Billions of hours of unpaid care work by women go uncounted
This year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where world leaders and business leaders meet yearly to discuss pressing issues, focused on climate change and inclusive capitalism. Ironically, Oxfam released two important reports during the event that clearly show that most countries are becoming less inclusive. The reports are: “Time to Care: Unpaid and underpaid care work and the Global Inequality Crisis”, and the India Inequality Report entitled “On Women’s Backs”.
The reports show that globally, inequality is growing and while the rich amass more wealth, the poorest remain so. In 2019, the world’s billionaires — 2,153 people — had more wealth than 4.6 billion people. Another disturbing statistic was that the world’s 22 richest men have more money than all the women in Africa.
The statistics for India are equally startling yet not unexpected. India’s richest 10% control more than 74% of the national wealth and the top 1% hold more than four times the wealth held by the poorest 70% of our population. India’s billionaires hold a combined total wealth that is more than the Union Budget outlay, for the fiscal year 2018-19 which was at ₹24.42 trillion. These are devastating numbers.
Further, the reports this year focused on the invisible issue of unpaid care work that is primarily done by women and girls. The report shows that Indian women and girls put in 3.26 billion hours of unpaid care work every day — a contribution of at least ₹19 trillion a year to the Indian economy. Women’s unpaid care work is rarely measured as it is seen as something that is done for love. Recognising that it takes up hours of women’s time and often prevents their ability to access other opportunities could lead to policies that can help in reducing the drudgery, especially in country like India. In slums and resettlement colonies, running water and toilets are often not available. Therefore, resources need to be spent on water and sanitation, electricity, childcare and health care to help improve women’s lives. A report by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights in 2018 indicated nearly 65 percent of girls who were out of school were engaged in household work.
The International Labour Organization’s (ILO’s) 2018 data on India shows that women in urban areas spent 312 minutes on housework whereas men spent 29 minutes a day. In rural areas, it was 291 minutes and 32 minutes, respectively. This is huge gender gap which has not been addressed in any serious way. Furthermore, for middle and upper-class households, this work has been outsourced to lower class women, thereby completely bypassing the need to address it as an issue of gender inequality.
In countries where domestic help is costly, families have had to do the work of care themselves and this has led to greater involvement by men as more women entered the workforce.
In India, this has not occurred and, therefore continues to diminish the work of care. Care work and housework are lifelong and continuous. None of us can live without this work being done. But in India, it will continue to be devalued work that perpetuates class and caste divisions as long as inequalities grow, and it remains women’s work.
Policies and interventions, as well as changes in social norms, are all needed to tackle the huge inequality and injustice that our country and others are facing. The figures are a clarion to that we cannot go on with business as usual.
(The author works on issues of women’s safety and rights in cities)