This critical issue deserves more attention and action to help lift the burden of domestic work on women and girls and improve the quality of their lives
Laundry is a topic easily forgotten in the debate on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). Yet, in the way laundry is done, there is scope for making it easier and more hygienic, and for saving water in the process too.
Most household chores primarily fall on women. A study covering 19 countries found that rural women spend an average of six hours on domestic work, with washing clothes being one of the leading activities.
With at least 750 million of the poorest women and girls spending at least two tough hours washing clothes for their households, there is enormous scope to make the lives of these women lighter and less painstaking by improving laundry practices. Doing so would create opportunities for women to spend time on education, personal and family care, social activities and other personal interests.
Improving rural laundry would also be a key to better hygiene and dignity, especially for the low-income families with very few sets of clothes. This critical issue deserves more attention and action to help lift the burden of domestic work on women and girls and improve the quality of their lives.
This blog summarises the current laundry situation in five countries — India, Pakistan, Nepal, Uganda, and Ethiopia. It details the challenges and risks women face and highlights different tools and methods that can be promoted to reduce the burden of laundry, setting the stage for the transition to rural laundry.
Washing clothes is a critical but arduous task in rural communities across these countries. With limited resources, daily manual labour often results in heavily soiled clothes that must be washed by hand using local soap bars or powder. The process includes a pre-soaking stage, followed by manual wringing, with no tools available to ease the workload.
This physical strain, combined with harsh detergents that can cause skin irritation, exacerbates the challenge. People rely on traditional instruments like iron trays, stone slabs and metal barrels for hand-scrubbing to remove stains and dirt, using feet or sticks to assist the process. The use of brushes is limited.
Despite the physical demands, this traditional method is crucial in maintaining hygiene in areas with little clean clothing. The most commonly used washing products are small soap bars in local shops and some also opt for powdered or liquid detergents. In Ethiopia, some use locally derived soap from plant leaves and seeds.
The good news is that various tools can make laundry more manageable and time-efficient, improving cleanliness and hygiene, reducing the wear and tear of precious clothing and saving water. Moreover, they can be easily made locally.
These are not novel tools, as they have a history of widespread use in many countries. Yet this uptake is not enough and by promoting their use, we can make the life of many women around the world lighter. Some examples of such tools are a corrugated washing board, a plunger, a scrubber or brushes and small hand-operated washing machines:
Corrugated washing board: A washboard is designed for hand-washing clothing. A corrugated washing board can be made from wood, zinc, glass or plastic. The traditional washboard is usually constructed with a rectangular wooden frame in which a series of ridges or grooves are mounted for the clothing to be rubbed upon.
Wooden boards can be made locally. They make it possible to shrub wet clothes more effectively on the grooves, saving labour and preserving clothes and bed linen. The washboard can be placed inside the washing tub or equipped with a small tripod.
Plunger: A plunger or washing dolly is an effective and straightforward way to wash and clean clothes. It is commonly referred to as a ‘rapid laundry washer’ or ‘breathing mobile washer’ and is made of tin, rubber or wood.
The plunger is used inside the washing tub and moved up and down to agitate the laundry in the tub. Plunging it up and down forces the soap and water through clothes and linens. It is also labour-saving and a good alternative to washing machines.
Scrubber / brushes: A brush or a scrubber is a simple tool which helps remove dirt from clothes. Using strong, short flicks across the clothes ensures better and more effective cleaning.
Small hand-operated washing machine: This is a spinning machine with a handle, in which clothes are moved around with a small rudder inside the tub. It is an intermediate step towards a complete electric washing machine. While cost can be a concern about electric devices, hand-operated wooden machines with either a foot pedal or a handle are an excellent alternative which serves the same purpose as an electric washing machine.
Despite its huge demand for precious time and its impact on women’s health and hygiene, the need to improve the laundry process has been largely overlooked. Improving laundry situations should become part of WASH and water or gender projects implemented by governmental and non-governmental organisations.
Frank van Steenbergen is a designer of puzzles, a writer of books and the founder of MetaMeta (www.metameta.nl), a company devoted to making a change in the management of our water resources.
Rajeshwar Mishra is a social psychologist by training and development practitioner. He worked on several programs and perspectives in the field of ethical community engagement.
Meghna Mukherjee has a degree in economics and water governance. Her area of work lies at the intersection between water governance and gender, WASH practices, agricultural and livelihood development, local economy, and value chain analysis. She is currently working as a Program Manager in the Green Transformation Pathways project.
Femke van Woesik works as programme manager at MetaMeta Research and is based in the Netherlands. Her work focuses on managing and improving local climates to create conducive and resilient conditions for both ecology and agriculture.
Views expressed are the authors’ own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.
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