The word “economics” originates from the Greek “oikonomikos”, which roughly means management and care of the household. From this etymology, it may appear that women, who are often in charge of managing and caring for the household, would be highly regarded in the discipline of economics. Yet in conventional economics, the unpaid housework of women is completely disregarded.
This major flaw in national income accounting methodology is a globally pervasive phenomenon which is also prevalent in Bangladesh. Since the unpaid labour of Bangladeshi women is not counted, it sends a distorted message about women to policymakers. Thus unpaid work is tantamount to unacknowledged work and unappreciated work. When a woman chooses to become a homemaker, she becomes the subject of discrimination by family and society simply because she does not work. Such discrimination gradually evolves into domestic violence. Lack of true valuation of women's unpaid work is holding back a transformation in the social attitudes towards women.
Women are disproportionately under-represented in the national income accounts since most women work in the informal sector, or work at home for no pay. According to the International Labour Organization, globally around one third of total workers in the informal sector are female. In Bangladesh, 95.4 percent of women work in the informal sector. Since wages are low in the informal sector and non-existent in the household, the economic contribution of women is misrepresented.
Nevertheless, the work that women do at home—such as household chores, caring for children, and looking after the elderly—inherently has immense value since it creates social capital. Failure to recognise the value of women's unpaid work is failure to recognise the value of women themselves. Therefore, unpaid work is a quintessential element defining the power structure between men and women and often forms the premise for female subjugation. If women's unpaid work is recognised, then their actual contribution to the economy could be evaluated.
A number of published studies have attempted to measure the value of the unpaid labour of women in Bangladesh. The pioneering study in this field was a collection of three essays published in one volume by Shamim Hamid in 1996. In the first essay, Hamid pointed out that women are missing from traditional measures of aggregate economic output, and that such measurements are urgently required. Hamid utilised a replacement cost approach on primary data collected through a survey of 30 villages in Bangladesh. Hamid found that if the unpaid labour of women were to be incorporated into national income accounting, then the 1989-1990 Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Bangladesh would increase by 29 percent.
In another study conducted by the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) and Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF), it was found that based on the replacement cost method, the estimated value of women's unpaid work was equivalent to 76.8 percent of GDP of FY2013-14. According to the willingness to accept method, the corresponding estimate was equivalent to 87.2 percent of GDP of FY2013-14. These figures were 2.5 to 2.9 times higher than the income of women received from paid services. A number of other studies have also attempted to estimate the value of women's unpaid labour in Bangladesh using the replacement cost approach. All of these studies unanimously point out the fact that women in Bangladesh make a significant contribution to the economy.
It is intuitively clear that the unpaid work of Bangladeshi housewives has economic value. However, the unfortunate tendency in economics is to take the monetary economy as the only basic thing to measure. Despite the fact that housewives probably work harder than anyone else in the population, they still do not get paid for it. In economics, unless there is a market price for something, it does not get measured in the national accounts. This leaves women's work in the household out of the national accounts. Women's housework is enormously productive work, both for human welfare and for the growth of the economy. Yet it does not get counted.
Measuring the value of a housewife's time and her unpaid labour is a prerequisite for highlighting women's silent contribution to the economy. The people who are visible as contributors to the economy are the people who will be visible when we make policy. If women are not visible as contributors to a nation's economy, then they are not going to be visible in the distribution of benefits.
It is imperative to bring to attention the pressing issue of widening the realm of national income accounting in Bangladesh so as to incorporate the unpaid labour of women. Urgent steps need to be taken to enhance the social stature of women by acknowledging that the work that women do has real economic value. It is hoped that recognition of the value of women's unpaid work will induce a revolution in the attitudes towards women in Bangladesh, which will subsequently spread all over the world.
Syed Yusuf Saadat is a Research Associate at the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD).