A women pushing a willbarrow packed with firewood in Mtititi Village in Giyani, Limpopo
File picture: Sharon Seretlo
A women pushing a willbarrow packed with firewood in Mtititi Village in Giyani, Limpopo File picture: Sharon Seretlo

#MayDay: The burden of unpaid care work on women

By Charlene May and Aisha Hamdulay Time of article published May 1, 2019

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Women have been working for free all their lives, and it’s time that we do something about it.

Unpaid care work refers to domestic and physical care work generally done in the running of a  household or care of a family. This includes meal preparation, cleaning of the home, laundry,  collecting water and firewood; as well as physically caring for the elderly, the young and the frail  within the community and home.

We group these tasks together in recognition that although the motivation to perform these tasks is  voluntary, the reality is that outside of the home these tasks are viewed as work deserving of  remuneration, however in the home and community they are generally expected to be done by  women and girls within our homes and communities for free. 

On average, according to Statistics  South Africa’s latest data from 2011, black women carry out roughly 2.5 times the amount of unpaid  care work than males do, while Indian women carry out almost 4 times more the amount of unpaid  care work that men do. This work carries no formal financial value (unless you are employed as a  domestic worker and if you are fortunate enough to be gainfully employed by an employer who  recognises the financial value of the work that you do within their home and you are compensated  accordingly), and remains unrecognised. Our reality is that across the world, women and girls  commit substantially more time than their male counterparts to unpaid care work. 

The impact of  non-recognition and the devaluation of women’s unpaid care work leaves women in a deeper  position of vulnerability and poverty.

Structural discrimination which is present in our homes, communities and places of work all  contribute to the lack of recognition assigned to women’s unpaid care work. Discrimination within  the current economic value chain leads to men being paid more than women in the labour market  outside of their homes, leaving women dependant on their male counterparts within their family  units for their financial wellbeing, while they carry out unpaid care work. Through this dependence,  women become vulnerable to poverty, but also domestic violence.

A woman who is experiencing  domestic violence from a partner whom she is financially dependent on, while carrying out unpaid  care work, is reluctant to seek help against her partner because she will be left financially vulnerable  once separated.

Solidarity can therefore be found in the recognition and reduction of unpaid care work - in both  developed as well as developing countries. It is important to recognise the role that patriarchy and  discrimination plays in how women are viewed, their contribution to the household, the economic  value that their work holds and all the stereotypes that are present within our communities. We also  need to recognise intersectionality and privilege, as women are not homogenous and in a country
such as South Africa, women experience discrimination in very different ways.

Our reality is that black women are at the coalface of poverty and so the lack of recognition given to  their unpaid care work directly compounds their discrimination, which impacts on their ability to  access their right to health, housing, land and education. Statistics South Africa (2011) indicate that  black African women spend the most time on unpaid care work, doing 266 minutes (4.53 hours) on  average of unpaid care work per day, while black African males (the highest amount on time spent
on unpaid care work by a population group) only spend 105 minutes on unpaid care work per day.

We need to have a mindset shift in terms of reducing unpaid care work, or women will continue to  struggle to access rights guaranteed in our Constitution. One such right is the right to choose a  profession freely. This right is directly linked to dignity and access to other socio-economic rights. It  must be equally available to men and women, but it cannot be so if women are disproportionately  burdened with care work in their homes or community. The United Nations Committee on Economic  Social and Cultural Rights in their general comment on the right to work has stated clearly that the  right includes a right to work, but also to conduct that work in an environment which is just and f avourable. This includes having the ability for promotion, equal pay for work of equal value and a  living and decent wage. Care work impacts on women’s ability to work outside of the home and the  full realisation of her rights.

In respect of women’s access to health care we must recognise the duty to care for those who do  the work. Too often women’s health care and access ignore the burden of unpaid care work within  the context of home and community. In South Africa we have placed an enormous burden on  community health care workers to address the gaps in our health care system when dealing with the  HIV/AIDS pandemic. These women are at the front line of performing care work without recognition  and proper remuneration.

As members of society we need to begin the task of examining how we contribute to the burden of  unpaid care work and how we can shift patriarchy within our own homes and communities. The  government also has a critical role to play in ensuring that policies and laws that are passed consider  the existing burden of care on women.

We need to build a society where there is equal distribution  of care work. We need to examine the ways in which care work can be redistributed between  women and men within the context of family life. The government has a critical role to play here to  ensure access to maternity leave and benefits for employed and self – employed women in all  sectors, and that leave provisions are extended to men to ensure that they meet their parental  responsibilities.

We also need to examine how the government can redistribute care responsibilities by taking over  some of the responsibilities in respect of child care through properly regulated and accessible early  childhood development centres. This relates to a resource allocation issue, and focused attention  also needs to be given to the implementation of quality effective government services which impact  on sexual reproductive and health rights. If this functions efficiently, this would enable women to  make informed decisions about contraception and family planning.

Access to water and sanitation, which is often overlooked in urban areas, have a critical influence on  women carrying out unpaid care work in rural areas and informal settlement. Due to a lack of  service, they have to carry out unnecessary additional labour which could be avoided if there were  adequate services available. It is far too often that issues which are overlooked and not deemed  urgent or important, are those that if addressed, can have a lasting impact on the lives of women.

These are but some examples of how a lack of access to socio-economic rights within a context  directly impacts on women’s unpaid care work and continues cycles of poverty that trap women and  girls. The time has thus come for us to have an open conversation about unpaid care work and its  true impact on women’s rights to substantive equality.

* Charlene May is an attorney at the Women’s Legal Centre who heads up the Relationship Rights  Programme.
* Aisha Hamdulay is the Media and Communications liason for the Women’s Legal Centre.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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