Gender equality should be the new social norm

It baffles me to think that despite being an egalitarian, I excused a grave form of injustice to women- heavy and unequal unpaid care and domestic work which is disproportionately a women’s responsibility. I am an advocate, not only by being admitted to practice law in Kenya but because of my inner voice always calls me to stand up for the oppressed and voiceless, in my little ways. My quest for gender equality as a feminist had never led me to question one of the root causes of inequality (heavy and unequal unpaid care and domestic work) between men and women.

Just like many others, I was socially raised to be a marriageable career woman. I was told that I should be able to undertake domestic work and take care of my family, both present and future. Trying to balance my schoolwork and domestic work was an arduous task, it left no sufficient time for leisure and rest. When I think about it, I realize that the education system and the religion I was exposed to then, only reinforced socialized gender roles. Without playing the blame game, I think society contributed to my past blindness to women and girls’ missed opportunities as a result of gendered unpaid care and domestic work.

Unpaid care refers to all non-market, unpaid activities carried out in households including both direct care of persons, such as children or elderly, and indirect care, such as cooking, cleaning or fetching water. It also includes services rendered to the community for free for instance during funerals, weddings, church events among others. In many parts of the world, this work is considered a women’s and girls’ role. The fact that care and domestic work is a social good cannot be overstated. It becomes unacceptable when it is disproportionately placed on women and girls leaving them with no time to pursue paid and civic empowerment. Heavy and unequal unpaid care which is one of many root causes of gender inequality, remains largely unaddressed. A society is considered equal when men and women have equal access to resources and opportunities. This includes economic participation and decision-making

Kenya and other countries in the world are recognizing the importance of gender equality in achieving sustainable development. A study by Oxfam on Gendered Patterns of Unpaid Care and Domestic Work in the Urban Informal Settlements of Nairobi, Kenya, 2019 revealed that women’s unpaid care responsibilities are a key constraint to women’s participation in leadership, public life, education, self-care, and economic opportunities. The report recommends that care work should be recognized at all levels, redistributed, reduced to allow women and girls’ representation in decision making spaces.

Unpaid care is a practical issue that we have all experienced at some point in our lives either through offering care or receiving it. Some social norms can be the root cause of the unequal distribution of unpaid care and domestic work and they are often considered the hardest to tackle. Recognition of the gravity of this issue should challenge everyone to make a difference. Social norms represent the acceptable standards of behaviour in a particular context. Oxfam in Kenya’s report indicates that socialization plays a big role in determining the participation of men in unpaid care and domestic work.

Changing social norms is difficult. However, narratives can change because the same society that creates these norms can also change them over time and with the right information. I am particularly drawing attention to the power that parents, guardians, teachers, and religious leaders have in moulding better and equal societies. Although it will take considerable effort to change repressive and patriarchal social norms amongst the present generation of patriarchal men, future generations can be shaped at an early age. This is the power and space that we can count on and exploit for a more equal society. Change begins at a personal first then, household level. Modern-day parents and guardians should recognize that each has a part to play towards advancing gender equality. This starts by treating boys and girls equally without assigning them ‘socially accepted’ gender roles. The same applies to other community members such as teachers and religious leaders that instil morals into our children and young people.

What was termed socially acceptable years ago is no longer acceptable. The gender inequality we are grappling with in the present generation should be handled now and efforts made to prevent its recurrence in the future. Each one of us must play their role in creating a world where our boys’ and girls’ social upbringing is anchored on equality. Let us be part of shifting these social norms! Let’s strive to set good examples for little ones in our lives and teach them that unpaid and domestic work is not for girls alone to do and neither is engineering or plumbing a ‘men-only’ occupation. Being male or female has nothing to do with the work that one can do. It is not a favour that women and girls are asking for, it is a necessary and wise action to take towards fostering gender equality for the good of the entire society.