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Opinion - Historically, men were seen as the providers in the family and the major decision-makers, and women played a more subservient role in any matter pertaining to the family.

It was seen as the duty of the males in the family to work and support the household and for the women to keep the home fires burning.

Gradually, these roles started changing as we moved into the 20th century, perhaps due to the desire to overcome poverty and improve living conditions, ensure that children had a better education, lifestyles and increasing unemployment meant women were forced to leave the homes and seek employment to contribute to living expenses.

As the years went by, women were seen in a number of households taking on the role of being the major breadwinner and in most cases sole breadwinner.

The roles of the males in the household started slowly changing from being the key decision-maker to that of limited or very little power.

With women becoming more emancipated, educated and getting better work opportunities, they took on the leading roles within the households.

A quick survey of middle- to low-income households showed that the husband was unemployed or struggling to get a business up and running, while the women worked and supported the entire household. 

In most of these homes, substance abuse is high with men increasingly turning to alcohol and drugs for comfort, resulting in domestic and gender-based violence becoming more prevalent in that household and community.

To understand the levels of economic abuse, I conducted a survey with a mixed sampling of young and older women of various race groups, who were educated and holding junior, mid-level and high-level management posts. 

Most of the women complained that they were the major breadwinners and were finding it challenging to deal with their home dynamics.

Their husbands were unemployed for more than two years, some consumed alcohol regularly, were lazy and did not assist with any household chores.

Not only do the women have to work very hard to maintain their jobs but they still had to come home and see to the children as well as cook and clean if they could not afford a helper.

One dynamic and vocal young woman in her early 30s told me her dreams were of having a happy married life, with each partner contributing equally to the marriage in all respects.

The stars fell from her eyes after eight years of marriage with two children. 

Her husband is now unemployed (and has been for more than two years) and shows no signs of seeking employment.

He keeps on promising that some or other business of his will pan out but it never does and he makes no other attempt to earn an income while waiting for the business plan to come through.

This young woman was open about her feelings. 

She had no respect for her husband as he did not live up to his promises of their marriage. 

She went so far as to say “how can I even let this man touch me when he cannot provide for me”.

She also said: “I see him eating the food I buy and want to ask him if he knows how much it costs to support him.”

I was astounded at some of the deep-seated issues that were surfacing through this mini-research. She was not alone in expressing these challenges.

I was surprised or maybe not so surprised to hear both young and older women echoing the same sentiments. 

It seemed as if we had opened a plethora of unexpressed emotions that were of volcanic proportions bubbling beneath the surface of these women’s lives.

Some of the women had been living in these situations for years, especially the older women in their mid-40 to 50-year age group.

The younger women who were below 40 and married for between five to 10 years were not willing to continue living with such conditions. 

They wanted a better life for themselves and their children.

They were contemplating leaving the marriage as they were independent and supported themselves and their children.

A few expressed their unhappiness at seeing their husbands now becoming their charity cases. 

This was not what they had signed up for when they got married.

A number of the women said they had witnessed their parents going through this and they did not want to continue this cycle of economic abuse. It led to emotional abuse and eventually violence.

What happens when a man loses his job? Does he go into a cycle of giving up all hope and relying on his spouse to support him?

While some of the women indicated that their husbands were “come and move me, mother, I am burning" type of men, the others indicated that their spouses were trying but with no success.

The quick survey yielded interesting data. I am sure there are many women, young and old, who hide their pain and suffering and continue to do the best they can to ensure their families have food.

I had the opportunity to conduct a similar research in Thailand in September last year and found that the results were much the same.

However, the women in Thailand were forced to become sex workers or street vendors due to limited work opportunities.

The resilience in these women both in South Africa and in Thailand was amazing to witness.

They worked hard to build their own coping mechanisms that sustained them despite the challenging lives they led.

With increasing unemployment we are definitely going to see more families become dysfunctional and more women being subjected to economic abuse.

There need to be more support groups for these women and families as well as for the men to help them build coping mechanisms.

However, there are alternatives. Men should be encouraged by their peers and family members to seek alternatives to sitting at home and letting their spouses support them.

Or, if they cannot find a job, at least provide support to their spouses by making her workload at home easier, for example cooking the meals, taking care of the children and making sure the home is a supportive and relaxing environment for the women when they arrive from a hard day at work.

It does not have to be all doom and gloom. 

The changing dynamics are understandable, for surely the men must be feeling undermined, frustrated and helpless at finding themselves in such a situation as well. 

But turning to alcohol or creating an abusive environment does not help the wife as she tries to meet the demands of being the sole or major breadwinner.

* Karen Pillay is an independent development practitioner working towards advancing the rights of women and children.

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