Unpaid care work mustn’t be poverty trap for women

Women often do unpaid work like fetching water and looking for firewood. - Picture by Beauty Muchakazi

Women often do unpaid work like fetching water and looking for firewood. – Picture by Beauty Muchakazi

Stanely Mushava Features Correspondent
Motherhood is a sacred thread in urban music, religion and psychology.

For experts, the mother is an immense figure in the cultural strivings of modern society because of her role as the primary, sometimes solitary, care worker.

“It is not a coincidence that the mother is celebrated in the music of the ghetto,” observes popular culture expert, Tanaka Chidora.

“In a significant number of cases, particularly in Mbare where I grew up, the woman raises children by her herself. So she becomes the natural reference point of parental care and love,” he points out.

The 3-D picture of single parenting is attributable to death, divorce and diaspora but also occasioned by the mother’s lone labour of love while the father is either at the workplace or the bar.

Struggles to cope with economic pressures and gender sensitive strides of modern society are, however, altering the elementary functions of marriage whereby the husband was the provider while the woman was the caregiver.

More women now juggle the hunting and care-giving functions in both the rural and the urban setting. The classic snapshot of the informal economy consists of a woman vending along the downtown sidewalk while attending to her children in the same space.

Men drown their financial headaches in alcohol while women fight on two fronts, hence the female face of poverty in ghetto anthems. Culture has legitimated the absence of the father figure with costly implications for both the woman and the children.

According to a recent study by Oxfam Zimbabwe, failure to mainstream and improve the conditions of unpaid care work is a gender millstone weighing down women from actualising their economic, social and political potential.

Rumbidzai Mtetwa, a coordinator of the Women’s Economic Empowerment and Care (We Care) Programme which Oxfam recently piloted in Zvishavane, Bubi, Umzingwane and Umguza, said there was need to improve conditions for care provision as difficulties involved had economically disenfranchised women.

Improving conditions in which unpaid care work is administered will free up women’s time and enable them to be more economically productive through paid care work and participation in development projects for their communities.

“The most problematic tasks identified in the areas in terms of time and difficulty were caring for the sick, fetching water from distant sources, collecting firewood and preparing meals,” Mtetwa said during a round-table briefing on care issues convened in Harare last week.

Adverse economic and weather patterns can only compound the problem.

Villagers in Gutu, Zaka and Chiredzi, for example, are waking up at around 4AM to travel up to four kilometres in search of water.

Failure to institute villager-friendly infrastructure, particularly boreholes, provide affordable transport and redistribute care work means women’s health, care efficiency and economic mobility are seriously compromised.

Mtetwa said women do an average of 5.9 hours of care work and 11.3 hours of care responsibility, including looking after children and dependants, compared to men’s 1.1 hours of care provision and 3.7 hours of care responsibility everyday.

“The presence of infants, elderly, disabled persons and ill adults in households also increases the demand for care in a household. The demand for care in these households is three times compared to a household with none,” Mtetwa said.

She pointed out that there was need to improve the means by which care work is administered while ensuring that the vulnerable stay guaranteed of care provision.

Care provision in the districts under review was identified as multi-tasked and intensive for women. Mtetwa pointed out that provision of services and infrastructure which alleviate the heaviness of care work was critical for enhancing the economic productivity of women and the efficiency of care work.

“Women indicated that access to electricity and lighting will enable them to engage in paid care work like weaving baskets and sewing during the night after completing their unpaid care tasks,” Mtetwa said.

“Labour saving equipment plays a very critical role in reducing care work by saving time and the health of the family. Ownership and access of small gadgets like flasks, warmers, water containers, wheelbarrows, tsotso stoves help to reduce and promotes redistribution,” she said.

Global health and population expert Gita Sen once observed: “Women stand at the crossroads between production and reproduction, between economic activity and the care of human beings, and therefore between economic growth and human development.

“They are workers in both spheres — those most responsible and therefore with most at stake, those who suffer most when the two spheres meet at cross-purposes, and those most sensitive to the need for better integration between the two.”

Speaking on the sidelines of the We Care round-table, Permanent Secretary for Women Affairs Gender and Community Affairs Dr Perpetua Gumbo said unpaid care work disadvantages women right from infancy as female pupils saddle time-consuming responsibilities while their male counterparts are studying and advancing.

“The problem has always been with us. It is embedded in our culture but it would be wrong not to acknowledge that it prejudices girls academically with lasting implications,” Dr Gumbo said.

He said efforts were afoot to influence attitude change so that girls get the best out of school and maximise their professional possibilities.

“Statistics worldwide indicate that poverty puts on the face of a woman. Government through the ministry has continued to support the implementation of livelihood programmes aimed at poverty eradication,” Dr Gumbo said in his keynote address at the round-table briefing.

He added that organisations working with communities had not formulated sustainable concepts and urged that development work be context-informed.

Dr Gumbo acknowledged organisations which had initiated sustainable livelihood projects for women and said Government was committed to cross-cutting interventions and partnerships aimed at empowering women economically.

“We are assisting women in capacity development; we are helping them register small-scale business and we are linking them with markets. We are working with ministries such as Mining and Agriculture to ensure better economic prospects for women,” he said.

He said Government had enacted an extensive and progressive body of legislation to empower women and promote equality.

Roselyne Nyatsanza, also a co-ordinator of the We Care project, said women sometimes failed to take the lead in community development initiatives and to utilise economic opportunities available for them due to failure to navigate the divide between care work and the productive sector.

“A few exceptional women do, but for too many women, progress appears held back by invisible barriers such as negative social norms, gender-based violence, low education levels and limited access and control of resources and assets,” she said.

She emphasised that care work, which is considered normal therefore seldom up for deliberation, must be eased through necessary innovations and interventions.

“Care is critical for human well-being and social good. We all continuously receive and give care, not just the weak, vulnerable,” she said.

She said while the project affirms the need for the quality care of persons, and affirms the right of women and men to give and to receive care, it is necessary to ensure that heavy and unaided care does not become a poverty trap for women.

According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights’ 2013 Report on unpaid care work, slanted responsibility for care entrenches women’s disproportionate vulnerability to poverty across their lifetime.

“Heavy and unequal care is a barrier to women’s greater involvement in the labour market, affecting productivity, and economic growth,” observed the report.

“Across the world, millions of women still find that poverty is their reward for a lifetime spent caring, and unpaid care provision by women and girls is still treated as an infinite, cost-free resource that fills the gaps when public services are not available or accessible,” said the report.

Organisations such as Hope for a Children in Christ are engaging rural women for group self-help concepts.

Sibongile Mbanje, who works for the group, said they had initiated internal savings and lending groups which were empowering women to start income-generating projects such as poultry and brick-making.

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