Cooking, cleaning, caring for children, sick and the elderly…care work is the backbone of thriving families, communities and economies. These activities are important for our physical and psychological well-being—a truth that has become ever so evident during the COVID-19 pandemic in Sri Lanka and the world over. Families – in all their rich diversity – are one of the main places where people are cared for and nurtured. Over the past year, many of us have spent more time in our homes, and these daily functions of care have sustained us, strengthened us, supported us, and kept us safe and well. However, such care functions are largely overlooked, undervalued, and deemed unworthy of being recognized as ‘proper work’, and often women bear the brunt of this work.
What is ‘unpaid care or domestic work’ and why is it important?
According to UN Women, care work involves hands on, personal and often emotional contact, such as feeding a child, bathing a frail older person or emotional labour such as managing relationships and addressing grievances and conflicts within a family. On the other hand, domestic work (or housework) such as cleaning and doing laundry, can involve little if any personal engagement. While these involve varying physical and mental effort and intensity, this type of work is typically not remunerated, and referred to as ‘unpaid care or domestic work’.
Albeit it being unvalued, care work is identified to have direct implications for the achievement of human development and the Sustainable Development Goals. Services provided through care work, including emotional care and rest, contribute to people’s well-being. In fact, women are often seen as performing unpaid care and domestic work in exchange for male economic provision, equipping them to be active members in society. Alarmingly, in Sri Lanka, marriage now even more drastically lowers women’s odds by 26% of becoming a paid employee, whereas for men it slightly increases the odds by 2.5%.
COVID-19 and the unequal distribution of care work within families
Before the pandemic, Sri Lanka’s Time Use Survey (2017) reported that 87.3% of women and girls above the age of 10 participated in housework and care work, whereas only 59.7% of men and boys engaged in these activities. Women’s engagement in domestic and care work was therefore 27.6% higher than that of men. The renewed surge in COVID-19 cases in Sri Lanka has amplified different care needs resulting from school closures, job losses and increased care needs of dependents. Considering the feminization of ageing in Sri Lanka, as women continue to make up the majority of the older population, within families, women including elderly women bear the heaviest of this care load.
This increase in care needs has caused many women to undergo stress, anxiety and depression. Female heads of households in particular, are facing a triple burden while being the sole breadwinner of the family, and undertaking domestic and care work simultaneously. More women are also leaving employment. Evidence from 55 countries shows that, by the end of the second quarter of 2020, there were 1.7 times more women than men outside the labour force. Before the pandemic, 73.7% of women in Sri Lanka were categorized as ‘economically inactive’. As global unemployment rates increase, the Labour Department in Sri Lanka notes that the most vulnerable groups in the labour force including women, youth and persons with disabilities, will be most affected. Adolescent girls who are also shouldering a significantly greater care load, are at a high risk of discontinuing education to meet the care needs at home.
Care work and violence against women within families
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, all forms of violence against women and girls have increased globally, particularly intimate partner violence. Research shows that there is a link between the burden of unpaid care work and violence against women. According to a 2019 household survey in India, 42.2% women who failed to fetch water or firewood for the family had experienced beatings, and 41.2% women who failed to prepare meals for men in the family were beaten. Before the pandemic, 1 in 5 women in Sri Lanka were estimated to have experienced physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime and 35.3% of women agreed men can have a ‘good reason to hit their wife’. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, emerging reports from those on the frontlines shows that violence against women, particularly domestic violence has intensified.
Common misconceptions that perpetuate gender inequality
Misconception 1: Care work does not take much time and has no value compared to other types of work.
The reality is that people around the world spend about 16.4 billion hours on unpaid care work every day. This is equal to 2 billion people working 8 hours per day without pay. Globally, UN Women reports that women bear the largest care burden since they spend about 3 times as many hours on unpaid domestic and care work as men. Additionally, based on data from 64 countries, if valued using a minimum wage, care work could amount to 9% of global GDP, which is about US$11 trillion. This would grow exponentially high if more data is available for all countries in the world, including Sri Lanka.
Misconception 2: Care work is something that women are ‘better at’, ‘naturally’ do or ‘must’ do
The reality is that the notion of ‘care work as women’s work’ is owing to deeply entrenched gender norms. Gender norms are the unspoken ‘rules’ that determine what is acceptable behaviour for women and men in society. Care work is often associated with notions of ‘altruism’ and ‘self-sacrifice’, and is considered a form of a service or sacrifice that women do for their families. Moreover, in mainstream economics, ‘work’ is conceptualised as something that brings a monetary income. Such money-earning work is treated as ‘proper work’ or typical ‘men’s work’, and care work at home, which is not remunerated, is considered typical ‘women’s work’. In reality, unpaid care work provided by women contributes immensely to the economy, yet it is not accounted for as ‘proper work’.
Why is care work everyone’s responsibility?
Our world is hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Sickness, job loss, and various other social, economic, political consequences are rampant. Care work within households is the foundation on which we – and future generations – learn to become active, contributing members to society and the economy. Thus, care work is crucial for our time, and it is everyone’s responsibility.
Gender inequality that governs unfair care burdens on women is detrimental not only for women, but also for men and children as well. Global research shows that the involvement of fathers in care work can contribute to better physical and mental well-being of fathers; improved health and labour market outcomes for mothers; and better health, cognitive development and school achievement for children, and household chores and care work teaches important life skills not only for women and girls, but also for men and boys.
It was estimated that by the end of 2020, over 100 million people would have fallen into extreme poverty. The Sri Lankan economy is presently struggling to recover from the economic and social effects of the pandemic. Close to 1 million people in Sri Lanka were estimated to become newly poor due to the pandemic. Men’s involvement will greatly unburden women and girls from the pressures of care work, and will empower them to receive education and engage in income generating activities. It will contribute to a significant increase in household income, which will be an immense support during crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic and thereafter. In-fact, the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that $12 trillion can be added to global growth by advancing gender equality. Sri Lanka specifically has the potential to add $20 billion a year to its GDP by 2025, which would increase its current economic growth trajectory by about 14%.
Towards a more equitable future—Recognise, Reduce, and Redistribute
Even though care work is identified to be an urgent response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN Women-UNDP Gender Response Tracker reveals that country-level initiatives to address urgent care work needs are a mere 8% of the global social protection and labour market responses to the pandemic. Thus, the world urgently needs a strong policy and programmatic push to ‘Recognise, Reduce, and Redistribute’ care work to achieve gender equality and its associated social and economic benefits.
Currently there is a dearth of national data to measure and recognise the value of care work. Adequate research and macroeconomic analyses need to be carried out to address this knowledge gap. Policy making needs to take ‘care work’ into account, and policies must address gender inequality that governs non-consensual, inegalitarian care burdens on women and girls. There needs to be proper evaluations of the impact of policies and programmes that aim to address the unequal care burdens on women and girls.
Gender inegalitarian, unfair care work burdens on women and girls can be reduced through: investments in public infrastructure and services to support families; social protection policies and programmes to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment that improve women’s financial independence and their safety, girls’ right to education, and equal access to employment opportunities and addressing issues of retaining women within the workforce. Policies and programmes must cater to the specific needs of vulnerable households, such as low-income families, women-headed households, people with disabilities and daily wage workers. Redistribute
Redistribute care work between households and societies, and men and women, through gender transformative labour policies including recruitment, retention, promotion and safe working environments as well as services for parents, such as paternal leave, flexible work for men and women, and safe public childcare services.
Without greater equality within families and shared responsibility of domestic and care work between both men and women, gender equality will not be achievable. 15 May marks International Day of Families. On this day and everyday, let’s work towards recognizing that care work is not women’s work, it is family work.
About UN Women: UN Women is the UN organization dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women. A global champion for women and girls, UN Women was established to accelerate progress on meeting their needs worldwide. Learn more at: asiapacific.unwomen.org