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Why Does The GDP Still Count Women’s Unpaid Care Work As An ‘Act Of Love’?

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Sexist economies are fuelling inequality crisis —enabling a wealthy elite to accumulate vast fortunes at the expense of ordinary people, in particular, poor women and girls. Consider this data, 22 richest men in the world have more wealth than all the women in Africa.

Oxfam released its report,Time to Care’, ahead of the World Economic Forum at Davos. Every year, since 2014, Oxfam has focused on issues that affect, amplifies, and exacerbates inequality. This year too shows how the wealth of the top 1% of Indians has seen an increase of 46% while the bottom 50% saw an increase of just 3%.

The issue of unpaid care work is central to women’s economic empowerment. Representational image.

The focus, however, is on unpaid and underpaid care work done by women and girls, which is extremely important, is the most neglected in our economies.

Unpaid and underpaid care work are the hidden engines that enable the smooth movement of our economies, businesses, and societies, yet the women and girls are among those benefiting the least from today’s economic activity. Despite being the drivers of the economy women and girls do not get an education, or an opportunity to earn a decent living or have a say in how society runs; ultimately getting trapped in the bottom of the economy.

Doing more than three-quarters of all unpaid care work, women often are forced to work reduced hours or drop out of the workforce because of their care overload. Making up two-thirds of the paid ‘care workforce’ working roles, such as nursery workers, domestic workers, and care assistants, they are often poorly paid and provided scant benefits often taking a toll on their physical and mental health.

Due to poor wages that women are paid, women-led households do poorly, economically.

With an ageing global population, it is estimated that by 2030, 2.3 billion people will be in need of care. And given the current situation, the onus is going to fall on the women and girls, who, despite doing well on the education parameters, will be forced to stay out of the labour force.

A still from the Hindi movie ‘Dangal.’

Data shows that the female labour force participation rate (FLFPR) has reduced in India. While for urban women it has remained largely stable between 2011-12 (20.5%) and 2017-18 (20.4%), the slide in rural women’s labour force participation is much more drastic and worrying — 35.8% (2011-12) to 24.6% (2017-18). It is worth noting that in 2004-05, the FLFPR was 24.4% and 49.4% for urban and rural, respectively.

It is an interesting fact to note that most women in India who are in their prime working-age (30-35 years) have reported being only engaged in ‘domestic duties’, i.e., looking after the household and taking care of family members. These not only affect the country economically but also socially; by reinforcing the age-old patriarchal mindset that women are only and only supposed to run households and consequently, they are kept out of the workforce.  

While on the one hand, social norms and patriarchy confines women to household and care roles, on the other, the quality of work is questionable with textiles-related vocations followed by domestic cleaning being the two most common professions among urban working women. Among rural workers, 73.2% of women were engaged in agriculture, implying that non-farm jobs for women in rural settings are rare or difficult to access.

The SDGs recognise unpaid care work as a positive contribution to the societal well being as well as the imbalance that is created between men and women due to the burden of such work (which primarily falls on women). There is, hence, a need to address this issue in order to achieve gender equality.

It makes a simple call to “Recognise and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure, and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate.”

The statement makes care work a very important activity in the economy, but is not accounted for while calculating the GDP and instead, is assumed that care work is an intrinsic role for a woman, it is discerned to be an “act of love.”

All these duties often act as burdens and take a toll on the mental and physical well being of women; often adversely affecting their education and aspirations. One important aspect that must not be overlooked is that the whole concept leads to abhorrent cases of violence against women in the household.women empowerment

If the number of hours that women and girls spend doing unpaid care work is calculated and juxtaposed on the GDP contribution the numbers are staggering.

Women and girls put in 3.26 billion hours of unpaid care work each and every day, this is equal to a contribution of at least ₹19 lakh crore a year to the Indian economy, which in turn is equal to almost 20 times the entire education budget of India in 2019 (₹93,000 crores).  

The issue of unpaid care work is central to women’s economic empowerment, and not accounting for it in national statistical systems and economic growth measurements are likely to meaningfully impact policy interventions aimed at improving access to opportunities for women to further their economic agency and decision-making capacity.

The agreement reached by the International Conference of Labour Statisticians (ICLS) in 2013 whereby unpaid work should be classified as work is a firm starting point to mainstream the issue in the national discourse. The 4Rs of unpaid care work —recognise, reduce, redistribute and represent — should be the framework guiding policies and programs that seek to address the skewed distribution of unpaid activities among men and women.

The state plays an important role in reducing the skewed distribution of unpaid work between men and women and the issue should be viewed as a shared responsibility between households and governments. There are certain steps that have been taken by the government to ensure greater participation of women in the workforce, like the amended Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2019, Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, and Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana (PMMVY).
Women and girls put in 3.26 billion hours of unpaid care work each and every day. Representational image.

While this is appreciable, it is important for the government to take a few more steps. Apart from the list of recommendations proposed by Oxfam India, the Indian government should take a few more steps.

It should make care a universal right through the provision of a holistic social protection plan in consultation with State governments. The plan must include community participation and should be largely publicly funded.

In addition, reduce the burden of traveling long distances, budgetary support for programs on piped drinking water and cooking gas for poor and ultra-poor families must be provided to ensure that households falling on or under the poverty line receive such services.

It is also important to make the issue of unpaid care work a central feature of addressing and promoting women’s economic empowerment. Gender Equality is not only a means of achieving a healthier financial growth rate, but also is a means to achieve a much wider set of goals including, but not limited, to reduction of poverty, and ending marginalisation, and discrimination.

About the author: Shivam Pal is a guest writer at Oxfam India.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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