Counting women's invisible work

Helal Uddin Ahmed | Published: April 03, 2019 22:02:46

The household chores and work performed by women are considered to be part of the informal economy and therefore not visible in the calculation of gross domestic product or GDP of a country. At the Beijing Platform of Action for Women held in 1995, emphasis was laid on finding out a suitable statistical method for evaluating the household work of females and making it visible in official statistics. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG-5) also call for proper recognition of women's household chores at the family, social and national levels. But the reality is still quite different.

Domestic works are the tasks performed by women at home but not accorded recognition or attached economic value by society. These include rearing children, looking after the aged in the family, cooking, washing and housekeeping. Till now, these are all considered to be the responsibility of womenfolk alone, and the trend is similar almost everywhere in the globe.

As pointed out by UN Women, a United Nations entity working for the empowerment of women, "Womenfolk do 2.6 times more unpaid care and domestic work than men. While families, societies and economies depend on this work, for women it leads to lower earnings and less time to engage in non-work activities". In addition to a just and equitable distribution of economic resources that accelerates development in multiple areas, there needs to be a fair balance of responsibility for unpaid care-work between men and women.

According to the report titled 'Care Work and Care Jobs for the Future Decent Work' published by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) last year, women spend four times more time compared to males in domestic non-salaried work at home. According to ILO estimates (2019), 606 million working-age women (or 21.7 per cent) across the globe perform unpaid care-work on a full-time basis, compared to only 41 million (or 1.5 per cent) for men.  The ILO report also claims that the commonly held attitude towards the 'Male breadwinner family model' has not changed much over the years. 

The ILO report views care-work, both paid and unpaid, as being at the heart of humanity. Economies depend on care work to survive and thrive. Across the world, women and girls perform over three-quarters of the total amount of unpaid care work, and two-thirds of care workers are women. Demographic, socio-economic and environmental transformations usually increase the demand for care workers, who are often trapped in low-quality jobs. If not addressed properly, current deficits in care work and its quality will create a severe and unsustainable global care crisis and further exacerbate gender inequalities in the larger domain of work.

If we focus our attention on Bangladesh, the 2012 'Time Used Survey' of Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) divulged that among the workers aged over 15 years, the females spent an average of 3.60 hours per day on domestic work, while the males spent only 1.40 hours. In case of non-workers, the females spent 6.20 hours per day on an average, while the males spent a mere 1.20 hours for this kind of work. A study conducted in 2017 by Action Aid Bangladesh found that the average time spent by women of Gaibandha and Lalmonirhat districts in household care work per day was 7 hours 50 minutes, while the corresponding figure for males was 2 hours 37 minutes.

According to a joint study (2014) conducted by the NGOs 'Manusher Jonno Foundation' and the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), females performed over 12 unpaid tasks on an average per day, while this number was only 2.7 in case of males. But these tasks are not included in the GDP. Through application of shadow pricing, CPD has shown that the contribution of women to GDP would have risen to 40 per cent of GDP from the existing 25 per cent if the tasks currently excluded from the national income accounts were taken into consideration.

Unfortunately, no indicators have been specified for evaluating the domestic care work of women in the Seventh Five Year Plan (2016-20) of Bangladesh. Similarly, the National Sustainable Development Strategy has also avoided the subject. The National Action Plan-2013 for implementing the National Women's Development Policy-2011 did include the themes of according recognition to women's domestic work and its inclusion in GDP, but it did not propose any mechanism for its implementation. The conceptual framework of GDP needs to be re-evaluated for proper consideration of these productive pursuits.

In the culmination report (March 2019) titled 'A Quantum Leap for Gender Equality: For a Better Future of Work for All' published under the 'Women at Work Centenary Initiative' of the ILO that was launched in 2013, the global labour organisation points out that it was the unpaid part of women's work that holds them back. The report claims, "Looking back at the various gender gaps and the range of obstacles, the road consistently comes back to care. Social norms reinforce the roles of women as caregivers, men as breadwinners. Care needs must be addressed in an intentional and meaningful way - for both women and men - through laws, policies and services".

In our current social milieu, females still perform the largest share of unpaid care work, although males are increasingly aware of the need to share these tasks. There can be a radical shift in mindsets if the societies recognised that they not only depend on care work to survive and thrive, but care and work are also closely interlinked. Achieving a new equilibrium requires bold policies and measures that end violence, harassment and discrimination against women with the underpinning aim to better distribute care responsibilities across gender. Reliable gender-disaggregated data are essential to designing such policies and monitoring outcomes to establish what really works well for women.

Experts are almost unanimous in their view that the lack of recognition for women's domestic work has a negative impact on incidents of women's repression in households. Its formal recognition in GDP could go a long way in enhancing the prestige of women and in showing due honour and respect to the industrious and hard-working womenfolk across Bangladesh and the rest of the world. 


Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.



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