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Unpaid Care Work : Are Women Getting A Raw Deal?

Posted: May 24, 2014

If you spend time cleaning, cooking, washing, and taking care of your family, do you deserve recognition? Why women believe their role as care-givers is pre-destined, and why this must stop.

I vividly remember an uncle of mine telling me how his wife does nothing, while he brings the bread to the house. He was implying that the daily chores had no value to add to his smooth-functioning existence. And this was a young, educated man, raised in a city.

A typical scenario in an Indian home includes at least one female member of the house doing the daily chores, breaking her back, and still being called a Housewife (which is considered equivalent to having no job). This scenario, is much worse in rural areas where the number of family members to take care of, and the number of household tasks multiply immensely.

The situation of rural women who are unable to open their mouths cannot be imagined. On one of the field trips to Bihar (one of the most backward states in India), I came across a family of 8 members with one woman in the productive, young age group taking care of all of the rest. Her daily chores included taking care of her 5 children, husband, his parents, and the animals of the house. With poverty on one hand, and her cooking, washing, bathing, care-taking cycle on the other, she was made to believe that this is the reason why she exists.

To me, this extreme burden with no appreciation or accountability on the part of society sounded brutal. Not only did it violate her body but  it had also created mental stress in her, giving rise to multiple health problems (without a care-giver for herself!). Worse still, she was  beaten up quite often by her husband. Needless to say, her productivity is challenged every day, like that of many other women. With little food to eat, little energy to carry out these chores, the children ended up being neglected many a time, leading to poorly developed adults later on.

To me, this extreme burden with no appreciation or accountability on the part of society sounded brutal.

What happens to the benefits the Government provides them with, like free food and health care,  or adult education ? She pointed out, “When I am at home, I am always busy doing different tasks. When do you expect me to go outside to the health care center to get myself examined? That is only done when the situation is out of hands. This is my role as a woman. I have to be the nurturer of the house and so, at the end, I don’t find time to think of myself.” One woman and multiple children often lead to ignorance with respect to education, health & sanitation, and even building civic values. Thereby, she might just bring up her daughter in the same way, with the same values: this is my fate!

It’s a vicious circle.

This is a common sight. For women like her don’t know what to do except take it as their fate. It is even more painful when nobody acknowledges the care activities, let alone provide them with right kind of resources to function smoothly. The rights of caregivers are symbiotically intertwined with rights of care receivers. For me, I think the Government providing funds and resources is one aspect but simply providing access of care givers (who are mostly women) to resources should not be an indicator of  their use of these resources too.

“This is my role as a woman. I have to be the nurturer of the house and so, at the end, I don’t find time to think of myself.”

What is required is that the society starts a) accepting unpaid care work as a form of work, b) helping to provide a support structure for the woman who is doing the back-breaking tasks and c) converting access to usage of services. While it is easier said than done, I think what we truly require along with Government efforts is a Behaviour Change Campaign.

Right now, rural women (urban too, atleast in India) face two kinds of problems with respect to their daily care chores:

a) They don’t know that its not their prescribed job but a gendered role that was given ages ago and has been going on as a tradition, and;

b) the people around, the care receivers, don’t understand the concept of how if these starting points don’t exist, their own productivity is hampered. Acceptance and acknowledgement by their peers is a crucial aspect of defining empowerment with respect to unpaid care work.

I have thought of this many a times. In fact, I have been a party to many debates where I have been the only one arguing, making people understand how its not a biological role for women, but a choice that they make, for which they need to be valued. Behaviour Change Campaigns are very crucial.

And so, when I think of how to raise this issue as a major “Human Rights” issue in the country, here is what I think could help at the community level: Media Advocacy, Using Edutainment Strategy (Education through Entertainment) via soap operas, Talk shows, positive reinforcements through movies, re-scripting the way we see women in homes, are a few steps. We still have a lot of communities who enjoy access to folk music, folk dance, nautanki (local theatre) and so, using these to reach the unreachable local women in order to make them aware is crucial. The process has to be smooth in order to avoid rebellion from the community and so, I have seen that local community media is the best way of taking the message forward. In this the immense pool of ICT Tools: Internet, SMS technology etc can help create huge momentum with the help of  Opinion Leaders. At the local level, the opinion leaders like Panchayats (Local governance bodies) with Women heads can be a crucial starting point to take the message forward. Training of community workers to see this aspect and then take it forward can be very helpful.

Behaviour Change Campaigns are very crucial.

In my personal experience, soap operas with educational messages work, and storytelling and reinforcing positive examples  among the community is vital. If people around her start valuing her presence, the process of her participating in decision making, education of children, her own growth and development, health facilities etc will smoothen up.

Policy advocacy is important, but that has to come along with a change in tradition and age-old customs and defined roles of women as care givers. I have seen how policies in India remain as paper documents that don’t percolate down to the most crucial level of the country, the household.

My heart waits to see a house in a village in India where the man helps a woman in the kitchen, where the grandparents do more than just sitting and sipping hukka (tobacco) and where a woman goes to a doctor when she doesn’t feel well. That my dear friends, would be the starting point of change.

What is needed for you to take note of this? Just a question:

Are you valuing the unpaid care work around you?

 

Pic credit: Jacqueline Tinney (used under a CC license)

 

A Development Communication & Social Work professional working in the field of gender, health and

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