The first time I met twenty-six year old Flora, she was walking up a rocky hill bracing a heavy bucket of sand on her head. At the time, Flora, her partner, and their 4-year-old son were living in a one-room house surrounded by cornfields, and Flora was gathering sand to begin the next stage of construction on their home. Like many rural women in Nicaragua, Flora’s days are filled with a number of time-consuming tasks: grinding corn, making tortillas, carrying water, gathering firewood, cooking beans, sweeping the house, and hand-washing clothes. Yet this is actually only a small portion of Flora’s daily work. She is also engaged in a variety of community responsibilities, including the coordination of a revolving microcredit fund and the administration of a government-sponsored early childhood development program.
Flora’s experiences are part of a wider trend in how non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and governments are attempting to incorporate women into social and economic development. Many international policymakers have argued that women’s participation in development programs has the potential to alleviate poverty and advance women’s equality. Yet how do these strategies affect the everyday lives of poor women? To answer that question, I conducted participant observation and in-depth interviews with women who have been involved in various NGO and state-led development programs in a village I call Loma Verde in northwest Nicaragua. Women’s tasks within these programs typically involve some combination of village clean-ups, child care, and/or health education and training.
While women’s participation has led to many positive changes in their community, these changes have come at a high personal cost to the women involved. Take Liza, for example. As a community volunteer, she was often required to attend trainings outside of the village. She told me, “I neglect my children, I neglect my family, because going to workshops, sometimes we go 3 to 4 days in a row. Sometimes [my son] Jacob hasn’t bathed, the chickens sometimes haven’t had water. Sometimes there was a dead chicken, what do I do?” Liza’s experience highlights the fact that while women’s labor is often treated as “free” by NGO and state actors, in practice women make significant sacrifices to complete the tasks demanded by their community responsibilities.
Nevertheless, most women continue to perform voluntary community labor in spite of their difficulties, describing how their participation has provided them with an increased sense of personal efficacy, greater skills and knowledge, and community recognition. As Flora told me, “It makes me feel good when my neighbors say, ‘Flora works, Flora serves the community.’” Without diminishing the satisfaction that women like Flora articulate about their accomplishments, what my research highlights are some of the unintended consequences of development programs’ reliance on women’s unpaid community labor. My findings suggest that the forms of participation encouraged by these programs entrench existing gender roles and responsibilities while also continuing to place the burden for overcoming poverty squarely on the shoulders of poor women themselves.