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Valuing Women’s Unpaid Work

Shaheen Anam, is Executive Director, Manusher Jonno Foundation

Credit: MJF

DHAKA, Bangladesh, Mar 2 2017 (IPS) - Women’s work remains unaccounted for even though the issue of unpaid work carried out by women is being discussed globally at the policy, academic as well as practitioners’ levels.

Defined as “unpaid care work,” this includes taking care of children, elderly and the sick, cooking and cleaning, plus agricultural activities such as preservation of seeds, thrashing and drying paddy, poultry and cattle rearing, etc.

These discussions are yet to translate into policy changes, leaving most of what women do uncounted and outside the realm of national statistics or GDP of all countries in the world. Economists have not been able to come up with an alternative calculation of the System of National Accounts (SNA) which is determined globally.

This has led to the non-recognition of the work of a vast majority of women around the world, ultimately resulting in their devaluation, lower status discrimination and often violence.

The undervaluation of women’s work is a global phenomenon. Research shows that women produce 60-80 percent of basic foodstuffs in sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean and perform over 50 percent of the labor involved in intensive rice cultivation in Asia.

Women head 60 percent of households in some regions of Africa and meet 90 percent of household water and fuel needs. They also process 100 percent of basic household foodstuffs. However, in spite of these statistics, 500 million women in the world live below the poverty line in rural areas.

Shaheen Anam

Shaheen Anam


The progress that women in Bangladesh have made in the last 20 years is well known now. Besides an increase in labor force employment, they have made substantive gains in political and social participation. Today there are far more options available to women than ever before as they venture into non-traditional careers such as police, peacekeeping or even flying fighter jets.

The success of Bangladesh in meeting the MDG goals of education and health is proof of the strides women have made. However, having said that, women’s decision-making ability is severely constrained by traditions, norms and customs, leaving millions of women disempowered.

Women continue to face discrimination and violence in their private and public lives. The BBS study in 2015 reported that 72 percent of women experience some form of violence, while 49.6 percent face physical violence by their spouse or close relatives. 52 percent (UNICEF) of girls are married before the age of 17 or 18. According to a report by the human rights group Ain O Shalish, a total of 671 girls and women were raped and 191 were murdered by their husband or relatives from January 20 to November, 2016.

It is a matter of great concern that in a country with women leaders in top positions since 1991 has not been able to reduce violence and discrimination against them. Women continue to be perceived and treated as per patriarchal norms and values which dictate their roles and responsibilities.

In spite of the gains women have made, the attitude of society by and large has not changed. Even today, the birth of a girl brings less joy than the birth of a boy. Families continue to hold onto the traditional belief that it is the male child who will grow up and take care of them when they are old.

However, the truth is that daughters and sisters are leaving homes in the thousands and getting employed in the garment sector and sending back their hard-earned salaries to support families all over Bangladesh.

While violence and discrimination are symptoms, the issue revolves around the status and dignity of women. Unfortunately, the bitter truth is women have lower status in Bangladeshi homes and society. Their lower status results in violence and discrimination against them. On the other hand, this lower status is due to the persistent perception of women being weak, dependent, unreliable, non-productive — and the list goes on and on.

What is needed is a fundamental change in the way women are perceived. This can happen through sustained campaigns and education to change negative attitudes and perceptions about women. Women’s contributions to families and society should be highlighted and their work in all its dimensions, both paid and unpaid, brought to the attention of families, society and policy makers.

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030” .The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) will also discuss this theme this year.

This means “work” should be redefined to include the work of women, both productive and reproductive, paid and unpaid. If we are serious about the economic empowerment of all women, then their work in all its dimensions has to be recognized, evaluated and accounted for. Unless that happens, the economic empowerment of women will remain just a dream.

This article is part of a series of stories and op-eds launched by IPS on the occasion of this year’s International Women’s Day on March 8.

 
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