By Mary Otieno
When I was a child, it was taken for granted that during my school vacation visits to relatives in Nairobi, I would spend much of the time doing household chores in exchange for little more than food, transportation, and the excitement of being in the city. Not until years later did I realise I was the victim of a widespread form of discrimination called “unpaid care work”.
Consisting for the most part of cleaning, cooking, and caring for children, the elderly or the sick, this work is carried out mainly by girls and women. Three out of every four hours of unpaid work are done by women according to the 2015 Human Development Report, published by the United Nations Development Programme.
Unpaid care work is less widely publicised than other issues affecting women – like sexual violence and female genital mutilation. But it too can have devastating physical, emotional, and economic impacts. That´s why we must draw attention to the issue and strive for changed attitudes and behaviour, starting in our own families.
As an educator, I´m especially concerned about the negative effects of unpaid care work on girls’ schooling. Because girls do more than their fair share of this work they tend to miss class more often than boys. And that, in turn, reduces their chances of completing an education and obtaining paid employment. Another real danger for unpaid care workers is their exposure to communicable diseases.
This work clearly has enormous value for African societies. Yet, such work is mostly unrecognised and unrewarded. Labour regulations in African countries, like in many other parts of the world, turn a blind eye to the community dynamics that put unpaid care work on a voluntary basis. Nor is this work accounted for in labour surveys used to calculate gross domestic product.
I was fortunate enough to escape the worst consequences of unpaid care work. Despite the discrimination I suffered as a child, and still do as a wife and mother of boys, I managed to finish my education and develop a stimulating career in education. But, what about the many others who are not so lucky? Are there solutions for them?
An important first step is for families to get accustomed to sharing the unpaid care work and also the practice of paying wages for care work. In my own family, for example, I recently prevailed on my brothers – despite staunch resistance – to share the costs of hiring a lady from our village to care for our mother during her recovery from a fracture.
To achieve wider change in African societies, however, we need a comprehensive approach, based on what we might call the “three Rs”.
First, recognition of the vast amount of unpaid care work being performed today and its central role in society.
Next, reduction in the time and drudgery involved in providing care.
And finally, a redistribution of responsibility for this care between members of the households and with the state through the provision of public services.
Personally, I´ll settle for contribution by my husband and sons to do care work around the house, not to mention a word of thanks once in a while for all the cooking and cleaning I do.
Professionally, though, we must achieve more. While making inroads in our own families, we must also advocate for societal change, based on research and advocacy. If we can succeed in making payment for care work the new norm, then boys and men will have an incentive to do their fair share. And if that happens, the gender stereotypes that label men as providers and women as caregivers, and that are used to justify unpaid care work, may someday be nothing more than a childhood memory.
Dr Mary Otieno is a lecturer and supervisor of educational planning and policy studies at Kenyatta University and a Femnet member.
With the aim of bringing greater recognition to unpaid care work, the latest issue of the African Women´s Journal dedicated to gender and macroeconomic policies includes two articles on this pervasive form of gender discrimination.