What would society be without unpaid care?

The value of domestic and unpaid care work lies in its recognition and appreciation as a valuable contributor to everyday life. However, this work is often discounted through the patriarchal lens of value and work. In fact, it's the very definition as work that is not really regarded as such, is an unveiled and perhaps a bold attempt at reclaiming its significance from its peripheral status. Reading through "A Utopia for Realists", a passage in the book intimated the crucial role that was played by garbage collectors who downed their tools and brought an entire city to its knees forcing the administration to the proverbial table to negotiate on the working conditions of this indispensable working force. Before you throw out this article mid-read, allow me to juxtapose the effect of the drastic, yet unavoidable, course of action was taken by the garbage collectors with that of the primary caregivers and domestic workers, women.

An Oxfam in Kenya recent Household Care Survey 2019 conducted in Nairobi’s informal settlements revealed the disproportionate distribution of timeshare between men and women in unpaid care and domestic work. As a man, my mind went immediately into calculating the average income of men and women: men spend way less time than women in unpaid care and therefore get more time for paid work consequently earning on average more than women. This creates an inequality not just in the distribution of income within the household but also in the power dynamic therein.

So again, it makes sense to make the economic argument that begins to position women in their rightful place as integral economic persons in the working and, very well, the survival of the household. What is the actual opportunity cost-related to unpaid care work based on the average earnings and foregone hours of work? Once the numbers are crunched the argument can be made at the National Treasury that first, women make a significant contribution through unpaid care and domestic work to the economy. Second, and consequently, because of this economic contribution, a tax credit should be awarded to all women, especially the poor, to increase the threshold for taxes relative to their income band.

Fundamentally, I think I was flawed in my thinking because other parameters of the study indicate that there was a wholesome value derived from unpaid care and domestic work. The value was one that spoke to an intrinsic worth in the nature of the work, as well as a derived core value for the woman doing the work. The idea is not necessary to quantify the work and justify it within the male patriarchal and capitalist economic system. Instead, how do we recognize the value and importance of the work? How does government invest in social services that enable unpaid care and domestic work lessen the burden of the women who have to go out in search of water for tens of kilometres with, at times, a baby on their back and still having to ferry the water back to the household? What spaces exist for these women to participate in governance and revenue management decisions (women have proved to be better managers of resources) within the current societal structures.

Back to the story of garbage collectors, what if all women downed their tools and decided not to do any form of unpaid care or domestic work? Is the world ready for such devastation? Can households and communities withstand the withdrawal of women’s care?

It is imperative that we challenge the system of patriarchy that exists in a manner that reconfigures our mind maps and assumptions about how things ought to ‘work’. It is certainly time to recognize the greater good that is harnessed by unpaid care and domestic work as work for the entire society and not just that which is laden on women.