected to include the dietary intake and health and nutrition status) of the mother as well as her children, it would be possible to look at the factors affecting both these interrelated dependent variables within the same framework. This would be especially useful in identifying situations in which the child's welfare was being purchased at the expense of the mother's.

Fig. 1. Tentative framework for analysis: the major family determinants

Figure 1 shows the four main determinants within the family of the child's health and nutritional status: (1) child-care time; and (2) income to purchase material goods such as food, clothes, medicine, and shelter, or home-produced equivalents. Two other factors impinge on how the first two inputs are used: (3) the priorities and bargaining power of different family members, which determine the pattern of distribution of household resources; and (4) the knowledge and skills of various family members, which determine how efficiently the time and income inputs are transformed into child welfare.

One of the main resources the family has is the time of its members. Time can either be used to produce services for the family (i.e. domestic work like cooking, cleaning, laundry, and child care) or it can be used in production. This includes wage/salary work in the market, which generates income, and unpaid subsistence production of food and other goods on the family farm, which spares income.

While it has always been relatively easy to measure the contribution to family welfare made by the wage-earner contributing cash income, this has not been the case with subsistence production. Often this crucial contribution has been overlooked in macroeconomic analyses because it has been so difficult to assess individual input into what, in many cultures, is viewed as pooled or communal family production(5) and also because much of the food produced is consumed by the family and never reaches the market, and therefore is not counted as part of a country's GNP. It can be done, though. Acharya and Bennett (1983) developed a technique using time-allocation data and detailed household production data to estimate the relative value of each household member's contribution to household subsistence production without relying on imputed wage rates.6

It then becomes possible to look at the income inputs of not only wage-earners working in the market economy (who generally are men), but also of those who work without pay for the family (generally women), saving income in income-sparing activities.


This opens the way for disaggregation of inputs, which is illustrated in figure 2. Disaggregation permits us to begin to analyse the trade-offs between different members of the family for certain types of inputs. For example, it allows us to determine, in cases where the mother works outside the home and cannot spend as much time on child care and food preparation, whether or not other family members make up the difference. Evidence from the Philippines (Evenson, et al., cited in Binswanger, 1980) shows that such substitution indeed takes place. There has been debate about whether the quality of the care given by other family members - especially siblings - is equivalent to that provided by the mother. This issue could be addressed through separate assessment of the knowledge and skills that various care-givers had in child care and food preparation.

Disaggregation of inputs is also vital to the examination of relationships between incomeearning and "bargaining power," i.e. the ability to influence how household resources are used. Among the hypotheses that could be tested are:

  1. That increases in maternal income are positively associated with increased maternal influence over income allocation.
  2. That increases in maternal influence over income allocation lead to increased allocation, better dietary intake, and higher health and nutritional status for the child.

In figure 2, the welfare outputs are also disaggregated, first according to what is received by each individual family member, and second by the stages of the consumption or utilization process. Data should be collected on the allocation of both cash and in-kind resources to each family member. This first stage of output is the result of the total amount of income the family has (determinant 2 in figure 2) and the influence of the various members on the way that income is distributed (determinant 3).

As mentioned above (p. 103), time for child care, food preparation, and other domestic work (determinant 1), and the knowledge and skills (determinant 4) needed to transform income into a nutritious meal or adequate health care, are required for this income and raw material to be consumed. Data to measure this second stage of welfare output would be (a) the protein/calorie intake of each member; (b) feeding patterns (i.e. initiation, frequency, and duration of breast-feeding, age of introduction of supplementary foods, or frequency of meals); (c) health-care behaviour (i.e. treatment of diarrhoea, expenditure on medical care, or utilization of health services); and (d) total child-care time7

Thus, the second-stage welfare output is conceptualized as the result of the per person income/raw material available plus the knowledge and time inputs of each family member. Factors outside the family such as the availability of foods and health care also must be included here, although they are not shown in the model.8

These types of biological and environmental factors outside our model would be expected to have a proportionally greater effect on the final-stage welfare output: the health and nutrition status of each family member. Although this output would be measured, it would be a less sensitive indicator of what we are examining: the internal dynamics of the household economy as it affects the child.

Fig.2.Tentative framework for analysis : disaggregation

Fig. 3. Focus on maternal inputs

Mother's inputs

Focus on the Mother

Our model includes intra-household demographic factors and exogenous socio-cultural and economic factors, since they affect each member's ability to contribute to child welfare along the four major dimensions (time, income, influences on income allocation, and knowledge). Figure 3 details some of the cultural, demographic, and economic data that will need to be examined. The allocation of time is now broken down into three major work categories9 (with leisure as the residual category, considered a welfare output). The first work category is time spent in domestic activities. The portion of this time which is devoted to food preparation, caring for children, and assisting in health care is one of the mother's direct inputs to child welfare. The second category is the time she spends working in unpaid labour on the family farm enterprise. This results in her contribution to household income-sparing subsistence production, one of the components of maternal income in the diagram.

The third category encompasses women's work in the market sector. For our purposes one of the most important aspects of this kind of work is that it produces income - either from wages or as the profit from own-account entrepreneurial activities. Whether she keeps this income to spend herself or contributes it to the family pool, it can be identified as her own earnings. Like the mother's contribution to subsistence income, the effect of her market income on child health and nutrition will be important to measure. It is crucial to distinguish these two components (or potential components, since many mothers do not earn wage income). The second type of identifiable market income might have a greater effect than a women's subsistence income on: (1) the degree of her influence over the allocation of pooled income; and (2) her control over her own individual earnings - both of which should be measured separately.

We have hypothesized earlier that the greater the extent of women's influence over the allocation of income (whether pooled or individal), the better the child's dietary intake and nutritional status will be. An assumption of this nature certainly has been made, but not tested, in much of the relevant literature. Such is the strength of our examined belief in maternal altruism as a cultural universal. The model presented here would permit us a separate examination of both the degree and the direction of the mother's influence on expenditure of household income on the child.

The forces which determine the degree of the mother's influence over resource distribution (i.e. her "bargaining power") are extremely complex. Economic, demographic, and socio-cultural factors affect this variable indirectly through their influence on the mother's allocation of time and hence her ability to contribute to household income. However, certain socio-cultural factors (such as gender ideology, support from family of origin, degree of knowledge of husband's earnings, gender-specific obligations for child support, etc.) also have a direct effect on her power over the disposal of household resources.

The direction of the mother's influence is based on her own priorities, which will be, at least in part, socially conditioned and can be observed and measured separately. Dwyer (1983) has pointed out that women's allocational priorities are often geared toward survival strategies, while men's priorities may focus on mobility. Women's priorities may be conditioned by the need to protect against or prepare for divorce or desertion - especially in cultures where land ownership is in male hands. They may have to compete with a co-wife to secure family resources for their own children. The need to keep natal kin and neighbourhood support networks active by fulfilling certain social obligations may be more important to women. Societies also differ as to whether women can express their individual priorities openly or must pursue them covertly. "' The "knowledge" input would be measured with reference to certain specific practices regarding breast-feeding, weaning, supplementary feeding, response to diarrhoea, etc., determined by nutritionists and physicians to be central to child survival. " This variable is seen as conditioned primarily by socio-cultural factors, particularly by the traditional childcare and feeding practices which prevail in the community. However, demographic variables such as the age and educational status of the mother (and, in some situations, economic variables such as labour-force participation, which affects exposure to new ideas) will obviously influence the degree to which the individual has absorbed these traditional beliefs and practices and the degree to which he or she has access to and adopts alternative ways of doing things.

Potential Programme and Policy Relevance

This framework should do much to clarify the relationship between women's roles as mothers and producers. In particular, it should help identify the social and economic conditions under which women's income-producing work results in healthier, betternourished children and those conditions in which it fails to do so. This will be important to programme-planners attempting to build up the traditional support networks of working mothers and, in some countries and some sectors of the economy, to assist in creating such facilities where they do not exist. Moreover, because this model does not define women's productive work narrowly in terms of "labour-force participation," it will permit a much more accurate assessment of the actual extent of women's contribution to the income variable. It also permits an examination of the differential effects of various kinds of income-producing work on the child's welfare.12

But perhaps the most important potential contribution this kind of study could make in terms of support to the design of programme interventions would be to provide a clearer grasp of the factors determining decision-making patterns at the household level as they relate to child health and nutrition. A number of specific questions can be addressed within the proposed framework:

  1. What are the respective male and female obligations within the family (particularly with regard to support for child feeding, health care, etc.) in different cultural settings?
  2. To what extent is income pooled in the family? What is pooled income spent on and who spends it? On what is the non-pooled income of different family members spent? Which type of income support goes to the child?
  3. How does income earning or market participation affect the extent of women's input in various areas of household decision-making? Can it actually outweigh or change the effect of traditional gender ideology? What other factors affect women's "bargaining power?"
  4. What are the women's allocation priorities? Is it true that income earned by women is more likely to be spent on food and basic needs than income earned by men? Is there a positive relationship between the extent of women's control over the allocation of household resources (pooled and individual) and child health and nutritional status?
  5. Of the four determinants of inputs (i.e. time, income, influence on income distribution and knowledge), which contributes most to child health and nutrition status? Even more importantly, for each input, does it make a difference which family member contributed it?

Statistical analysis of some of these issues may have important global policy implications in addition to intrinsic theoretical interest. However, the most useful information in terms of concrete project design and formulation of country-level policy by governments in the developing world is likely to be the insight gained from in-depth observation of how men, women, and children in poor families work out their individual and collective strategies for survival.


  1. Although the terms "family" and "household" have been used interchangeably in this discussion, they are of course not synonymous. The term "family" implies that members are related by some conjugal or consanguineal tie, though the form which the family takes, the number of generations it encompasses, etc., vary greatly between cultures. One family may have several "households," as in the case of polygamous marriages or the husband's long-term migration for employment. A consistent definition of "household," and yet one that is not culturally bound, would have to be evolved as appropriate to the research or project.
  2. This alternative to the joint household utility function can be conceptualized as a series of individual utility functions, each accompanied by a coefficient representing that individual's power in the household and hence his/her ability to achieve or enforce his particular priorities for his own and others' welfare as these differ from those of the household head. This alternative household utility function or distribution rule might look something like this:

X(Uf) + y(Um) + Z(Uc) = Uh

where Uf = utility as perceived by the father, and x = the father's power to enforce his perception, with x + y + z = 1. Similarly, Um= utility as perceived by the mother, and y = her power to enforce her perception. Uc = utility as perceived by the child, and y = his/her power to enforce his perception.

The relative power of each member to enforce his/her preferences is indicated by the coefficient. For example, in a culture where the household head has close to absolute power, x would be close to I, and y and z would approach 0. Folbre (1982, p. 9), points out that the adult child who has left the family but is earning income has a great deal of power over what (s)he chooses to send his/her parents for their support. Likewise, grown sons in the patrilineal extended family may have equal or even greater bargaining power than their parents. These coefficients then would change over the life-cycle of the individual and with variations in the developmental cycle of the family itself.

Other factors determining the strength of each individual's bargaining power would be the structure of the economy, the socio-cultural definition of a particular role in the family, and the personality of the individual filling the role. In extended family structures other members of the household - and perhaps even the extended kin group - would need to be added.

  1. Many parts of the model - especially those dealing with health and nutrition - are not yet clearly formulated. The question of how to measure the set of household "outputs" which I have grouped together as "Child Food Consumption and Health Care" will need the attention of nutritionists and health experts. It is clear, moreover, that for a "feeding practice" such as breast-feeding there are many biological factors not encompassed in this model which influence the mother's decision whether or not to breast-feed and for how long. This framework may therefore be more suitable for investigating the determinants of certain child-care and feeding "outputs" than for others.
  2. It is suggested that as far as possible data on welfare outputs, including (1) per person expenditure, (2) dietary intake, and (3) anthropometric measurements of health and nutritional status, be gathered for the following age/sex groups: (a) 0-1 infants (male/female); (b) 1-5 young children (male/female); (c) 6-15 children (male/female); (d) adult women (unmarried, no children; children under five; childbearing age; past childbearing age); (e) adult men (heads of household; dependent adults). In addition, data on leisure time of all household members, which is also an important welfare output, should be available from the time-allocation data. A meaningful composite category of leisure activities can be constructed if separate activities are carefully coded.
  3. In many parts of Africa where women sometimes have rights to their own plots in addition to family lands, or where certain crops are identified as belonging to women, this problem has been less severe. The value of the produce (or income from selling it) in such cases probably should be included under the second category of "own income" shown in figure 1.
  4. In the Nepal study (Acharya and Bennett, 1983), monetary value was only calculated for household work which resulted in a product which could be valued on the basis of the market purchase price of an equivalent product. The study was conservative in its approach and did not attempt to value unpaid domestic service since it is particularly difficult to establish wage rates for services (such as cooking and child care) which are not purchased in a traditional subsistence economy like that of Nepal. The recent work of Goldschmidt-Clermont (1983), however, suggests that it may be possible to develop a similar output-related approach to valuing domestic service as well.
  5. The proposed method of collecting data on time allocation is based on that used in an earlier study in Nepal (cf. Acharya and Bennett, 1983). This method allows child care to be recorded as the simultaneous activity it often is in developing countries. There are some conceptual problems since child-care time is being treated as both an input and an output. Perhaps child-care time should not be included as part of this variable.
  6. In considering the issue of breast-feeding as part of the health-care and feeding behaviour "output," it perhaps would be necessary to consider the mother's dietary intake and biological factors such as her health, age, etc., which are not considered in this model, in addition to the mother's time and her knowledge (and that of other senior females in the household).
  7. It may be useful to follow the procedure used in Nepal and separate the third category, market work, into work which takes place in the local area and allows the worker to sleep at home, and migrant employment for which the worker resides outside the home community. This distinction is necessary if the random spot-check observational method is used as it was in Nepal to gather time-allocation data (cf. Acharya and Bennett, 1983, for discussion).
  8. Such cross-cultural differences would have to be kept in mind when seeking to measure this variable - as would the difference between normative female priorities and actual observed priorities.
  9. Conceptualization of how this factor operates and the linkages between what the mother knows, how she learns it, and what she actually does need further work.
  10. Several authors (e.g. Nieves, 1982; Carloni, 1983) have pointed out the fallacy of assuming that women's traditional agricultural work is more compatible with child care than are other more modern types of employment. This may be so for women who simply tend a small kitchen-garden and look after a few animals. But, for women who must work as wage abour-ers - who, according to studies in Bangladesh (Saleka and Greeley, 1980), are often among the poorest section of the population - or whose family lands are far from the homestead, agricultural work and even "domestic chores" such as fuel- and watergathering take the mother out of the house for long periods in difficult physical conditions which are not suitable for a child.


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