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Recognize, Reduce, Redistribute

On occasion of International Women’s Day (8 March), Khady Hamid writes a personal story of her mother and women in unpaid care work in Maldives.

During my college years, I used to work at the Admissions Office of my alma mater, St. Lawrence University, assisting Admissions Counsellors with the arduous task of entering information of student applicants into the university’s central database. I remember being baffled by the term “homemaker” which many American students applying to the university listed as their mother’s employment. I was told that a homemaker was someone who invested their time in managing a household. I immediately called up my mother who was back home in the Maldives, excitedly pronounced her a homemaker and explained the term to her.

Being the eldest, my mother took on the role of caring for her family at a young age. Her parents decided not to send her to school so that she could stay at home and assist my grandmother in taking care of her younger siblings. She got married at the age of 15, had her first baby the next year and since then had devoted her time to taking care of my 6 siblings and me.  She is a “homemaker” in the true sense of the word.

Hers is not an isolated case. Her story will resonate with many Maldivian women, as they like her, spend the majority of their lives doing unpaid care work – cooking, cleaning and caring for both the young and the elderly.

Across the globe, on average, women spend more time engaging in unpaid care work than men. Time use data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows that, overall the time gap between women and men’s contribution to unpaid care work is smaller in developed countries than in less developed ones.

The disparity between the amount of time women spend doing unpaid care work compared with that of men is the smallest in Sweden and Denmark, and greatest in Turkey, Mexico and India. In Sweden and Norway, women spend 54 minutes more than men doing unpaid care work, whereas in India women spend 300 minutes more than men   engaging in unpaid care work.

Unpaid care work is essential for the effective functioning of any society. However, it is often valued less than paid work. Research also shows that women when not occupied by unpaid care work, tend to devote more time to paid work and be active in the labour market.

While we do not have any time use data in the Maldives that could be used to make such comparisons, a look at labour force participation data from the 2014 Census gives us an idea of how men and women in the country invest their time.  Labour force participation rate (percentage of working age persons who are either employed or unemployed but actively looking for employment) for men is at 79.7% whereas for women it is a mere 47.6%. Women constitute 72% of the outside labour force population in the country. 41% of women outside the labour force, reported looking after family/home as their primary reason for not participating in the labour force. In contrast, only 1% of men outside the labour force attributed their reason for being outside of it to unpaid care work.

This means that the majority of women in the country are “homemakers” engaged in unpaid care work (in other words, legwork which we do not necessarily put a monetary value to, but which enables the rest of us to function and contribute to create economic value). Some women are fulltime homemakers, while others juggle the demands of fulltime employment with domestic work. The current arrangement, where the burden of cooking, cleaning and taking care of the young and elderly falls primarily on the woman, traps women in “time poverty” and comes at a great cost to them. Unequal distribution of care work deprives women of “time” that could otherwise be spent on the enjoyment of fundamental human rights such as right to education, right to work, right to leisure and right to participation. Furthermore, the lack of time and opportunity for women to engage in formal employment leaves them vulnerable to precarious informal work arrangements and limits their access to contributory social insurance schemes.

Today, all my siblings except for one are over the age of 18 and for the first time in her life, my mother enjoys the luxury of spare time. She decided to invest this time to do the things that she was unable to do in her youth. Currently, she is a student of Arab language and the Quran at the Institute for Quran and Sunnah. I am immensely proud of her, but cannot help but wonder what could have been different for her to have the chance to pursue these opportunities and more during her prime.

My mother with my youngest sister (8 years) and baby niece. My mother’s help in taking care of my niece allows my sister to focus on her law degree.

A 2013 report by the then Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona, exploring the relationship between unpaid care and poverty, inequality and women’s human rights, provides some useful answers to this question. In her report, she argues that recognizing the unpaid care work performed by women, valuing that work, reducing the amount of unpaid care work, and redistributing that unpaid care work, both within households as well as at the State-level through the provision of accessible public services such as childcare facilities, is essential. She also advocates for the use of time use surveys to measure unpaid care work and recommends States to systematically integrate a consideration for care work, and its gendered distribution and impact into policymaking.

As we move towards achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, it is essential that we position care work as a social and collective responsibility in order to achieve the fifth Sustainable Development Goal on Gender Equality, and really leave no one behind.

Currently my mother also supports my younger sister in taking care of my two year old niece, which allows my sister to focus on her Law degree. My mother’s labour has supported three generations and created an enabling environment for her siblings, husband, children and grandchildren to pursue greater economic security and other opportunities in life. It also fills my heart with warmth and hope to see my father being more involved in taking care of my niece and doing chores around the house that I have never seen him do before.

I will tell my kids about their grandmother and her contributions to society with great pride, and I am also hopeful for the day when women will not have to forgo their own fundamental human rights because of unpaid care work.

Khady Hamid is the National Human Rights Officer at the Resident Coordinator’s Office at the UN in Maldives.


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