India: Tribal women's work in Madhya Pradesh


THEME: Women in tribal communities perform many kinds of physically demanding work, but domestic tasks are shared with men.

In 1997, IFAD conducted a study in tribal villages in Madhya Pradesh, India. Among other issues, it looked at tribal women's productive and reproductive roles and activities. What it found was a remarkably equitable division of labour among males and females. Men play an active role in domestic tasks and women perform an equal role in productive activities.


In the Chattisgarh area, where the study focused in more detail, women can be divided into two groups: those who stay at home and work and those who do work outside the home, usually alongside the men. Women's productive work consists of a mix of agriculture, gathering of non-timber forest products, and wage labour. What they do at any given time depends on whether they have land and what time of year it is. Women's workday consists of 16-18 hours of often physically demanding labour. They do not consider this work drudgery, but rather a way of life. However, in joint households, the woman who spends a long hard day in the fields or the forest is exempted from most domestic tasks. She can come home and find dinner ready.

Women's Work in Agriculture

Women's agricultural work takes place largely from July to November (five months). Crops grown here are primarily rainfed. Upland paddy is the main crop. Irrigated millet and vegetables are grown in a few pockets where perennial streams flow or large ponds exist (as at the edge of forests). The first peak period of work in agriculture is June or July through August, when, from morning until night, women engage in breaking up sods of earth, sowing and weeding. The second peak period is October through November, when women are involved in harvesting, drying, pounding and dehusking paddy. Agricultural lands are often far away from homes, and men and women must leave for work early in the morning, usually without having eaten. Women as well as men may work as agricultural day labourers.

Women's Work in Gathering Forest Products

Women generally go to the forest as a group to collect forest products. The peak season for this is April to June. Tribal people depend on the forest for their livelihoods, including for the non-timber or "minor" forest products. From these they obtain foods such as fruit and oil, and needed items for the home such as bidi, brooms, baskets, mats, rope, home-made toothbrushes, leaf plates and medicines. Some forest products are also sold for a small cash income. This work is hard, and is made more difficult by the fact that women often walk a long way to get to the forest, suffer scratches from thorny bushes and work in the heat without water.

Women's Domestic Work

Men and women share household work, including cooking, house cleaning and childcare. The division of responsibilities seems to be quite flexible and "modern". In extended family households, the woman who stays home, usually the daughter-in-law, is likely to have the meals ready for those who go out to work, and to clean up afterwards. In the nuclear family household, such work is done by whoever gets home first in the evening. If both husband and wife arrive at the same time, the wife starts the meal. If only women are out working, men take care of cooking and childcare. Boys, as well as girls, are brought up to learn to do household chores, and both boys and girls help out at home with domestic tasks. However, in some more primitive tribes, girls are kept home from school so that they can take care of their younger siblings while their mothers are busy gathering and selling minor forest products.

Women's Work in House Maintenance

There seems to be fairly firmly defined and gender-based division of house maintenance tasks. Men repair the roof, but women are in charge of wall maintenance. Close female relatives often work together. Walls are plastered with mud and rice or wheat straw twice a year. Every five to eight years, women demolish part of the house and rebuild it with new walls. Women are also in charge of making tiles. This type of work is usually done in June, before the onset of the monsoon and prior to peak times in agriculture.

Women's Participation in Voluntary Community Labour

In many tribal communities, women as well as men undertake shram dhan (voluntary labour) when they tire of waiting for the Panchayat to perform needed infrastructure improvements or maintenance. Men and women who talked to the researcher complained that the village where the Panchayat is located gets the most attention, while the outlying villages are often neglected. Commonly performed voluntary labour activities include digging and maintenance of wells and nallahs (irrigation ditches), construction and repair of primary schools and furnishings, and construction of small bridges to cross rivers. Whatever people build themselves, they also maintain.

Tribal women in this area can be viewed as falling into two groups: those who are designated to do domestic work and those who go out to work. The tribal woman who works outside the home undertakes a number of physically demanding tasks alongside men. But in recognition of this, she is exempt from most domestic work or is given considerable help by her husband and male and female children.

Adapted from:

Vettivel, Surendra Kumar. 1997. India: Madhya Pradesh Tribal Development Project - Participatory Development Framework, Community Institution Building, Indigenous Social Structure, Women's Participation, Role of NGOs. Rome: IFAD, June.