Redeeming Missed Opportunities from Women’s Unpaid Care, Domestic Work
Disturbingly, women's unpaid care efforts frequently go unnoticed or are completely ignored by the same society whose economy is built on their backs through their labour.
Increased involvement of women in policy-making and planning has been shown to improve women’s empowerment and rights and increase the effectiveness and uptake of broader government policies and services.
Each sunrise, care duties range from nursing babies to caring for the sick or elderly while simultaneously cooking, cleaning the house and washing clothes, ironing and fetching water or firewood. By sunset, women carers are left with no time or energy to dedicate to their own empowerment. Disturbingly, women’s unpaid care efforts often go unnoticed or are totally overlooked by the same society whose economy is built on their backs through their labour.
Grace, a 43-year-old stay-at-home mother of three, intimated how shouldering unpaid care duties posed a serious risk to her health.
“One day since we don’t have water at our place I dushed to fetch it a distance while carrying my 2-year-old daughter on my back since I had no one to leave her with as my husband was at work and I had taken my other 2 children to school. When I bent to carry my 20-litre jerrycan of water, I heard a crack followed by excruciating pain in my back. I don’t remember the details between the pain and waking up the following day. Those who saw me pass out from pain carried me home as we all know each other in my neighbourhood” she said. “After days of pain and failed attempts to walk unsupported, she finally accepted her only choice of using a wheelchair for movement. It has been 12 years!”
She tearfully added. But how could a back once so strong just give up on her when she was not even 50 years old yet? The answer is not rocket science; it’s just many years of wear and tears with no servicing (rest and self-care) at all. Currently, she mostly stays home but she still pulls herself to the kitchen and cooks, washes her husband’s clothes, irons while in her chair as her husband is occupied with his paid work and once at home he catches up with news, missed calls and wife’s delicious food. Most likely Grace feels she owes him service as he is the one providing for the family. Discussion for another day!
There is no doubt that the drudgery of unpaid care work has been perpetually fueled by male members of our societies. Not only do the majority of men consider unpaid care as petty work that belongs to women alone, but some also believe that women should be punished for failure to perform unpaid duties at home. In fact, a number of men and women think it is acceptable for a man to beat a woman if she fails to undertake unpaid work at home. This demonstrates the appalling link between socialised gender roles, including those related to the performance of unpaid care and gender-based violence.
Situations like Grace’s could be avoided by men and women sharing the burden of unpaid care and domestic work. There is also no doubt that if water points were available within her vicinity, Grace would have not had to walk long hours to fetch water and return with a heavy jerrycan full of water on her head and carrying a child on her back.
Loss at Individual Level
Apart from robbing women and girls of empowerment opportunities such as education, employment and entrepreneurship, unpaid care duties have been found to magnify health risks faced by women. Fifty-five percent (55%) of surveyed women reported that they had suffered from an injury, illness, disability or other physical or mental harm due to their unpaid care or domestic tasks. Grace’s story is just one of many others suffering a serious or incapacitating injury as a result of too much unpaid and domestic work. The fact that they were harmed by work that is not paid, and often goes unrecognised or taken for granted, complicates their situation. If these women had a choice and a bit of free time, they would spend it on income-generating activities (assuming they would be able to raise capital), learning useful skills, public participation or resting and general self-care.
There is another group of women who combine paid and unpaid work. Their daily schedule involves waking up very early to perhaps prepare breakfast for the family and in some cases even lunch for spouses or partners and school-going children. Then they wash dishes, clean the houses and iron some clothes before getting ready and rushing to work. Some mothers must drop their children off at school before heading to work. In the evening, they pick up kids from school, probably bathe them, and get them something to eat as they prepare dinner. In addition, even helping with homework becomes mama’s job. In a situation when someone in the family has physical or mental challenges, or when there is an elderly person in the close family, the caring work falls on the woman and girls in the family. When a child is unwell, the partner or even relatives, a big portion of the care burden falls on the woman. Once in the office, the female employee or businessperson is already tired and at a disadvantage position compared to some male colleagues whose only work is caring for themselves. Actually, not even fully care for themselves because many have a woman caring for them in terms of cooking, washing clothes and ironing for them, among other duties. Can we exhaustively talk about the unpaid work single mothers put in to raise children whose fathers thought they would be such a hindrance to their freedom and progress in life? Definitely not today!
Resultantly, many women miss out on promotions and leadership positions because of the amount of unpaid care they shoulder. In some companies, women are paid less than their male counterparts, thus making them miss out on opportunities they could pursue with a higher income such as pursuing further education, investing in projects with promising returns or meeting their other needs without constantly being in debt from always needing to borrow to meet basic needs like food, shelter, healthcare, education, etc. To complicate matters, men in leadership positions tend to look down on their female subordinates because they ignorantly assume office is the only worry on women’s minds thus dealing with them harshly when they struggle to work long hours or during weekends like some male colleagues.
Often than not, women also miss out on things they could do if they were not overwhelmed by domestic work like resting, leisure, participating in public debates or religious activities or even socialising, yet all these are within their rights. In most cases, women are overworked and under-recognised. No wonder there are rising cases of depression, substance abuse and suicide among girls and women.
Empowered women are able to take care of themselves, their families and their communities. Well-taken care of persons is generally healthy and able to work and contribute towards their own growth, that of their families and of communities and nations.
Loss at National and Continental Levels
Increased involvement of women in policy-making and planning has been shown to not only increase women’s empowerment and rights but also to increase the effectiveness and uptake of broader government policies and services. Unfortunately, women in decision-making processes are largely lacking as the majority spend most of their awake hours performing unpaid care and domestic work. This means countries miss out on economic and civic contributions that women would make if they were allowed to occupy meaningful paid or income-generating positions, thus living and contributing to their full potential.
If more women joined the workforce, business or politics, they would attract decent income and would pay taxes which is a crucial source of public revenue. These national resources should be ideally used to fund public services (healthcare, education, social security, infrastructure among others), and increase the overall growth of the country instead of over- borrowing through public debt that does not benefit people, namely women, girls, a person with disability among other vulnerable groups. Limiting women to only unpaid work means that governments miss out on national resources they would have mobilised from taxing these women if they were earning an income especially when they become high-net individuals.
How do we Move Forward?
Addressing the issue of missed opportunities by excluding a large number of women from economic and leadership opportunities should start with ensuring girls have space to study and focus on their revision and homework instead of spending their evenings and weekends cooking, washing dishes and cleaning after other family members. These young girls are the ones who will grow into professionals, solid entrepreneurs, influential politicians and leaders in various sphères instead of being good for only unpaid work.
Employers must be intentional in adhering to the gender balance so that both men and women can enjoy similar treatment during recruitment and beyond. This means equal pay and opportunity to rise in responsibilities and remuneration. The fact that women are generally burdened by unpaid care even when at work should remain in the mind of any leader who deserves that title. Basically, more still needs to be done to give all women the best possible opportunity of rising to the top. Moreover, opportunities to work remotely have proved to be beneficial to many women, as a whopping 81% of women who have the flexibility for working from home when they choose so and with a flexible arrangement of spreading their working hours, state they are happy with their work. They also say they are not burned out and they are not likely to leave their jobs for at least a year.
Moreover, microfinance institutions should support women who wish to venture into business, in case they are faced with capital challenges. Those in their circles need to offer a solid support system and help with unpaid care so they can have the mental space and energy to focus on growing their businesses. Also important, women must be confident and believe they are well able to rise beyond various limitations.
Improving political empowerment for women typically corresponds with increased numbers of women in senior roles in the labour market. There is, therefore, a need to take bold steps in levelling the ground for both women and men to participate in decision-making processes or to engage in income-generating activities in order to contribute towards reducing poverty and other vulnerabilities. Finally, national treasuries and departments of planning should work closely with the Ministries of labour and social protection to collaborate in steering the recognition of unpaid care in government planning and budgeting processes.