There is much more to women’s empowerment than paid work
Women hold up half the sky -- that is part of a proclamation made by Mao Zedong, which means that women make up half of everything, both in the family and economy. The subject of women’s economic empowerment has gained significant traction in Bangladesh in recent years.
Government and NGO-driven market system interventions are well into recognizing the important role that women play in labour markets.
Consequently, the road to women’s empowerment in Bangladesh has been narrowly focused, above others, on women’s participation in paid work, and this is reflected in both policies as well as financial investment on women’s access to training, business development, marketing, and finance.
Undoubtedly, such policy frameworks have certain positive outcomes in terms of women’s economic engagement -- an increase in female labour force participation in Bangladesh from 16.2 million in 2010 to 18.6 million in 2016-17 (World Economic Forum).
However, this engagement has failed to translate into more holistic outcomes of economic empowerment for women.
The reason is the economic empowerment of women is defined not only in terms of increased access to paid work and resources, but also improvements in specific outcomes such as enhanced wellbeing, dignity, and better work-life balance.
To work in dignity is a basic right for women, but despite all the progress, women’s labour, especially domestic labour, remains critically under-valued.
The much-touted increase in women’s labour force participation has come about without any corresponding reduction or redistribution of their domestic care work responsibilities, which has led to the creation of a “double-burden” for them.
Women’s domestic labour -- a social good and valuable activity that is essential for society’s well-being -- is feminized, unpaid, and unrecognized. It is neither included in labour force surveys nor calculated in GDP. It is therefore invisible in representations of the economy that inform policy-making.
Thus, it remains a major source of vulnerability and exploitation for poor women. Unpaid care work often occupies most waking hours of able-bodied women and girls of low-income families as their ability to purchase care is limited.
Although many women feel empowered and derive satisfaction from these responsibilities, nevertheless, it becomes a form of grave social injustice when it is mostly invisible, highly unequal, and an extremely heavy burden on women and girls alone.
A report published by Oxfam in 2015 found that poor women’s hours of care work as a primary activity were 4 to 7.6 hours a day, and hours that women reported having some care responsibility averaged 10-13 hours per day.
This time-poverty of women and girls directly affects their economic, political, and social activities. It stunts their agency, curtails their access to education, information and opportunities, impedes their mobility and bodily integrity, and reduces the time and energy they have available for paid work.
This results in poor women and girls being confined to underpaid, home-based, insecure jobs, thereby, perpetuating their unequal status in society. Case in point is the RMG sector in Bangladesh.
According to a recent survey of the Centre for Policy Dialogue, though women make up 60% of the workforce in the RMG sector, only 0.5% of them are in managerial positions.
This study also explored the skill level comparison between males and females in RMG industries in terms of knowledge of using machines and found that compared to male workers, female workers are proportionately less knowledgeable about operating different machinery.
The study points to social, psychological, and cultural barriers as contributors to such skill and position gaps, and other studies have found that domestic care work responsibilities of women strongly influence all three factors.
A complex host systemic factors affect women’s domestic labour, their ability to access decent work opportunities, and simply live lives of dignity.
At the root of the issue is the reality of macro-economic policies -- lack of quality public services and infrastructure that effectively erect structural barriers to social and economic rights while exploiting women’s paid and unpaid labour.
The policies to a large extent are informed by patriarchal social norms around the gendered division of work and responsibilities.
By 2030, SDG indicator 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 and the family, as nationally appropriate.
The indicator squarely puts the onus of action on the government, with support from other development actors. Existing policies, regulations, and institutions are not designed to meet this goal.
There is a critical need to reorient macro-economic frameworks to address social development imperatives around gendered divisions of labour.
Policies need to be informed by strong data regarding women’s diverse social and economic circumstances so that budgets are designed to meet the needs of women and girls from all sections of the economic strata.
Gender-responsive public services are a critical component of reducing care work inequality. Public service delivery should be better, cheaper, more equitable, and should address the unfair social organization of care.
They should reduce and redistribute the share of care and domestic work and improve the environment in which care work occurs.
The latter should include the expansion of social transfers such as minimum wage, maternity entitlements, pensions, public health, and increased investment in infrastructure and basic social services such as water, sanitation, electricity, and energy.
The traditional private businesses which employ women and the growing social enterprise sector have important roles to play here both in terms of financing as well as in delivering and managing these services.
A public-private mix of care services would require adequate state regulations. Interventions should also engage with communities to shift negative social norms around the gendered division of care work responsibility through government-sponsored and directed information campaigns.
Most importantly, women must be involved in the formulation of the social policies in order to enable them to influence the wider policy, regulatory, and institutional environment that shapes, protects, and advances their rights and livelihoods.
Finally, care needs to be made more visible in statistics and public debates. To increase policy support for women’s unpaid care work responsibilities, care must transcend the private sphere, and become a public policy issue with regular monitoring of policy effectiveness in reducing and redistributing unpaid domestic labour.
Increased access to paid work without the ability to influence broader external factors will not necessarily translate into just and dignified lives for women. The focus on economic justice for women needs to position women’s care work within the conceptions of social justice.
Social justice theorists should focus on the material, psychological, and gendered aspects of care and the relations between considerations of care and justice in the context of women’s exploitation.
It is time to recognize that the principles of justice have an important place in an acceptable ethic of women’s care work, right, and equality.
Pushpita Saha is working as the Program Quality Coordinator for Oxfam in Bangladesh.