Gender Roles in Economics

Division of labor by gender is the basic organizing principle of work in an Aymara community. Aymara women say, "The woman is the soul of the family; without her a hearth grows cold and husband and children scatter." She is responsible for the myriad domestic tasks of subsistence farm life. As in many cultures, a woman's tasks are more numerous than a man's. His work is defined by agriculture and other economic pursuits, while she does everything else including helping her husband with planting, weeding, cultivating, and harvesting. The man is considered to be doing the real work, with a wife or older sons assisting. A woman may delegate some work to children of both genders, but without their help, she must do everything from watching livestock and hauling water to cooking, caring for children, and maintaining the house, with any otherwise unoccupied moments filled with spinning, weaving, or knitting. It is interesting that a 16th century writer observed that Andean women were "so fond of spinning" that they carried their spindles everywhere and spun as they walked, just as they do today.

Some women learn to weave beautiful complex textiles, while others make only simple homespun or do not weave at all. A few men weave the long simple bolts of bayeta, homespun wool, which is then dyed and sewn (also by men) into various utilitarian articles of clothing.

During the agricultural off-season, many Aymara men migrate temporarily to the cities and lowland plantations for wage labor. The cash income from this work (often only U.S.$1000) supplements the farm family's subsistence living, enabling them to purchase supplies such as kerosene, sugar, flour, and some processed foods and manufactured items. Men who migrate may be heads of household or young unmarried males. Some unmarried women also go to cities to work, often as domestics, but married women with homes and farms in the countryside remain there. As in many parts of the developing world, this arrangement results in a heavy but undervalued workload for these women.

More women than men participate in marketing, another source of cash. They usually travel to a nearby weekly market and buy and resell goods, such as wool or fruit, and occasionally sell or barter farm products, livestock, or textiles. Women who only work in the markets 1 or 2 days a week earn much less money in a year than a man can bring home from a few months of wage labor, reinforcing the traditional notion that it takes a man to really bring wealth into the household. The market work of women who leave the countryside and make a career of marketing in the city is much more lucrative, however (Buechler & Buechler, 1996).

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