Unpaid care: The economic ball and chain that's holding women back


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Traditions and gender-insensitive policies burden women with hard work that doesn’t pay

Wednesday March 18 2020

Expensive and inaccessible public services and infrastructure shackling women to unpaid care and domestic work stand in Kenya’s way to achieving its development goals, warns Oxfam.

“Inadequate water systems, fuel and cooking facilities result in women and girls having to make long and backbreaking daily trips to collect water and firewood, while under-funded health services mean they must walk miles to get medical care for their family,” notes Oxfam's policy brief released today.

The statement draws on research and programming experience from Oxfam’s Women’s Economic Empowerment and Care (WE-Care) initiative in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

Another tragedy, the statement observes, is that such free labour, “without which our economies would collapse”, accounts for $10 trillion of global output annually (roughly equivalent to 13 percent of global GDP) but is never in official GDP calculations and remains largely absent from government policies.

This comes at a time Kenya’s Gender Gap Index depicts a decline in the promotion of equal opportunities for men and women. The country scored 0.67 out of one last year, down from 0.73 in 2014, occasioning a drop of 72 places in the world ranking from 37 to 109 out of 153 countries, the lowest in a decade. The score, which is seriously steeped against girls and women, places Kenya at number 20 out of 33 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

As African leaders, including President Uhuru Kenyatta, congregate for the 33rd Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the Heads of State and Government of the African Union next week (February 9 -10), Oxfam will be pitching tent in Addis Ababa to lobby them to make women’s work count.

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Among the millions of African women whose message will be carried to the summit is Jane Muthoni, a 53-year-old community health volunteer in Kawangware slum in Nairobi, who despite her dexterity in juggling between family chores and other responsibilities and interests believes that women deserve a better deal. “There is this time I felt like my system was going to shut. When I went to the hospital the doctor told me I was not sick but had to take a rest or I would collapse and die,” she tells Nation Newsplex, referring to a near-fatal experience of burnout.

The mother of two boys wakes up at 4.45am to prepare breakfast and help her husband and their 12-year-old last-born get ready for work and school, respectively. It is after they have finished and left the house by 7am that she prepares herself and sets out to meet colleagues in the field where they help an NGO mobilise people for HIV counselling and testing.

Jane falls among the seven in 10 community health workers in sub-Saharan Africa that are women. Most are young, and a half of them have only primary education. The vast majority are unpaid, 43 percent receive non-monetary incentives and 23 percent receive a stipend.

After spending the day criss-crossing the unforgiving terrain of the sprawling slum, Jane drags herself back home to attend to another line-up of responsibilities – what her community considers the essence of her womanhood. She prepares supper, washes and irons clothes and cleans utensils. Then when she is supposed to call it a day like the other members of the family, she stays behind and gets engrossed in her beadwork, which is her main source of income.

“Sometimes I stay very late into the night. There is this time I had a large order of 30 pieces of beaded bags and had to work till 3am for five days,” she says. She markets her merchandise online and has shipped goods to customers in the US and Europe.

Women small-scale traders in Nairobi’s slums spend 49 hours a week making goods for sale, compared with 53 hours spent by male colleagues, according to Women and Unpaid Care work: Rapid Care Work Analysis in Nairobi Informal Settlements, a study published late last year by Oxfam. This suggests that they have less spare time to fully deploy their skills and talents to earn money. In fact, the report notes that women put in 65 man-hours into unpaid care in a week, more than double that spent by male colleagues (29), and have 36 rest hours, 13 less than their male colleagues’ 49.

Repugnant cultural beliefs and practices have continued to perpetuate gender imbalance in the global unpaid care sector, with Africa being the capital of such inequality. In another survey conducted last year by Oxfam in Nairobi’s slums, almost a half of the men had never seen a man cook, three in five had not seen a man clean the house and seven out of 10 had not seen a man wash clothes.

Queer behaviour

When Jane’s husband of 23 years, Joseph Changawa, recently began to chip into her bid work and house chores, even some of his closest friends could not accommodate his ‘queer’ behaviour. “When they visited, they would not understand why it was me preparing for them tea while my wife ‘played with beads’ all the while,” he says as his wife looks on adoringly. Soon, he became the laughing stock of the community and even lost a few friends. However, he is happy that by sharing work the family now makes more money and is also able to inspire other spouses to join hands.

Pervasive inequality in unpaid care and domestic work is also reflected in wage employment, where, in Kenya, women earn Sh68 for every Sh100 paid to men, according to The Global Gender Report 2017.

Many years of women working more than men but earning less or nothing, as in the case of unpaid care, turn them into the global face of poverty. A report released by Oxfam last month ahead of the World Economic Forum in Davos revealed that the 22 richest men in the world have more wealth than all the women in Africa.

Even as a few men like Joseph attempt to lead the male folk into a new chapter where the burden of unpaid care is shouldered equally between men and women, investing in care-supporting infrastructure and services would significantly reduce the burden and spur economic development, according to Oxfam.

In one of its studies, 43 percent of households in Kitui County that acquired improved cooking stoves used the time women would spend collecting firewood on other economically productive work.

The government should, among other things, invest national time-use data for policy formulation and factor in unpaid care and domestic work in budgets and development programmes.