Women’s unpaid work results in time-poverty which reduces gender equity and women’s economic empowerment

Women perform 2.6 times more unpaid care and domestic work than men, according to a UN Women report. As the world focuses its attention on the effect of climate change on women, under the theme of “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow”, one must reflect on one of the prerequisites for sustainable livelihood — economic empowerment. 

As the world celebrates International Women’s Day on 8 March, women continue to face inequalities that rob them of economic opportunities, ultimately limiting their voices in sustainability conversations. Time-poverty — a lack of discretionary time brought about by inequitable gender-based allocation of unpaid labour — is one of the major sources of economic deprivation among women and girls. Restrictive gender norms limit women’s control over resources such as their own time, curtailing the achievement of their full potential, which would otherwise benefit their families, communities and nations.

Girls between the ages of 10 and 14 spend 50% more time helping around the house than boys of the same age. By adulthood, women in developed nations spend an average of two times as many hours as men on unpaid work a day, and 3.4 times in developing nations. This work involves cooking, cleaning and caring for children and older people. 

In rural areas, the disparity is even greater. For instance, in rural Guinea, women devote an average of 25.6 hours a week to domestic work compared to men’s 7.2 hours, while in Guatemala, women spend 3.3 hours a day doing unpaid work compared to men’s 0.9 hours.

The women who join the workforce end up with a “double-load”, which leaves them with little or no discretionary time. This is because women still carry out domestic responsibilities regardless of employment status. A time-use survey in Mozambique in 2013 revealed that, although women’s income-generating work was similar to men’s, caregiving and housework were almost entirely the women’s responsibility. 

In rural Pakistan, 37% of employed women were found to be time-poor compared to 19% of employed men. These issues are not only unique in developing countries. In the US, working mothers spent an average of 14.2 hours a week on housework compared to working fathers’ 8.6 hours. When all types of work (paid and unpaid) are considered, women work longer days than men on average. 

There are health implications for this inequity of time-poverty. In South Africa, a study on pregnant women showed that daily chores such as fetching water and fieldwork decreased the use of prenatal healthcare services. Women have also reported delays in seeking HIV treatment because of caregiver responsibilities. 

Time-poverty can also lead to mental stress in women and girls, because they often make poor food choices and have less time to exercise. This adds to the already disproportionate access to healthcare by gender that is exacerbated by the lack of finance. Without money of their own, women’s inability to afford health care services or medicines is limited. For instance, not being involved in income-generating activities was associated with increased delay in seeking emergency obstetric care among rural women in Bangladeshi. 

The economic implications are numerous. Time-poverty prevents women from fully participating in the monetised economy, impedes girls and women from completing school, getting paid work and working as many hours for pay as men. Women are thus forced into lower-paying jobs, leading to limited economic productivity and growth of national economies. Girls and women are also more likely to postpone marriage and child-bearing to minimise domestic demands. 

The World Bank estimated that in 2018, among people aged 25 to 34 in peak productive and reproductive years, 122 women were living in poverty for every 100 men. Women are credited with producing only 37% of global GDP, which excludes from the national accounts. But a study in Guatemala estimated the value of household and caregiving work to be 30% of the nation’s GDP in 2000, yet it remains unrecognised.

Making finance accessible to women provides a window of hope, to mitigate the effects of time-poverty by improving their quality of life. Girl children are more likely to complete school to their ability, women are more likely to get better healthcare, and make better nutrition choices, all of which benefit economies overall. Moreover, access to financial services helps women make better financial decisions such as saving.  

There is evidence that increasing the share of income earned by women is correlated with expenditure in favour of future generations. This altruistic motive can be supported by savings mechanisms and policies that encourage women to save. Thus far, women remained excluded from financial access and the financial sector in general, leaving them to participate in informal mechanisms to access and manage their finances. The situation is dire in rural areas where formal financial institutions do not operate

Tax policies can be a starting point for governments to integrate household responsibilities into the national accounts. Although developed countries do consider expenditure on children and older people when submitting one’s personal tax returns, such provisions do not exist in the tax structures of many developing and emerging economy countries.

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Elizabeth Nanziri
Dr Elizabeth Nanziri is senior lecturer in development finance and the director of the African Centre for Development Finance at the University of Stellenbosch Business School

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