The women around us are exhausted taking care of the people around them! They are exhausted from routine household chores like cooking, cleaning, and caring for their families.
According to Oxfam’s 2020 Time to Care report, women do more than three-quarters of unpaid care work and make up two-thirds of the underpaid/paid care workforce. On this Women’s Day, we must collectively commit to addressing care work.
Why do women care? Women are socially conditioned to aspire to care work. They face an interesting and often conflicting mix of emotions; a feeling of love towards their family, balanced with the idea of duty or responsibility. Some women, often married, assume an additional burden due to family pressures. Care work, even paid, is grossly underpaid. Just think how much our housekeeper gets paid.
On this Women’s Day, it is essential that we shine a light on care, because the unequal and gendered distribution of care responsibilities keeps women behind. This directly contributes to their drudgery, fatigue and poor health. This prevents them from seeking formal paid employment, thus limiting their access to money. It also restricts the type of jobs available to women and also leaves women and girls time poor; they are often unable to meet their basic needs.
Care work is largely invisible. Work is simply taken for granted. We must collectively recognize two things around care – one being that it is largely undertaken by women, and the other that care work is inherently valuable to societies. The unrecognized work of women is what makes societies and economies work. Without home support, breadwinners cannot go out and earn money. Over the years, terminology has also moved away from burden of care; Care work becomes a burden when undertaken by a privileged few, it has intrinsic value in itself.
Women lead economies with cheap and free labour. Oxfam has calculated that women’s unpaid care work alone adds value to the economy of at least $10.8 trillion a year. Our economy would be paralyzed without the unwavering support of women. We must, as a system, reward care work; it is both monetary and otherwise. Paid care needs to be paid higher than a living wage to advance the idea that care work is inherently valuable to societies.
During the fieldwork that my colleagues and I conducted on unpacking the nexus between care and climate change, we discovered that the burden of care for women in Badin has increased so much due to rising temperatures that their girls have to take care of household chores. Girls eventually drop out of school and become fully committed to running the household. Thus, a generational cycle of poverty and drudgery continues. There are many other stories where women are unable to fulfill their potential or pursue their passions due to household responsibilities.
We need to reduce the time and effort spent on care work. This can include investing in efficient technologies like washing machines, stoves. In Badin, for example, the women spent hours fetching water. A simple contraption like hippo rolls can make their lives a whole lot easier.
We must work on the redistribution of care. Household chores can be shared more evenly between men and women. The marketing of household goods can still be reoriented to favor this redistribution. Recent ads from major brands are already promoting positive messages about it.
Caregivers must be involved in decision-making to achieve care-sensitive outcomes. Domains are quite rigid; men are the decision-makers and providers while women are the nurturers. Added to these cultural notions is the fact that women do not have the time, energy or means to organize on this issue either. Because we are socialized from childhood around the idea that women were caregivers, there is also the concern of who are we organizing against. Ideas around care are rooted in traditional family structures. Are we organizing against our families or even against ourselves? This often prevents women from asking for help and speaking out.
I started my fieldwork with the feeling that care work limits women’s chances in life. However, women shared that they love care work; they may enjoy taking care of their children and loved ones. It is therefore possible to enjoy care work while seeing it limit one’s opportunities. It is and always will be an uncomfortable conversation for women.
We all have a role to play in providing care, from families to workplaces to policy makers. We need more welcoming and empathetic workplaces. Women are still unable to fully escape household chores and often face a double burden. Workplaces should promote policies that include child care, flexible and reduced working hours, care leave. We need policies that reward and help place greater value on care work. This could include legislation to protect the wages of domestic workers.
We need consumer goods that can reduce the time and effort spent on care. Oxfam’s recent work on developing a set of principles of care can really inform organizational strategy in this regard. We need family conversations and support that can distribute caregiving responsibilities fairly among everyone. We need caregivers involved in key policy and program decisions. Care work needs to be seen across its continuum and we need systems that work for everyone.
The author is a political engagement adviser at Oxfam. She has experience in resilience and disaster risk reduction, care work, women’s economic empowerment and building citizen voice and accountability.