“What does she do?” “Nothing – she's a housewife.” This is a response that is all too common in Bangladeshi households. But do women who stay at home really do nothing?
Household chores such as cooking, cleaning, caring for children, school duty, caring for the elderly, etc all count as unpaid work that does not fall within the organised market economy, and thus do not get counted in the national income.
Since these chores are not considered ‘real work’, it exacerbates women’s time poverty, limiting their ability to participate in economic, political and social activities, studies by different private organisations have found.
This also perpetuates cycles of dependency (mostly on male members of the family), reinforcing gender inequality and violence against women and keeping women disproportionately tied to conditions of poverty.
Dissatisfied with the situation, development sector experts, researchers and private sector stakeholders who work with the issue, said lack of initiatives to evaluate, accept and redistribute women’s work in the policies and regulations of the country make it very difficult to empower women in our society.
The economics of unpaid work
According to a study titled “Incorporation of Women’s Economic Empowerment and Unpaid Care Work into regional polices: South Asia”, released in December 2017 by ActionAid Bangladesh, women in Bangladesh spend over six hours a day doing unpaid care work while their male counterparts spend just over an hour on such activities.
On average, women spend 6.3 hours on unpaid care work each day, out of a total work time of 15.3 hours, which is 41.4 percent of their total work time. On the other hand, men spend a mere seven percent of their total work time on it.
According to ActionAid Bangladesh Country Director Farah Kabir, women will be able to earn more if men and women equally participated in household work.
“The patterns indicate that women have been contributing more to paid work than before but much of their effort remains unnoticed due to the gender-based pay scale.”
“We do not respect the work of the household and it is assumed that it is the work of women. If we really want to bring positive change in terms of gender equality at home, we should recognise women’s unpaid care work with relevant policies,” she added.
The discussion around unpaid care work has been revitalised because of its role in the Sustainable Development Goals, where section 5.4 aims to “recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies, and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household.”
Another study jointly done by Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) and Manusher Jonno Foundation, released in 2014, says if household work was paid, the additional value would be equivalent to 76.8 to 87.2percent of that fiscal year’s GDP (2013-14).
According to CPD Research Fellow Towfiqul Islam Khan, the amount would stand at over threefold of the volume of other paid work done by women.
“There is a need for increasing male participation in household chores, and also increase of female participation for formal paid work to develop the scenario.”
He also suggested the government should include this unpaid care work withina ‘Satellite Account Policy’, as done by many countries, for payment of unpaid care work.
What do our policies say?
Despite being so important, the issue remains neglected in community, national or regional government levels. Relevant government laws and policies like National Women Development Policy 2011, National Labour Policy 2012, National Skills Development Policy 2011, or the Domestic Worker Protection and Welfare Policy do not have any provision on recognising unpaid care work.
“When women at the grassroots enter into wage-based labour, they have to deal with double tasks. They have to face the challenges of coordinating between household chores, service of children and adults, and wage labour responsibilities,” said Simeen Mahmud of BRAC Institute of Governance and Development.
“As women work more than men, they face unequal pressures of work which creates a backlash economically, socially and politically,” she added.
However, according to Meher Afroz Chumki, State Minister for Women and Children Affairs, it would be really difficult to ensure payment for unpaid care work, and other avenues need to be pursued instead.
“We are working to build awareness so that men are also motivated to take part in care work. Alongside that, we are trying to involve these women in various paid jobs, so that if they choose, they can earn a salary from home. We have started an income generating project that will give 20 million women training in 18 different trades.”
She also added how the Ministry is working to establish daycare centres at workplaces, and has already built 98 of them.
“We are also trying to formalise some of this care work, so that services for children, cooking, cleaning etc can eventually become paid work. We are trying to create a policy on this, so that when women start earning from this care work, she will also have a level of financial independence and have a greater voice within the household.”