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To Make Progress on Women’s Paid Work We Need to Focus on Unpaid Care

Reaching gender equality in paid work means more than just giving women jobs – we need to put in place systems for public services and decent employment to allow women time and energy to care for their families, says Deepta Chopra of the Institute of Development Studies.

Written by Deepta Chopra Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
The struggle to balance their jobs and childcare means women often have to take their children to work with them. The children sometimes help their mothers complete their work targets, in what is essentially unpaid child labor.Anna Zieminski/AFP/Getty Images

Contrary to expectations, paid work by itself does little to contribute to women’s economic empowerment. We found a multiplicity of reasons for this in our recent research on the lived experiences of over 800 women in low-income families in India, Nepal, Rwanda and Tanzania. The findings in our report “No Time to Rest” highlight three main aspects to the problem. First, most of the jobs women living in low-income families are engaged in are poorly paid, infrequent and insecure, and therefore do little to improve the economic situation of these women. Most women who participated in our research were either earning an income through self-employment or in informal daily wage labor.

Secondly, these jobs are arduous, involving long hours and/or traveling times, and are almost always back-breaking. Many women in our research said they were juggling or alternating multiple jobs, adding to their time pressures, depriving them of energy and often leading to poor health. Still, women greatly valued the little income they were able to obtain through their participation in paid work. This reflects both the conditions of the abject poverty these families live in and the highly constrained choices that many women and their families have within the local economy.

Women across the four countries in our study were fitting in their hard and poorly paid jobs alongside the unrecognized and undervalued work of giving birth to and caring for infants and young children, the continual drudgery of household tasks, and the arduousness of fulfilling basic needs for water and fuel.

A third factor that stops the gains from women’s paid work from translating into economic power pertains to the interactions between women’s income-generating jobs and their unpaid care-work responsibilities. Women across the four countries in our study were fitting in their hard and poorly paid jobs alongside the unrecognized and undervalued work of giving birth to and caring for infants and young children, the continual drudgery of household tasks, and the arduousness of fulfilling basic needs for water and fuel.

On the one hand, women’s care work mediates the location, type, amount and quality of paid work they undertake. This forces them to take any jobs in the informal sector they can find, which, although they offer flexibility in terms of location and time of work, are also hard, low-paid and often unsafe. For example, in all of the countries we studied, women with small children shared that they had three choices: They could not work; they could take their children to work with them, with no childcare facilities and with the children often being exposed to hazardous working conditions; or they could rely on family members or favors from friends to care for their children while they worked.

On the other hand, this type of paid work undercuts the time and energy that women can spend caring for their families – which only adds to the depletion of their time and energy. We found that 36 percent of women reported leaving household tasks undone, while 31 percent said they gave up some of their childcare responsibilities in order to do paid work. Women reported being physically exhausted by the drudgery of the paid work they were involved in, and of feeling rushed, anxious and worried about being able to carry out or complete their care tasks.

Having spoken with women in 16 sites across the four countries, one of the most common findings from our research is that women are engaged in a high level of multitasking – on average, they multitask for over 11 hours a day – while one of the most significant effects on their struggle to balance their responsibilities is tiredness and the need to be constantly doing something at any given point of time, without time to rest or recuperate.

We found that in contexts where public resources and services are available, women are able to cope better, alleviate their drudgery or receive temporary respite from their double burden of childcare and paid work.

The impact of this is triply problematic for children. They receive less maternal care, and in fact often take on the role of care provider. Across the research sites, women’s engagement in paid work results in a transfer of care to their children – specifically young girls. Further, many children shadow their mothers at their paid jobs, and are thereby exposed to dangerous environments, both inside and outside their homes. More insidiously, children who shadow their mothers often help their mothers complete paid work targets to earn their incomes – in effect being used as unreported child laborers.

The presence or absence of infrastructure and public services such as access to water and fuel is a critical determinant in women’s well-being outcomes. In our research, we found that in contexts where public resources and services are available, women are able to cope better, alleviate their drudgery or receive temporary respite from their double burden of childcare and paid work. However, lack of basic services increases the time women need to spend on caring for their families while simultaneously constraining the time they have available for this care work as they spend it on tasks such as collecting water and fuel.

The two main policy prescriptions from this research are clear. First, access to regular and quality paid work opportunities (for both women and men) is critical – and this was one of the strongest demands that women voiced across the four countries. Better-paid work with decent income generation can alleviate both economic and time pressure for women, reduce their drudgery, and allow them to improve their collective bargaining power, thereby increasing their empowerment potential.

Secondly, public investment in small infrastructure and essential public services is essential in order not only to reduce women’s drudgery and their time burden, but also to increase the return on women’s paid work. The provision of water, electricity, roads and transport facilities, as well as childcare facilities, is critical for women to engage in paid work tasks without negative consequences for themselves and their families.

Programs and policies that aim to improve women’s economic participation need to integrate care considerations, through the provision of good-quality, accessible and affordable public services, as well as provide decent work for all. Only then will women be able to have economic empowerment and the time to care.

The views expressed in this article belong to its author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Women’s Advancement Deeply.

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