By Safeer Ullah Khan
Culture plays a very important role in setting gender norms, and unfortunately, culture is heavily tilted against women. As the division of labor is very clear – man is supposed to earn, and woman is supposed to take care of the house. Man earns, so he has the control over finances. Woman takes up the role of the care giver, which is inherently unpaid job, so woman remains dependent on man (on father in her early life, on husband in her middle life, and on son in her later life). In rural areas, she has added responsibilities of fetching water, collecting woods for fire, and rearing animals. This makes her overworked, and leaves her with no leisure or free time for herself.
The gender roles are so strictly defined that it becomes nearly impossible for men to come to the support of their women even if they want to. In some parts of Pakistan, if a man is seen hugging or kissing or carrying his child, (let alone bathing his child or changing the child’s clothes), the entire community would be making fun of him. If a man does any chores assigned to women by the society, the man is taunted for being feminine or slave of his wife.
Culture puts the responsibility of care giving exclusively on women’s shoulders. As they are mostly caring for their own children, husband, or in laws, they are not supposed to ask for money. Any woman making such a demand would be severely censured by the entire community. Though it is a very important job, its importance is not acknowledged by the family/community/society or even the State.
Women’s role of sole care providers is yet to be recognized as an issue. Our policy makers have to cover a lot of distance to reach the point where they would be able to understand this issue, and do something about it. There is no conscious effort on addressing caregiving as a gender issue at policy level. Our state institutions (parliament and Council of Islamic Ideology) are still discussing ways and means to subjugate women further, and making it legal for husband to beat their wives if they think their wives are not serving them well.
However, there are some measures that have been taken by various governments (Federal and Provincial), and these measures have addressed the issue of caregiving to some extent. For example, when a government installs water supply schemes, it helps reduce the burden on women as they no longer have to cover long distances to fetch water.
Similarly, Benazir Income Support Program (BISP) is another way of empowering women as the federal government pays a small stipend to women directly. Women must have their citizenship card (called Computerized National Identity Card or CNIC), and they themselves have to go to the bank to collect money. Thus the money lands actually in the hands of a woman, which gives her a certain financial power. These steps have raised women’s status within the household. More women have been allowed by their male relatives to get CNIC.
Similarly, the Punjab government has been particularly focusing on bringing women into workforce. It has increased quota (reserved seats) for women in government jobs; it ensures that women benefit from various schemes like subsidized loans, skill training programs, representation at various government institutions etc. Such steps are encouraging women to take up various jobs other than caregiving. These steps are improving their financial status as well.
Anyhow, there seems to be no conscious effort to change the mindsets around caregiving. Hence the women, who take up jobs, have to fulfill their caregiving responsibilities as well. So venturing into paid work actually doubles their burden. Man goes to his workplace, when he comes back, he relaxes, watches TV, plays games, or goes out with his friends. Woman goes to her workplace, and when she comes back, she has to cook, clean, wash, and serve her man. Such a woman is overburdened, overworked, stressed, and often has a guilty feeling for being unable to fulfill her responsibilities properly.
It is really difficult to talk about impact of assigning the role of caregiving exclusively to women in the absence of any authentic data. Domestic work is an informal sector of the economy. It is not regulated by any law so far. Hence there is no idea about how many paid domestic workers there are, or how many of them are male and how many are female. Their wages are again not documented. In such a scenario, it is not possible to quantify the caregiving being provided by women. We cannot make any reliable estimates about their contribution to the economy.
However, it is very clear from these very facts that caregiving and domestic work is not considered important. It is not getting any attention, which means women’s work is being underestimated; it remains unacknowledged/unrecognized, and undocumented.
As caregiving is considered women’s job, it limits women’s choices in many ways. The first and foremost is that most of the women do not take up jobs because they have to stay at homes to provide care to the children, elderly people, and animals at home. While men have all the freedom to go out, and take up any jobs they like.
If a woman is allowed to go out of her home to earn, even then she has to keep in mind that she needs to be back home in the afternoon or evening because caregiving is her responsibility, and it is not shared by the male members of the family in spite of her job.
A man can go to another city if he has a better offer, but a woman would have to decline such an offer because she would not be able to get back to her home every evening. Similarly, women have to let go off many opportunities for promotions, and trainings just because they have to fulfil their basic responsibility of providing care. Thus it hampers their financial/career growth, and makes them more dependent on their male relatives for their economic survival, and this dependence makes them weak, and vulnerable to domestic violence and abuse.
There is a serious need to pay attention to this aspect. If this issue is addressed properly, it would have considerable impact on women’s status as an equal human being, would empower women financially, and would contribute to reducing violence against women.