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I am every woman

Amitabh Behar | Updated on February 07, 2020 Published on February 06, 2020

Boxed in: An Oxfam study shows that women spend up to 14 hours a day doing unpaid care work

An Oxfam report reveals that women’s care work — paid and unpaid — is neither considered an economic activity nor reflected in measures of economic progress

Buchhu Devi gets up at 3am to clean and cook for the family. She walks 3km to collect water; there is a well nearby, but as a Dalit she is not allowed to use it. She works at a road construction site from 8am to 5pm. Once back home, she starts her household work — fetching fuelwood and water (she fetches water thrice a day), washing, cooking, cleaning the house and taking care of her children.

Her day ends at midnight.

This year, as Oxfam released its global inequality report Time To Care at the World Economic Forum at Davos, I narrated Buchhu Devi’s story to discuss the economic future of our world. Her story is that of millions of women in low-income developing countries. They spend up to 14 hours a day doing unpaid care work. It is five times the work that men do in these countries. She, like many others, is trapped in poverty and is often beaten by her husband. “I have no time, not even the time to die,” she says. “Who will look after the family and bring them money when I am gone?”

Care work includes looking after children and elderly people, as well as daily domestic work. This work has traditionally been seen as a ‘caregiver’ role, performed by a woman to support the ‘provider’ — the man of the family. It is a myth that we have moved beyond these stereotyped gender roles. On the contrary, women have assumed the dual role of a ‘caregiver’ and ‘provider’. Our study On Women’s Backs (on social norms and unpaid care work, published with Time to Care) shows that men continue to play the traditional role of a ‘provider’, refusing to share the load of the family work and failing to recognise the burden on women.

For women and girls across the world, inequality begins at home but continues at the workforce. Their weak position within the family and society gets mirrored in the sphere of formal labour. A 2018 report by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights found that of the 40-odd per cent of girls in the 15-18 age group who were out of school in India, almost 65 per cent was engaged in household work.

Women and girls are underpaid and employed in unskilled jobs as well as part-time or flexible jobs — which offer little social security. They are often concentrated in low-paying, care-giving jobs such as teaching, domestic work and healthcare and are paid less than a living wage. Women’s care work — paid and unpaid — is neither considered an economic activity nor reflected in measures of economic progress or national production.

At the top, men continue to grow in wealth and power regardless of whether the value they add to society in any way matches the wealth they accumulate. The total wealth of 63 billionaire men in India is more than India’s 2019 Union Budget. Women and girls in India put in 3.26 billion hours of unpaid care work every day — an annual contribution of ₹19 lakh crore to the Indian economy, 20 times India’s 2019 education budget of ₹93,000 crore.

Care work is the ‘hidden engine’ that keeps the wheels of our economies, businesses and societies moving. Urbanisation is also changing the context of care. For example, around 13.2 per cent of Delhi’s female workforce is employed as domestic helpers (according to an ILO study) and for nuclear families they have become the indispensable support system. However, their work is not recognised as skilled labour — it is not included in the Schedule of Employment in Delhi, and therefore not entitled to the minimum wage of the state.

While some states have taken steps by creating Welfare Boards and introducing minimum wages for domestic helpers, a large majority of these workers are outside the purview of labour laws. Despite putting in long hours of hard work, women workers are unable to make enough to survive. It would take a female domestic worker 22,277 years to earn what the CEO of a tech company makes in one year. With earnings pegged at ₹106 per second, the CEO would in 10 minutes make more than what the domestic worker would in a year.

The situation will worsen as climate-related shocks put pressure on us to deliver care for destabilised populations living in degrading living conditions. Women carers already living in poverty, in particular, will be exposed to greater poverty, vulnerability and violence, as well as the breakdown of social networks they rely on for support. In five years, up to 2.4 billion people worldwide could be living in areas subject to periods of intense water scarcity.

But change is possible. We must recognise unpaid and poorly paid care work as work of real value. It is the State’s responsibility to provide better access to affordable and quality time-saving devices and care-supporting infrastructure to help reduce the total number of hours spent on unpaid care. We must invest in redistributing unpaid care work more fairly within the household and simultaneously shifting its responsibility to the State and the private sector.

It is also equally important to ensure that most marginalised caregivers have a voice in the design and delivery of policies, services and systems that affect their lives. Our failure to fix a sexist economy would force women such as Buchhu Devi to walk longer distances to find water and work. And harder to survive.

Amitabh Behar is the CEO of Oxfam India

Published on February 06, 2020
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