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Unpaid Care Work in Development: Women Investing in Silence

Updated: Jan 15, 2020

Written in the author's personal capacity.

A well-grounded argument for gender equality and sustainable development resides in the creation of equality of opportunity for men and women. This reinforces the need to level the playing field for development to be meaningful to all citizens, including those likely to be marginalized and left vulnerable to (especially abrupt) systemic changes. In the world of work, this argument is built on the concern that women and girls remain profoundly burdened with care work that is unremunerated, and which goes mostly unrecognized and unappreciated within the institutional setups such care work takes place. Over a hundred-and-thirty years on, it remains a worry that makes earlier Marxist feminists like Frederick Engels, and later ones as Margaret Benston, keep tossing with great distress in their graves.

When institutions expect from women and girls their unquestioning dedication to unpaid care work, they perpetuate the imbalances between men and women and continuously entrap them in a vicious cycle in which the lack of opportunity deepens. In fact, even when women engage in paid work in the formal economy, a significant brunt of household chores awaits them when they return home, and impedes their enjoyment of the right to much needed leisure. In spite of these obvious facts, it is also important to realize how this understanding helps to blur the gains to society that need to be highlighted, and to which more appropriate attention can be drawn for national planners to act and stimulate progress towards gender equality.

Across all indicators in the 2013 Malawi Labour Force Survey (MLFS), working age women (88.1%) fare poorly as compared with working age men (90.9%). Although the labour force participation is almost the same, more men are employed than women, while they are also more likely to engage in paid employment than women. The survey also highlights the disproportionate share of men in more technical jobs than women where the two groups perform wage employment. With 87% of the population employed in rural areas, women in the working age group are significantly exposed to inadequate infrastructure and services that would normally ease the burden of work of all types.

Care work primarily comprises household level responsibilities, particularly for self, the young and the elderly, but also covers those chores that sustain household livelihoods by catering to food production and preparation, supplying water and energy, doing homework with the kids, laundry, among other responsibilities. It also goes by the name reproductive work, to spotlight its domestic orientation and to separate its meaning from formal work engagements that are compensated in a capitalist system – a man’s playground. UN Women's 2015 flagship publication on Progress of the World's Women: Transforming Economies, Realizing Rights estimates that, in Sub-Saharan Africa alone, women and girls perform 70% of water carrying for their households. For more nuanced descriptions and dimensions of care work, see UN Women's policy brief on the care economy, which can be accessed here.

The non-appreciation of the reproductive work at the core of women’s work lives in Malawi becomes the restraint that Marxist feminists would rather see elaborated in finer detail in the national income accounting process. Furthermore, feminists would like to see the recognition, reduction, and fairer redistribution (with men) of the responsibilities to allow expansion of women’s efforts into other “productive” activities. While reckoning this as an extremely important starting point for gender equality and the economic empowerment of women, this article argues on the bases of leveraging women’s care work burdens beyond the notion of recognition, and to rather acknowledge reproductive work as an important ingredient to the valuation process of unaccounted-for activities in GDP accounting.

For the recognition of care work to materialize in the framework of national economic planning, needed desperately in the SDG era, such work has to be understood as an investment in economic welfare and sustainable development. Women’s undertaking in reproductive work, across its spectrum, makes households functional. It allows members of the household to engage in various economic activities, including spurring male spouses to bring an income home, children to engage in education and represents a direct input into the social cohesion and progress of communities at large. Although gaining ground, rarely do gender equality analysts share this important dimension of women’s engagement in the care economy, which denotes an important oversight in addressing the root causes of gender inequality, and the eventual loss of opportunities that enhance women’s economic empowerment.

The perspectives on women’s investments in human capital development, according to this argument, are twofold. The first is an appreciation of the welfare of the household in the absence of the ‘free’ care work that women perform. Using this slant, it is relatively easy to see how persuasive the argument regarding the value of women’s care work becomes as household members engage in fending for themselves in the course of their ‘productive’ lives. The introduction of reproductive work in the lives of those normally engaged in productive work has the likelihood of seeing one of the two work types suffer, to the detriment of both men and women embracing new additional responsibilities.

The second looks at how much it would cost to obtain the same services on the market. If we modeled the opportunity cost of undertaking reproductive work, or if we yield to the belief held by many gender advocates and fantasized letting men undertake these responsibilities, we would probably see reproductive work being not only recognized, but also spontaneously valued. It is much easier to statistically check in metropolitan areas, where the performance of care work is a major challenge in the face of formal work, as city dwellers will inevitably outsource care jobs at a set price determined by market forces. We would possibly see how much income, at the prevailing nominal market rates, women forgo by engaging in unpaid care work.

It is this naturalization of the predominantly informal care economy in national income accounts that is the crux of the matter. A provoking thought teases the distribution of total household income by a simple egalitarian formula to the effect of equal income sharing among the main income producers in a single household. If care work is an important contributor to the materialization of income for the household, the labor supplying reproductive household work will have to be remunerated. But converting reproductive work into paid work is not the sustainable end preferred. In this vein, the literature on gender equality also educates us about the ineffectiveness of access to resources without control. And so, the distribution of power in the institutional household setting, currently molded by patriarchal norms, needs to change so as to accord women an equal voice in the apportionment of the total household paycheck.

It might seem persuasive, then, that too much attention not be devoted to who performs which work type, in spite of the potential psychological gains that can be made, but to the redistribution of power in relations over household income. In Malawi's socio-cultural system that relies on subjective cultural patterns and behavior, tradition has to knit new rules of the game on intra-household politics – specifically breaking hegemonic relations between men and women.

For an economy modeled on rational expectations, Malawi's Growth and Development Strategy is likely to be blind to whether it is men or women who would eventually bear the bulk of care work. However, the state, i.e., through development policy and planning, have an enormous role to play in reshaping the discourse and turning around the results in the 2013 MLFS, as, like it or not, reproductive work is not going anywhere.


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