OPINION: Women and development - Who cares about care work?
By Deviana Wijaya Dewi
03 June 2016

JAKARTA (The Jakarta Post/ANN) - Gender equality is also a critical means for achieving all other development goals, as they necessitate systemic attention to the needs, priorities and contributions of both women and men. 

Gender equality has been among the most mentioned development priorities for the past decade. Indeed, moving on from the third Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to the fifth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), the global agenda aims at achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls. 

Gender equality is not just a goal on its own, as recognised by the UN. It is also a critical means for achieving all other development goals, 
as these goals necessitate systemic attention to the needs, priorities and contributions of both women and men. 

When we talk about women’s empowerment programs and activities, we expect women to actively participate in economic, social and political life. 

However, women in general are so occupied by housework — cleaning, cooking and caring for the children and the elderly as well as the sick — that they do not have enough time to get out of the house and exercise their political rights. This household work is termed  care work. 

Sadly, people do not see these care activities as work. Perhaps because it is conducted at home and we have been conditioned to believe that staying at home does not mean working. 

As such, there are two central problems regarding care that impede the fulfillment of  gender equality and women’s empowerment. 

The first problem is the common assumption that care is undervalued and not recognised as work. People usually consider work as something that can earn money while care work is unpaid and carried out at home. 

Being a housewife and staying at home, is in fact working – and working very hard, as acknowledged by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s 2016 Annual Letter. 

Deepta Chopra and Caroline Sweetman (2014) argue that care is central to human life, as it contributes to meeting the material, developmental, emotional and spiritual needs of people and has a widespread, long-term positive impact on wellbeing and development. 

So yes, care is good and society needs it to be able to function. Care work should no longer be taken for granted. 
Further, it’s been strongly embedded that only women are expected to do it all, resulting in unfair distribution of care work within the household, which is the second problem to be underlined. 

A recent study commissioned by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Development Center  has found that in all regions of the world, women spend on average between three and six hours per day on unpaid care activities, while men spend between half-an-hour and two hours. 

Particularly in East Asia and the Pacific, in which Indonesia is lumped, women spend more than four hours per day on unpaid care work while men spend less than two hours. 

More importantly, the study shows that gender inequality in unpaid care work is the missing link in the analysis of gender gaps in labour force participation, wages and job quality. 

One might argue that in Indonesia, the husband is normally the breadwinner and the wife is then in charge for all care work at home. 

What is missing in this assumption is that care work is time elastic, which means it is never ending and undertaken at any time within a household, unlike formal work that usually occurs from nine to five or eight to four. 

This causes women to be more prone to what is now famously called “time poverty” because of this unequal distribution of care work within a household. 

For those fortunate enough who come from a middle-income economy and above may thank dishwashers, washing machines, microwaves and other modern conveniences that can save time in unpaid care work. 

But for women living in poverty where public services are inadequate or absent, the burden for women is added since they have to walk hours each day to collect water and fuel for domestic use, let alone taking care of their children or the elderly. 

Kate Donald (2014) emphasises that time spent on unpaid care by women is fundamental to defining their time, energy, finances, social and political capital, and that is definitely a human rights issue. 

Indeed, as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to leisure and rest from work. 

There is statement by Margaret Mead (1901-1978) that I find very interesting as it links those two problems, “when men cook, cooking is viewed as an important activity; when women cook, it is just a household chore.” This clearly reflects how undervalued care work is and that it is indeed a gendered issue. 

So where do we go from here? First, we need a shift of perception that care is valuable and everyone needs it, so that it is the responsibility of both women and men within household to share the load of care work. 

With this awareness, when men can be a little more around the house than they used to, women can be more likely to enjoy a basic right to leisure and rest from work too. 

Second, time-saving technologies should also be introduced as a means in undertaking women empowerment’s programs, be it funded by the government or development agencies. 

Public expenditures for social services need to be sustained, when necessary with schemes to extend access for water and health for those living in rural areas, while reducing perverse subsidies for fossil fuel development and military spending, for example. 

Finally, we need to bear in mind that the existing unfair distribution of care work is not natural, but it is social construction. 

Thus only when each of us relentlessly increases awareness for care’s fair redistribution, women and development can coexist. 

(The writer, a LPDP Scholarship recipient, holds an MA degree in development studies from the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, the UK.)


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