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LABOUR: Women’s Household Chores Unpaid, Unrecognised

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 3 2009 (IPS) - The 1983 Hollywood comedy ‘Mr. Mom’ portrayed the story of a laid-off auto-worker reluctantly forced to play the role of a housewife and homemaker after losing his job.

But the tagline for the movie summed up the genesis of the male-female role-reversal on the homefront: “When mom goes to work, dad goes berserk.”

Do stay-at-home husbands know how to operate a vacuum cleaner or a dishwasher? Press clothes? Feed little kids or cart them to school?

Certainly some do. However, all of these household chores – including cooking, cleaning and the care of family members – are handled predominantly by women who are unremunerated for their productive work, complains the United Nations.

“In many parts of the world, work at household level also includes the collection of water and firewood, and can include food crop production and care of small livestock,” according to a new study released here.

In a 20-page report to the two-week session of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), which began Monday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says unpaid work at household level, including caregiving, remains “invisible and unmeasured”.

And more importantly, he points out, its contribution to economic and social development has not been adequately recognised and valued in economic terms despite being essential for the reproduction of the labour force and the well-being of societies.

He also says that gender inequality and discrimination contribute to the continuing imbalance in the division of labour between women and men and perpetuate stereotypic perceptions of men as breadwinners and women as caregivers.

“As a consequence, the potential of women and girls for participation in education and training, the labour market and the public sphere, is constrained.”

The Geneva-based International Labour Organisation (ILO) says that although the share of women in paid work has grown significantly in recent decades, with women having constituted 46.4 percent of the labour force in 2007, women continue to have a disproportionate responsibility for unpaid work in the household.

When hours in paid and unpaid work are combined, women tend to have longer working hours per week than men, and less time for leisure or sleep. In contrast, men typically spend more hours in paid work than women, according to ILO.

A 2008 project of the U.N. Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) – covering Argentina, India, Nicaragua, South Korea, South Africa and Tanzania – found the mean time spent by women in unpaid care work is more than twice the mean time spent by men.

In Latin America, over half of all non-employed women aged 20 to 24 cited their unpaid household work as the main reason they do not seek paid employment, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

While available data and statistics suggest that changes in men’s involvement in unpaid work, including domestic and care work, are slow, in some countries, including Canada and Denmark, men’s involvement in the care of their children and household responsibilities has grown.

Since 1996, Canada has included questions in its census on three unpaid work activities: housework, childcare and care for seniors.

Canada also conducts surveys that collect extensive detailed information on unpaid work. These surveys have been conducted four times: in 1986, 1992, 1998 and 2005, and will be repeated in 2010.

Meanwhile, addressing the opening session of CSW on Monday, the U.N.’s Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro said: “I take this opportunity to assure you that the secretary-general and I are strongly committed to gender equality, the empowerment of women and the important work of this Commission.”

She said she welcomed the CSW’s decision to focus on the equal sharing of responsibilities between women and men, including care-giving in the context of HIV and AIDS, as the priority theme for this session.

“Imbalances and inequalities in the sharing of responsibilities between women and men persist in both the private and public spheres, and in relation to both paid and unpaid work,” she said.

Most domestic and care work, for example, is done by women and girls in developed and developing countries alike, she added. As a result, women face restrictions in employment, education and training and in participation in public life.

And men are constrained in playing an active part in the lives of their families. Families, communities and society as a whole suffer the consequences.

She pointed out that the HIV and AIDS pandemic has illustrated clearly that a range of stakeholders including the state, private sector and civil society must play a role in caring for people. This is an urgent task that requires a comprehensive approach.

“First, we must recognise unpaid work and caregiving carried out at the household and community level, and value its contribution to social and economic development. This requires improved measurement of such work in national accounts,” Migiro said. “Second, we need to reduce the burden in terms of both time and the work itself – of domestic and care responsibilities.”

This involves investing in quality and affordable care services for children, the elderly, the sick and people living with disabilities. It also requires improving access to public infrastructure such as transportation, water, sanitation and energy.

“Third, we must address the significant responsibilities faced by women and girls during home-based care in the context of HIV and AIDS, and find ways to strengthen the role of men,” Migiro said.

“Fourth, we should adopt and implement legislation and policies that will promote reconciliation of work and family responsibilities for both women and men.”

This includes closing the gap in pay, increasing flexibility in working arrangements, providing better leave provisions, and increasing the degree to which men take advantage of these provisions.

“We must also develop innovative ways to eliminate gender stereotypes about the roles of women and men, beginning at an early age in homes, schools and communities, and engaging leaders in all walks of life”, she added.

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