Unrecognised, undervalued and under the radar of most economic measures, the unpaid care work done by the world’s women is finally getting some long-overdue attention at the U.N.’s 58th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).
In the world of work, the global unpaid daily labour of women caring for families - including children, the disabled and the elderly - across the life cycle is one of the most valuable and costly resources routinely discounted by those assessing economic strength in economies, according to experts.
As a result, some women’s rights activists are lobbying for unpaid work to be included in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will replace the U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015.
“We ask the basic question: Is poverty to be the reward for a lifetime of caring?” Elizabeth Broderick, sex discrimination commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission, said on Tuesday during a panel on “Women’s economic opportunities: Unpaid care and beyond”.
Women spend twice as much time as men - an average three hours more per day - on housework and childcare, and about two and a half hours less per day than men on market activities, according to Gender at Work, a recent World Bank report.
Regardless of nationality, gender, social class and income, the burden of unpaid care work falls most heavily on women, particularly in poor countries. These women may spend hours collecting firewood and water in regions lacking sanitation, clean water and electricity, as well as affordable health services and childcare.
Unpaid care work is a barrier to women gaining decent wage jobs outside the home and an obstacle against young girls getting the education they need to find paid work in the future.
It also contributes to the fact that women’s participation in the labour force has stagnated at about 55 percent since 1990 - another costly but often overlooked fact, said panellist Jeni Klugman, director of gender and development at the World Bank, who prepared the recent report on women and work.
“It’s not our position that all women should have the same jobs as men or that every woman should be in the workforce. But what it does mean is that they should have an equal range of choices available to them,” said Klugman.
A recent International Monetary Fund (IMF) report found that raising women’s participation in the labour force to the same level as men’s would result in significant GDP gains - a boost of 5 percent in the U.S., 9 percent in Japan, 12 percent in the United Arab Emirates and 34 percent in Egypt.
The “male breadwinner and female bread maker model still persists” and must be stopped through a change in social attitudes, said Raphael Crowe, acting director of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) bureau for gender equality. He added that the issue of unpaid work will be explored in the recently launched ILO’s Women at Work Centenary Initiative leading up to the organisation’s 100th anniversary in 2019.
Unless the public and private sector find solutions to the problems hampering girls’ and women’s ability to find decent work, the situation will be exacerbated as the male workforce in many nations declines due to an aging population.
Women also will be aging, many of them without any retirement financial provisions due to a lifetime of unpaid care work, working part-time or working in the informal sector without benefits.
Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner Broderick pointed out that some employers and countries, such as Sweden, Canada, Finland and the UK, have begun to issue or consider issuing credits that can be used toward retirement benefits for women who were absent from the workforce due to unpaid work at home.
Panellist Magdalena Sepulveda Carmona said the new Sustainable Development Goals must address unpaid care work and consider the issue as a standalone goal.
"It's hard to think of a human right that is not impacted by lack of support for unpaid work," said Sepulveda, the U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. “It is one of the missing pieces of women’s empowerment.”