The burden of unpaid care work amidst Covid-19 and the expansion of gender inequality


IN response to the COVID-19 pandemic, governments around the world adopted lockdowns and social distancing as parts of measures to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. One of the after-effects of this is a rise in the need for unpaid care work – a service largely provided by women and one of the factors that fuel inequality between genders.

Encompassing works like cooking, laundry, fetching water, child-care (homeschooling inclusive), care for the sick, care for the elderly and more; care work is the oil that greases the engine of society. It ensures the smooth functioning of human societies, preventing them from descending into chaos. The designation of care work as belonging to women and girls stems from gender stereotypes and is erroneous. To be clear, beyond the biological aspects of reproduction, the notion that care work is an obligation to be fulfilled by women and girls is nowhere indicated on their anatomies.

According to Oxfam International, the monetary value of care works contributed daily by women and girls is put at $10.8trillion annually. This triples the sum generated by the tech industry and shows how central the contribution is to economic development. Women and girls put in 12.5 billion hours every day to get the work done. But despite its efficiency and essential nature, care work remains invisible, undervalued, and are unremunerated in Nigeria.

Although at the slow progress, efforts committed to empowering women and girls towards the attainment of gender equality have yielded continuous progress. More women have emerged beyond the traditional roles of housewives/mothers to outstanding professionals in various fields. With this major shift, women are armed with equal skills and capabilities as men, and they contribute in equal measures to the workforce, leadership, and social development. They are also co-providers or breadwinners in homes.

Unfortunately, the burden of paid work has not in any significant way reduced the burden of care borne by women. Care works aren’t going anywhere. They would exist as long as we have human societies. The ideal response would be to have them distributed among individuals living in a household — men, women, boys and girls.

The reality, however, is that women, whether they work in the informal or formal sectors bear a double burden of working in private spaces as much as they work in public spaces. Affluent and middle-class women get the work done in proxy by hiring domestic help. Even in these instances, they are responsible for giving directives.

Research has shown that abandoning care work in women’s terrain undermines their fundamental rights, limit their opportunities, capabilities, and their choices. It inhibits their empowerment as the large amounts of time they spend doing these invisible work prevent them from fully participating in the political, civil, and socio-economic spheres. In that sense, we see how care work accounts for the exclusion of women in public and social spheres. The impacts must be worse for women in poverty.
There are also health challenges associated with bearing the burdens of care.

For instance, women who become overwhelmed with such work do not get leisure or self-care time. They are physically stressed and suffer exhaustion. In addition, combining unpaid care work with paid work has been known to trigger mental health issues resulting from the pressure on them to succeed ‘all-round’ – what is generally referred to as work-life balance rather than work-life management. In trying to strive for a balance, several women admit to experiencing severe burnouts.

What is worse? COVID-19 pandemic, the UN says will impact women in more severe ways! The disruption of the education sector means parents will be unable to outsource child care. As a result, a good number of women will be forced to choose between earning money and staying back home to take care of their children. Again, the “heightened care needs for older persons and overwhelmed health services all mean more unpaid and/or underpaid work for women!

Bear in mind, that until now the massive efforts put in day-in-day-out into care work are without financial rewards. Given the patterns consistently experienced in crisis and pandemics, an increase in demand for care work will have even higher effects on women’s lives and their lifetime earnings. This economic dynamic will further widen the gap of income inequality – making poverty more feminine. An unintended consequence of this will be a spike in cases of violence against women. Lack of financial independence has always made women more susceptible to abuse. Other likely consequences are discrimination and exclusion. And all of these could accumulate to a greater threat – a rollback in the gains that have been made over the years in the area of gender equality.

Rethinking Gender Response to Covid-19
Responses to Covid-19 in Nigeria must acknowledge the significance of care work engaged in by women, before now, and especially at this time. Our responses must include an evaluation of the specific contribution of care work to societal development. To achieve this, there is a need to accumulate data on various dynamics of care work. The media and civil society groups can help in this regard by generally mainstreaming gender into their works, and more importantly, perspectives on how Covid-19 has aggravated care work and how this is affecting women and girls at various intersections of their identities – social class, economic status, physical abilities and so on.

Availability and access to such gender statistics will help inform and guide policies that will address the attending challenges of unpaid care work, and domestication of women. By the way, is Nigeria still too underdeveloped to begin to consider the option of paid-care especially in the form of child support benefit? At least for up to two children?

The time to ramp up advocacy on caregiving as a gender-neutral work that must at all times be distributed is now. The advocacy should focus on reorienting men, boys and other members of the family to take up fair shares of care work. Testimonies of such interventions designed by Action Aid are proof of how women’s and men’s perception of care work can change and how this can transform human lives and societies altogether.

Since care work has been found to be the missing link in the analysis of gender gaps in workforce participation, wages, and the quality of job delivery. For example, motherhood penalty, is a term used to describe the sporadic decline in earning powers that women experience when they have children. And according to research, women confront this penalty for up to twenty years after the birth of their first child.

Unfortunately, the lockdown period will likely see us recording a hike in unplanned pregnancies and childbirth. We know this because according to Women Deliver sexual and reproductive health and rights of women which include modern contraception, safe abortion, maternal health services and safe childbirth, telemedicine are less prioritized during crisis and pandemics. In the process of providing emergency responses, the essential health and social services for girls and women are defunded, causing their health and sexual rights to become threatened. We envisage an impact of these on the experiences of women in the workforce during and post COVID-19.



    For these reasons, COVID-19 interventions on labor must be gender-responsive. Policies in workplaces should include supports like paid maternity, parental leave (although varied, but for men and women), and remote work options for nursing mothers. If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has proven that lots of work can be done remotely with the aid of several technological tools. Where remote work options are unavailable, organisation and corporate bodies should commit to providing crèches to improve mother and child proximities.

    There is a need to confront the subtle exclusion that women experience in the workforce because they are pregnant or because they are nursing. The discrimination they battle at job entry levels as consequences of their reproductive functions and not because they lack the skills and capacities for such openings must be addressed. Such barriers should be replaced by gender transformative policies that are designed to support and equip women with the skills they need for professional development and leadership. Here, the approach to achieving gender equality must incorporate equity.

    We must also ensure that young girls are not held back in homes as care providers. The possibility of this is very high with schools and daycares remaining closed as parents resume work and earn their living. In the long-term, such girls may be denied access to education, especially the skill set and capacities they need to effectively participate in the future where work will mostly be artificial and digital.

    Busola Ajibola is an advocate of women’s and girls’ rights on issues of equality, social justice, elimination of violence, and inclusion. She writes from Abuja.

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