Bringing Unpaid Care Work from the Private to Public Arena –
Through the ‘Empowerment’ Looking Glass.
Sepali Kottegoda D.Phil (Sussex)
Women and Media Collective
2 March 2017
I would like to thank the Australian Human Rights Commission for inviting me to speak here today, as part of its events to mark International Women’s Day. I would also like to thank Jera International which, last month, hosted a Sri Lankan delegation of 15 women including myself on a 3 week DFAT Australia Awards Fellowship on the Care Economy. It was an excellent opportunity to learn about the policy and programme framework on Care, both Unpaid and Paid, the institutional processes, the role of the private and public sector and that of volunteers in delivering services, and also to share our experiences from Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka is an island in the Indian Ocean, the size comparable to Tasmania with a population of 21 million, just a little smaller than that of Australia. The population comprises 50.1% females and 49.3% males.
In 2012 the sex-ratio (the number of men per 100 women) in the total population was 94 and in the population 60 years and above it was 79. By 2032 it is projected that this will change to 92 and 78 respectively. (Indralal de Silva, 2015). At the outset, we have to recognize that Sri Lanka has an ageing population which in the next two decades will comprise significantly more women than men.
We have a long record of state provision and extensive outreach of health and education services that are accessed by girls and boys, women and men. The result has been decades-long record of high social development indicators. The average literacy rate is 93.2; it is 92.4 for women and 94.1 for men (Central Bank of Sri Lanka 2016).
The challenge is to evaluate whether the levels reached have benefited and enabled both women and men to achieve equal economic opportunities and social status. The focus of this presentation is on the need for recognition and enumeration of unpaid care work which continue to be the burden of women in their gendered roles as wives, mothers and daughters.
Does ‘Equal’ Access lead to Equal Sharing?
I would like to highlight some key factors that have affected women that would be helpful to understand the socio-economic and cultural dynamics of gender relations in Sri Lanka. (See Sri Lanka Shadow Report submitted to the CEDAW Committee, February 2017).
For over three decades, more than a million women have sought short term overseas employment, primarily as domestic workers in countries in West Asia. This phenomenon has brought in millions of US$ to the country, in some years being recorded as the highest avenue for foreign exchange. There has been much focus on the vulnerabilities faced by these women, due to weak commitment to and implementation of internationally recognized labour contracts in the countries of destination. At the same time, returnee women migrant workers have channeled their savings to build houses, buy auto rickshaws for their spouses or sons, enabled their children to enjoy a better standard of life.
Throughout this period, there have been strident calls to ban women from overseas employment and, regulations were brought in to ‘discourage’ women with children below 5 years of age from undertaking overseas employment. This measure has seen the ‘legitimising’ of women as the sole carer and person responsible for her children, effectively undermining the carer role of fathers.
The past three decades was also a period when the country suffered from an ethnic conflict which took thousands of lives and left thousands of surviving women as heads of their households, and the sole provider for their families. There are few, if any, facilities that these women are able to access that would assure them care for their dependents while they look for or engage in income earning activities. Finding work that brings in a living wage continues to be a daily struggle for most, vulnerability compounded by years of trauma and displacement.
For over two decades, women’s organsations advocated, campaigned and pushed for ‘temporary special measures’ in the form of quotas to increase the representation of women in the political arena. For years, the male dominated political party leaders argued that women should come into politics on merit only. That this would negatively impact on the family and that of the role of women as mothers. Others argued that women’s representation, less than 6% in Parliament and less than 3% in Provincial and Local Government was because politics was violent and women didn’t like violence. There seemed to be a tacit acceptance that men liked violence and that is why they were in politics. It is only in the last year that the Government approved a quota of 25% for women in Local Government elections.
The notion of women as mothers, carers and the primary person responsible for the well-being of the family runs through all these spheres which effectively is the factor that holds women back.
Does ‘Caring’ Work?
The concept of ‘care’ is not necessarily associated with ‘work’. ‘Care’ is often conflated with notions of altruism or unselfishness and self sacrifice rooted in the family and related to a system of a gender division of labour where women are seen to play the key role as care givers.
In mainstream economics as well as in social perceptions of persons, ‘work’ is understood as activity that brings in monetary income; ‘having a job’, ‘looking for or engaged in employment’.
The need to recognize unpaid care work for the economic value it contributes to a country first came into focus in the 1980. Kate Young and others looked at women’s labour in its different aspects and the ways in which the global capitalist market honed in on the critical importance of women’s labour to the production of goods but without recognition of the value of women’s reproductive roles . Marilyn Waring questioned why women’s work in the home is not counted as contributing to the national economies. has been a paid to broadening the concept of work to bring out a more nuanced and complex understanding of the different ways in which women and men positioned in social and economic sectors contribute their time and labour.
Unpaid, CARE work
‘Unpaid’ means that the person doing the activity does not receive a wage and that the work, because it falls outside the production boundary in the System of National Accounts, is not counted in GDP calculations. (UNDP Policy Brief: Unpaid Care Work 2009).
The total working age population in Sri Lanka 15 years and above: 15.2 million; the sex disaggregated population 15 years and above comprises 8.2 million women and 7.0 million men. The working age population is further enumerated as Economically Active and Economically Inactive to estimate the proportion of those who form the labour force and those outside the labour force.
Economically Active Population: All persons who are/were defined as ‘employed’ or ‘unemployed’ during the reference period of the survey.
Economically Inactive Population: All persons who neither worked nor were available/looking for work during the reference period.
The Labour Force Participation Rate (LFR) is defined as the percentage of the current ‘economically active’ population (the labour force) to the total working age population.
The population recorded as ‘not looking for work’ during the reference period are categorised as ‘not in the labour force’ or Economically Inactive.
The DCS (2015) estimates that out of a total of 7.0 million persons categorised as being ‘outside the labour force’, i.e. economically inactive, 5.2 million or 74.8% are women and 1.7 million or 25.2% are men.
Engaged in Housework
This phrase most often includes what are termed ‘reproductive activities’ i.e. preparing food, washing, cleaning, caring for the young, and the old members of the household.
These are activities that, if carried out by someone hired for the purpose, would be valued in terms of a wage.
The person who is paid wages for household care work is
– counted as being ‘in the labour force’
– categorised as being engaged in ‘productive’ work.
Enumerating Unpaid Care Work
This is critical to understand the role that women play in contributing not only to the ‘social and economic’ well-being of the family but also to the national economy.
Economic Value and Public Policy
For households and families to be sustained on a daily basis, women provide their labour and time working on average 15-18 hours per day. The challenge to economists as well as to gender equality advocates and policy makers is the fact that Care activities are explicitly excluded from estimates of a country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
In recent conversations with women community organisers on understanding unpaid care work, they observed that :
If a woman has a job/is employed, there are times when men or other household members would share some elements of housework because they understood that she was ‘tired after working’.
But, if the woman is a full time housewife, she is not seen to bring money into the household, and such consideration or support was markedly absent.
• A recent study in Bangladesh has brought this issue into focus and holds the promise of the adoption of similar methodologies in Sri Lanka. Bangladesh carried out a comprehensive survey on unpaid care work to, ‘estimate the cost of unaccounted work performed by women and connect the findings with mainstream national accounting’.
The basic methodology aim was to:
• estimate time spent by both men and women for daily activities
• estimate the economic value of women’s unaccounted activities
make recommendations for capturing women’s contribution to the economy with a view to improving women’s status in family and society.
Centre for Policy Dialogue (2014). Estimating Women’s Contribution to the Economy: the Case of Bangladesh. Dhaka.
The study found that ‘Based on replacement cost method, the estimated value of women’s unpaid work was equivalent to 76.8% of GDP (FY 2013-2014)’.
The Bangladesh study shows that using, developing and focusing methodology is essential for better data collection on women’s and men’s socio-economic roles for more focused economic policy.
Centre for Policy Dialogue Bangladesh Ibid. p. 15
Reproductive is Productive
Assessing the economic contribution of women must necessarily include work that is done for monetary remuneration as well as work that is done in the ‘reproductive’ sphere without which no household functions, and no workers would be able to engage in ‘productive’ work.
It calls for government and other social and economic actors to put into effect comprehensive measures, regulations and policies that would provide national level data on the value of unpaid care work, invest in safe childcare facilities accessible to women and provide incentives for employers to encourage men to share in household care work with women.
A century ago, Engels (1888) argued that women’s liberation was only possible if they move out of the oppression of the home into the labour force.
On-going research and analysis of unpaid care work, however, brings into focus underlying principles of patriarchy which bind together social norms, unequal power and the labour market that continues to oppress women through the burden of housework.
The mainstream development discourse for the most part has recognised gender based discrimination against women.
The Sustainable Development Goals have gone the furthest to include Unpaid Care Work in Goal 5, the stand-alone Goal on Gender.
Yet, the complexities of inequalities of power in the ‘reproductive’ household arena and the ‘productive’ economic arena needs to be fully grasped, if we are to reach Goal 5.
Economic development, expanding production, trade and services has undoubtedly brought more women out of the home into the labour force. Millions of women have access to their own income; some have found a level of independence engaging in decision making.
Yet, there is a gap, a marked disjunct between these changes, not by accident.
Enabling women to understand unpaid care work in terms of the time that is put in and the value of that work is a key factor in political organising to bring the issue into the public arena.
Reviewing and revising definitions used in national statistics is needed to assess unpaid care work in the labour force.
Fundamentals of recognising and valuing Unpaid Care Work necessarily calls for an understanding that ‘the Gender Inequality in unpaid care work is the missing link in the analysis of gender gaps in labour outcomes, such as labour force participation, wages and job quality’.(Ferrant, Pesando and Nowacks, 2014).