Time to value women's work
Zobaida wakes up at 5 am every morning and after her Fajr prayers starts her daily chores. Breakfast has to be prepared, children woken up, fed, and then sent to school. She has to clean the cattle shed, feed the cattle and the poultry. She then takes the paddy out to dry and hurries back to make sure that her farmer husband has eaten before he leaves for work. Zobaida hardly has any time for rest or recreation, but often her tireless work is met with rebuke and insults; the sentence mostly thrown at her is "What do you do all day"? The famous poster of Banchte Shekha (an NGO) says it all showing a woman with 12 hands doing all the household work from cleaning and cooking to taking care of poultry, cattle, thrashing paddy, etc., but the caption beneath says "My wife does not work."
The issue of unpaid work carried out by women is being discussed globally at the policy, academic as well as practitioners' level. Often defined as "unpaid care work" this includes taking care of children, the elderly and the sick, cooking and cleaning along with agricultural activities such as preservation of seeds, thrashing and drying paddy, poultry and cattle rearing. However, these debates and discussions about unpaid work have not translated into policy change, and women's work remains unaccounted and outside the realm of national statistics or GDP of every country in the world. Economists have not been able to crack the calculation called System of National Accounts (SNA) which is determined globally. This leads to the non-recognition of the work of a vast majority of women around the world which has resulted 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 foodstuff in sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean and perform over 50 percent of the labour involved in intensive rice cultivation in Asia. Women head 60 percent of households in some regions of Africa and meet 90 percent of their 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.
In Bangladesh, women have made significant progress in the last 20 years. All social indicators such as health and education show positive signs. Their labour force and political participation have increased significantly. Today, there are far more options available to women than ever before as they go into non-traditional careers such as law enforcement, peacekeeping or even flying fighter jets. Yet, for most women, their 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 Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) in 2015 reported that about 72 percent of women experience some form of violence while 49.6 percent face physical violence by their spouse or close relatives. 52 percent of girls are married off before the age of 17 or 18 (UNICEF). As per a report by Ain O Salish Kendra, from January to November 2016 a total of 671 girls and women were raped and 191 were murdered by their husband or relatives.
These unacceptable levels of violence show clearly the value that society or families accord women. However, violence and discrimination are symptoms; the issue revolves around the status and dignity of women. Women face violence and discrimination because of lower status at home and society.
Women's lower status is due to the perception of their contribution as less important compared to those of men. Work undertaken by women is mostly considered non-work or only household work which does not bring any monetary remuneration; therefore it is considered not equally important or prestigious. The non-recognition of their contribution leads to their devaluation and disrespect which manifests itself in discrimination and violence.
Everything that a woman does at home is considered as household work, even those that have monetary value. Preservation of seeds, husking, thrashing paddy or caring for cattle and poultry, are also considered household or shangsharer kaaj, or care work. As women do not take their products to the market or get paid for their labour, they remain, as economists explain, out of the SNA, which means their contribution is economically invisible and not accounted for in the GDP.
A study conducted by the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) for Manusher Jonno Foundation in 2015 titled "Estimating women's contribution to the economy" revealed that on an average a female member of a household undertakes 12.1 non-SNA activities (System of National Accounts); the corresponding figure for a male member is only 2.7. The study goes on to summarise that the estimated value of women's unpaid non-SNA (household) work, if monetised, would be equivalent to 76.8 to 87.2 percent of GDP (FY 2014-15). However, the most revealing finding of the study is "if women's unpaid work were to be monetised it would amount to 2.5 or 2.9 times higher than the income of women received from paid services." For example, if a woman received remuneration of Tk 5,000 per month for her work in the garment factory, the corresponding amount for a woman's unpaid work if monetised would be Tk 15,000!
The non-recognition of women's unpaid work has resulted in not valuing them as a productive force. The invisibility of their contribution results in their devaluation and not getting the honour and respect they deserve at home and in society. On the other hand, the situation of the 20 million plus women employed in agriculture, forestry, fisheries and livestock is no better. Their work is back-breaking, remuneration is half of that of men for the same amount of work and yet at home they are required to perform all the duties and responsibilities that society has accorded to them as wives, mothers and homemakers. The meagre salary they earn is most often spent for the wellbeing of their families, again leaving them poor and disempowered.
In order to change the situation of women socially, economically and politically, radical policy support is required along with a change in the mindset and attitude of family members and society towards women. Women's work should be appreciated and respected no matter where they work, at home, in the field, in factories or offices. It is no longer logical to prefer a boy child to a girl child. Those who still believe in the age-old custom of male preference should know that most probably, it is a girl child who will grow up and take care of her parents and against all odds will stand by them in times of crisis. Every day we hear and read stories of women's strength and resilience, their loyalty and effort to keep the family together, nurturing and looking after every member.
Another important aspect of recognising women's contribution is to change the way the present system of national account is determined which needs revisiting in order to recognise all of women's work, both paid and unpaid, so that their contribution is included in the GDP. This will require international as well as national lobbying. The SNA is calculated by the United Nations and follows a standardised format for all countries. In the present system of calculation women's unpaid work cannot be counted resulting in the invisibility of a vast dimension of women's work.
Policymakers, families and the society at large have to recognise that women have dual roles. One is reproductive such as giving birth to children and all the care work she performs at home. The other is productive, also performed at home but with significant economic implications and monetary value. Both these roles are equally important and critical to the wellbeing of family and society. The lack of evaluation of women's contribution has resulted in its non-recognition and therefore devaluation which in turn has led to their lower status at home and society. Appreciation of women's work has to start at home by family members as it is in their homes that they want to be respected and honoured.
Someone had once said that the measure of a society is in the way it treats its women. Society needs to change its perception about women and their contribution. Evaluating their work in all its dimensions and giving it the recognition and worth that it deserves is one of the ways that society can raise the status of women and thus reduce violence and discrimination against them.
The writer is Executive Director, Manusher Jonno Foundation.