That the household work of women considered natural and that is why it is unpaid is a product of patriarchy. To address the issue of unpaid work in Bangladesh, there is urgency for recognition of the embedded institutional rigidities that reproduces the system, writes Rashed Al Mahmud Titumir
The economic and social policies have always overlooked the contributions of unpaid work of women. As is typical throughout the world, women in Bangladesh bear the major burden of work in and around home, yet the monetisation of unpaid family work of women has received very little consideration in Bangladesh. Given the existing institutional barriers along with the hurdles of patriarchal society, women are generally deprived of their traditional means of livelihood and their housework is not valued or counted as the part of the economy at the same time. The option for women to make choices and to claim rights to decent living have remained elusive in the context of survival, and hence their lives have been subjected to violence, injustice and dispossession.
Like elsewhere, in Bangladesh, the typical thinking is that men are responsible for ‘outside’ work and women for housework and childcare, even though women work outside households. The feminisation of labour has been accelerated by the growing need and the decline of familial support. Ever-increasing pressures for sustenance has pushed women to engage in income generating activities. Despite the increased participation, women are given no choice but to live in dependent condition because of patriarchal social structure. Women who have paid employment are to continue to bear the responsibilities for housework despite the rising share of women in the labour force.
The foundation of the economy of a nation largely depends on work. But the fact is that paid work is counted as part of the economy and unpaid work is not considered and not counted as part of national income. Thus the crucial contributions of women remain invisible. The invisibility of much of work done by women in the home and the fields add to their low status and the ill treatment from which they suffer. Unpaid workers thus fail to get the status they deserve.
As a society, it should be recognised that women are doing the bulk of the work and are not being financially rewarded for doing so. They are often deprived of equal access to health care, capital, and decision making in and outside the family.
Measurement of unpaid household work is, therefore, important to better understand the income distribution as well as to achieve more comprehensive estimates of the level of economic activity while giving visibility to their work. Valuation of their work would likely to establish them as an important player in the economic scene, and would likely to cause multiplier effects in improving their overall contributions and participations in economic activities and social life.
The measurement of unpaid work of women in terms of monetary value is hugely complex and might be impossible to generate a precise, accurate value of unpaid work of women. The Unnayan Onneshan, an independent multidisciplinary think-tank, conducted a country-wide survey in seven districts of seven administrative divisions and the number of households from each district was selected using probability proportional to size (PPS) method. A total of 520 women — 202 from rural and 318 from urban areas — were chosen randomly and interviewed for the purpose of estimation. Two recognised methods — the opportunity cost and the market replacement cost — were employed to estimate the monetary value of the unpaid household work by women in the country.
The opportunity cost method, which measures the amount what women would earn if they are employed as waged labourers instead of engaged in unpaid domestic work, estimates that the total unpaid women work a year might be equivalent to Tk 111591.48 crore or $14.45 billion, which is equivalent to 10.75 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) of the country.
Using another procedure, the market replacement cost method, which measures what it would have been spent if someone had been hired to carry out the work, the think-tank finds out that the total amount of the unpaid work by women in Bangladesh might be equivalent to Tk 33691.86 crore or $4.36 billion. The total GDP of the country was Tk 1037990 crore in the 2012–13 financial year.
It also estimates that the total engagement of women domestic work in Bangladesh might be equivalent to 9.3 million full-employment a year.
The economic value of unpaid domestic work by women would have been much higher if the wages of women in Bangladesh were not comparatively low and the wage deferential between men and women was not so high. The percentage of the value of unpaid work in the share of the GDP in Bangladesh remains low as compared with other countries because of the lower wage structure in different occupations in Bangladesh.
The main point of this study is not to arrive at an appropriate figure rather to give a sense of the magnitude of contributions made by women through the presentation of reasonable ranges of estimates. The extent will vary considerably depending on how we continue to value or undervalue work performed by women. It is anticipated that family work of women without pay will raise attention to the vital role played by women and the continuing need to work towards equal status for women. Learning to value women is one of the vital steps that must be taken to create more humane, healthy, balanced, and caring societies. Acknowledging the value of the work carried out by women for their families could be an important start.
That the household work of women considered normal or natural and that is why it is unpaid is a product of patriarchy. For addressing the issue of unpaid work in Bangladesh, there is urgency for recognition of the embedded institutional rigidities that reproduces the system. Unless and until such realities are recognised and responded with appropriate policies, institutional structures and monetary instruments, it will be impossible for achieving real equality in the society.
Dr Rashed Al Mahmud Titumir, who teaches development studies at Dhaka University, is chairperson of Unnayan Onneshan.