Women’s unpaid care work makes them more vulnerable to poverty, violence: Oxfam

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), women and girls globally do over 3/4th of the total unpaid care work globally, and 2/3rd of care workers are women.
Women’s unpaid care work makes them more vulnerable to poverty, violence: Oxfam
Women’s unpaid care work makes them more vulnerable to poverty, violence: Oxfam
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In most households, it is considered ‘natural’ for women to look after the home, children, and family, even if they hold paid jobs. There isn’t a similar expectation from men. Women are taken for granted to perform these tasks as “acts of love”, ignoring the physical, mental and emotional effort that these require.

This is part of unpaid care work that women world over are expected to do. It is defined as “all unremunerated services provided for the members comprising a household, which includes housework and taking care of dependents such as children, the sick or the elderly to ensure well-being, protection, and maintenance.”

Oxfam, which released its ‘Time to Care’ report on Monday, found that globally, women carry out 12.5 billion hours of unpaid care work every day. This is equivalent to 1.5 billion people working for eight hours a day, without wages.

And when women’s paid and unpaid work is considered together, it is equivalent to six weeks of full-time work more than men. The value of women and girls’ unpaid care is also $10.8 trillion annually, which is thrice the size of the world’s tech industry.

The disproportionate burden of care work on women plays a significant role in furthering gender inequality and gender pay gap, making women more vulnerable to poverty and violence, affecting mental and physical health, the report says.

Reinforcing gender inequality

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), women and girls globally do over 3/4th of the total unpaid care work globally, and 2/3rd of care workers are women.

In India, women every day spend over nine times more time on average on unpaid care work than men - 297 minutes compared to 31 minutes spent by men. These numbers increase in urban areas – an average 312 minutes for women per day, and 29 minutes per day for men. In rural areas, women spend a mean of 291 minutes a day, compared to 32 minutes by men.

This time spent by women on care work furthers gender inequality, as well as affects the number of women in education, and paid workforce. While men take on household works that fits into their work schedules, women usually don’t have the choice of not doing housework even if there are constraints. This affects women’s ability to join the paid workforce – they can only take up jobs that they can handle along with their housework.

“Gender parity in the workforce, as estimated by McKinsey Global Institute, could see India boost its GDP by as much US$700 billion by 2025 or 1.4% per year of incremental growth if the FLFPR (female labour force participation rate) is raised by 10% points or 68 million women,” the report states.

The numbers vary depending on the socioeconomic background of the women as well. An example given in the report recounts the experience of a Dalit woman, Buchhu Devi (not her real name), who wakes up at 3 am to cook for her family, before walking three kilometres to fetch water thrice a day. Because of her caste, she isn’t allowed to use the well nearby. She then works as a daily wage labourer, ending her day at midnight.

Further, domestic workers, who are mostly poor women, do a majority of the care work for others as well as at their own homes. “It is estimated that globally, the 3.4 million domestic workers in forced labour are being robbed of $8 billion every year, equating to 60% of their due wages,” the report says.

Vulnerability to violence and poverty

The innate expectation of care work from women legitimises violence against them if they fail to perform.  Bucchu Devi, for instance, says, “I have no time, not even time to die for they will all curse… who will look after them and bring money to the family when I’m gone?” Indeed, the report says that if Bucchu Devi fails to fetch wood for fuel, and the family cannot eat, she is beaten up by her husband.

Oxfam India’s household care survey with 1,1,07 respondents done in four states in 2019 – Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh – found that 42.2% women who failed to fetch water or firewood for their home, and 41.2% of the women who failed to cook meals for the family, were physically beaten. 65% and 68% of them were harshly criticised for the same reasons respectively.

The numbers were alarming for other things too – 24.3% women were beaten for disobeying a man in the family, 26.3% for spending money without permission, 36.2% and 33% were beaten for leaving a dependent or ill adult unattended and failing to care for a child respectively.

The report also refers to ‘time poverty’, which is the “reduced ability of individuals to make choices on how they allocate their time.” And because unpaid care work is performed mostly by women, it reduces the amount of time they could have potentially spent on education, vocational skill-building, paid work, or even leisure time.

In India, the only survey which has some data on the women affected by time poverty was done in 1998-99 by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Oxfam says. It covered six states and “showed that women had less time to sleep, eat, drink, further personal hygiene or exercise than men. Women from poorest households had 10 fewer hours of personal time each week than men in same economic category.”

Absolving the state of its responsibilities

Unpaid care work being done majorly by women “absolves the state of its responsibilities as many activities focused on basic provisioning and care should be an administrative and not a personal burden. These include taking care of the elderly and the infirm and providing or looking after the health, nutrition and education of children,” the report states. The unpaid care work by women and girls fills infrastructural gaps of the state – such as providing clean drinking water, fuel wood, health and care services and schemes for the elderly and sick and so on.

Oxfam also argues that the economic system today is rooted in sexism – while the super-rich are mostly men, 12.5 billion hours of work put in by women globally every day is practically unacknowledged, invisible and unremunerated. “This inequality is set to continue for generations: if current trends in the gendered distribution of care work continue, it will take 210 years for unpaid care work to be equally shared between men and women,” the report says.

“In this economic system, governments continue to under-tax the rich at the expense of the poor, particularly women from socially disadvantaged groups, who continue to suffer from reduced incomes, greater time poverty and heavy and unequal levels of invisible and unpaid labour,” it adds.

In this light, the report recommends policy decisions, such as better taxation systems to make wealth distribution more equitable, among other things.

In the Indian context, it is recommended that the government make care a universal right through a holistic social protection plan involving state governments and community participation; provide drinking water and fuel for the needy so that the burden of long distance travel is reduced, improve implementation of central schemes, and increase paternity leave.

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