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ARGENTINA: Inequality for Women Begins at Home

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Aug 8 2007 (IPS) - For the first time, a woman is the favourite to win presidential elections in Argentina, but gender equity in the home is lagging way behind. A government study indicates that seven out of 10 men do not help with the housework.

“In every country, even Scandinavian ones, the core at the heart of gender inequality is responsibility for domestic work, and Argentina is no exception,” sociologist Eleonor Faur, consultant on women’s issues for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), told IPS.

“The difference is that more developed countries have strong, specific state policies to gradually change gender stereotypes,” she said. For example, they have generous maternity and paternity leave for mothers and fathers, public daycare provision and all-day schooling.

However, in Argentina “the model of the man being the breadwinner and the woman being in charge of the home is solidly rooted in tradition, and is fed by social, economic, political and cultural structures,” Faur said. And unless there are changes at the public policy level, it will be difficult to make progress in the private sphere, she said.

One of the main instruments for transferring state resources to vulnerable sectors is the Family Programme for Social Inclusion, which provides for mothers of young children who are unable to work outside the home. “This tends to reinforce inequality in the distribution of responsibilities,” the expert said.

According to the household survey carried out by the National Statistics and Census Institute (INDEC), seven out of 10 men living in Buenos Aires admit that they do not participate in domestic work – cleaning the house, preparing food and in some cases caring for children or the elderly.

Men’s lack of commitment to these responsibilities contrasts with the widespread public image of Argentina in recent weeks, showing Senator Cristina Fernández, President Néstor Kirchner’s wife, way ahead in the voting intention polls for the October elections, and on tour in Spain and Mexico.

Statistics on how household work is distributed were gathered for the first time in the household survey for 2006, and were included in the Argentine chapter of the International Labour Organisation (ILO)’s Global Report 2007: Equality at Work. But this information has not reached a wide audience because the information is only available by subscription.

Faur said she did not know why INDEC had included the question about domestic work in their questionnaire, but she said it was an important decision because it gives visibility to the unpaid work women do in the home.

“It’s a step forward, at least conceptually, because the fact that women are more active in the labour force doesn’t mean that the burden of responsibility for household tasks is shared more equally,” the sociologist said.

In Faur’s view, women have been able to arrive at positions of political power partly because a quota law forced political parties to put women candidates forward for elected posts. “But without proactive policies aimed at changing things within the home, it is unlikely that matters will progress under their own steam,” she said.

Argentine women’s participation in the labour market has increased sharply, although not always for the best reasons. In some cases this was due to access to higher levels of education, but in others, women went to work because of the economic crises, and had to take informal or precarious jobs.

In 1980, the employment rate for women over 14 years old was 32 percent. By 2001, the last year for which INDEC has figures, it had climbed to 42 percent. However, studies show that women spend an average of two hours a day more than men on housekeeping tasks, even though they are going out to work as well as the men.

“Reproductive work” – the repetitive household tasks necessary for survival – is not included in national accounting systems. However, the Equis polling firm estimated that if women who wash clothes, iron, cook and carry out the rest of the household tasks were paid, they would contribute 16 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).

In addition, nearly 15 percent of wage-earning women work as domestics, especially in households where the woman is employed outside the home.

Lawmaker Marcela Rodríguez of the centre-left Alternative for a Republic of Equals (ARI), which is also fielding a female candidate in the presidential elections, proposed a reform to the civil code in late 2006: that the marriage law should include a commitment to shared responsibility for household duties.

But not only did the draft law not succeed, it triggered a flood of mockery, prejudice and criticism from the media, interviewers as well as interviewees. Distinguished journalist Magdalena Ruiz Guiñazú, well-known for her career in radio, called on Deputy Rodríguez to leave such “nonsense” aside, and legislate on “important issues.”

“What progress is there to speak of? I don’t see any progress,” Ana von Rebeur, writer and cartoonist, told IPS. She is the author of “Superpoderosas: Madres, esposas y laburantes” (Superwomen: Mothers, Wives and Workers) among many other books in which she addresses with irony and humour the travails of women who choose to be mothers while continuing to develop other aspects of their lives.

“Women who work all day depend on the slavery of another woman who does the housework for them, so I don’t see where progress comes into it,” she said. In von Rebeur’s view, domestic chores are thankless tasks. “They’re unpaid, they don’t give you the chance to shine socially, they’re not a topic of conversation, and as soon as they’re over, they’re ruined (and you start again).”

It is hard to break the stereotype, and even harder if it is socially endorsed, she said. “It’s branded on our collective imagination. Look at a toy store, where there are miniature pink irons, stoves, and vacuum cleaners,” she said, or look at the advertisements of women surrounded by detergents and washing powders.

Many women who work outside the home say that the men they appreciate most in relation to family life are those who “share” domestic work, or who “help out” with the children, but such a vague way of referring to examples of men taking on more domestic responsibilities is not sufficient for experts.

The idea of the “new man” who lovingly changes nappies “is a new gender myth. It happens only with some men, in some families, and not all the time or everywhere,” said Faur in a report on gender and human rights she co-authored with Natalia Gherardi.

“Men subtly put over the idea that domestic chores are women’s work with that dreadful phrase: ‘I help out at home.’ What would happen if a woman said: ‘I help out at home?’” said von Rebeur. “People would say, ‘Poor husband!’ or ‘How terrible, what a state her house or her kids must be in!’” she said, answering her own question.

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