Maverick Citizen


Working for nothing  — how unpaid care work grossly impacts girls and women

Working for nothing  — how unpaid care work grossly impacts girls and women
The burden of care work in households is primary shouldered by girls and women, who are conditioned to do care work from a very young age. (Photo: Popsuger / Wikipedia)

Unpaid care work, an integral part of economic activity and personal well-being that largely falls on women, is systematically undervalued and invisible. It limits women’s ability to pursue other interests, such as education and employment, and results in time poverty, poor health and reduced well-being which further entrenchs women’s unequal status in society. 

“We conducted a study where we spoke to young girls about care work, one of them said that by the age of 7, she had started doing household chores. It is important to remember there is a difference between teaching a child to take care of themselves and then burdening them with care work — a lot of these children are burdened and do not have time to be children,” said Kodwa Mphepo, a community development practitioner. 

Mpepho was speaking at a symposium on unpaid care work that took place on 23 November at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg.  The symposium was hosted by civil society groups Generation G, ActionAid, Sonke Gender Justice, and Activate. 

Understanding unpaid care work

Caring for children, collecting water, cooking, cleaning, laundry, ironing, and helping children with homework are just some of the activities done in a household to maintain the well-being of everyone. 

This is known as unpaid care work (UCW), an unrecognised and undervalued form of labour that is essential for households and even economies to function. 

The burden of care work in households is primarily shouldered by girls and women, who are conditioned to do care work from a very young age, said Mphepo. It is not only the length of time devoted to UCW that puts women at a disadvantage, it is also the types of activities and nature of the tasks that create and enable further inequalities among women and between households. 

UCW is critical to the well-being of householders who provide productive labour — labour that provides goods and services that have monetary value in society and are compensated in the form of a paid wage, explained Mphepo. 

However, as critical as UCW is, it is often not considered or valued.

“There is still ongoing activism to recognise UCW as actual work and to value it because if you take away UCW it will affect productive work,” she said. 

Mphepo stressed that when talking about gender justice, it is important to include the dimension of UCW and shed light on the unseen burdens that often perpetuate inequalities.

Adolescent girls burdened 

In comparison to their male counterparts, adolescent girls carry the burden of care in their families. Evidence illustrates that primarily adolescent girls, women in their 20s, and women in their 30s bear the brunt of UCW, said Mphepo.  

This is a result of gender expectations, gender roles, responsibilities and behaviour in families that determine who completes the household chores, she added.

“However, this doesn’t mean it just disappears for the older woman though, we have seen households where the grandmother is still looking after the baby,” Mphepo said. 

In a study conducted by Generation G, most girls indicated that they carry out caregiving activities in the morning, before and after school. The burden of care peaks in the afternoon and early evening — a time used by their male counterparts to socialise with peers or study. 

The burden of care influences the socioeconomic status prospects, life paths, and outcomes for girls. As domestic responsibilities increase, time poverty will affect academic success and their ability to find decent work.

Links between UCW and gender-based violence

The hard lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic shed light on the links between UCW and gender-based violence (GBV).  

Read more in Daily Maverick: Minister admits gender-based violence cases rising as lockdown continues 

Mphepo said that many households are primary sites of violence and it is difficult for women in such situations to escape. 

“We saw during that time that there were lots of cases of GBV because a carer was in very close proximity with someone who perpetuated violence,” she said.

South African policy framework around UCW

Mphepo said that the policy framework around UCW in South Africa illustrated some advances. “We are doing well in some areas, but in some areas, we are not doing well,” she said.  

She argued that there is a need for more policies that encourage men to take up more care roles in the household and balance responsibilities. Mphepo said policies that encourage increased women’s participation in the workplace need to acknowledge that women are already serving as a source of labour for the household and the community. 

“If you are a manager starting at 8 am and finishing at 6 pm, your child is waiting at creche. There must be systems in place that enable them to nurture their children while also being productive in the workplace,” she said. 

Paid care work fraught with challenges

Mphepo noted that even when care work is paid in South Africa, there are still various challenges. Domestic workers were one group of employees hardest hit by the Covid-19 lockdown period, with more than 250,000 domestic worker jobs lost between the first and second quarters of 2020, according to Statistics South Africa. 

Community Health Workers (CHWs) also face challenges. Often the first point of contact with the primary health care system, CHWs provide support and assistance to individuals and families as they navigate the health and social service systems. Government outsources the employment of CHWs to non-profit organisations, that pay CHWs a monthly stipend with no benefits. 

“This shows that these workers are still not valued in our communities, and care work is hardly valued whether it is unpaid or paid,” said Mphepo.

Sinqobile Makhathini, a research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation spoke about practicalising the gender conversation alongside the issue of unpaid care work. 

Makhathini referenced Nancy Fraser, a philosopher and political scientist who has explained that capitalism globally underestimates social reproduction, leading to the crisis of care which stems from the broader crisis of social reproduction. 

Reproductive labour and productive labour feed into each other, operating as a cycle, said Makhathini. 

“You will have a woman taking care of all of these chores, but when somebody is doing the so-called productive labour they come home to a meal, a clean room and all these things that are actually taken care of for them,” said Makhathini. 

Confronting gender norms key to addressing UCW

The notion of social reproduction is influenced by gender and gender norms, which are extremely important to confront, said Makhathini. 

“In terms of addressing UCW, we need to speak about how these ideas are institutionalised from the home. From the moment where you’re growing up as a little girl and you’re being told you need to play with dolls and be soft, and boys are being told you need to be tough and not cry,” she said. 

Carrying out UCW also limits how women are supported and engaged within the community. “A girl cannot peruse different interventions or things introduced to her community because her work is now confined to the home,” said  Makhathini.

One of the recommendations Makhathini highlighted was talking about the issue of gender norms and trying to change perceptions about UCW, especially amongst the youth. 

Development policies like the Community Work Programme and Expanded Public Works Programme also need to address UCW, said Makhathini.

“Unicef says that girls between the ages of 5 and 14, spend up to 116 million more hours doing unpaid care work than boys of the same age, and that is a jarring figure,” she said. DM


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