FOR long it has been debated by women's rights activists and economists arguing for social justice that if the value of women's unpaid labour — read housework — were calculated the GDP of a country would shoot up.
According to studies done by various international groups, it is estimated that in some developing countries the contribution of women's unpaid labour accounts for nearly a third of GDP.
Since no formal data on women's informal economic contribution is computed in Pakistan and the government's statistical bodies do not collect information of this kind, women figure in the national economy only if they are members of the formal labour force. The invisibility of women accounts for their poor status. In this capitalist-consumerist world of ours economic worth is now the only measure of a person's human worth.
In this context I was pleasantly surprised when I received a report titled Economic Contribution of Pakistani Women through their Unpaid Labour. The author, Zehra Arshad, who is a remarkable researcher and advocacy activist for causes such as women's rights and education — she is now the national coordinator of the Pakistan Coalition for Education — prepared this study with a team of eight.
The aim of the study is to gain an understanding of the nature of the unpaid work of women, to calculate its economic worth and to analyse women's own perception of their unpaid work. I believe this is the first time a study of this nature has been prepared in Pakistan. The research was completed in 2008 but it is only now that it has been released.
The activities that have been factored in the calculations are the typical household chores which practically all women are entrusted with — cooking, cleaning, washing, childcare, home management and so on.
In low-income neighbourhoods and rural areas fetching water and fuel are an additional time-consuming duty performed by women.
According to the report, if such tasks, which are estimated to take up 11 hours of a woman's day, were outsourced it would cost every household at least Rs4,000 per month in the urban areas and Rs2,150 per month in the rural areas.
These are generalisations and I may add the calculations are on the conservative side. These estimates say that women are contributing $37.55bn (at the exchange rate of Rs60 to $1 at the time the calculations were done) that is 23.5 per cent of GDP through their unpaid labour.
These are rough calculations and the wages cited appear to be unrealistically low. One can safely jack up these figures and still remain within the bounds of accuracy.
The report conclusively confirms what is generally known. Women are putting in many more hours of work but their labour is not assigned any economic value and as such does not enjoy public recognition. This reminds me of the anecdotal evidence cited by a UN study I had read many years ago which narrated how a person conducting a survey was told by a male respondent when asked what his wife did, “Oh she is just a housewife and does nothing”. When asked to describe her daily activities, the wife proceeded to describe her intensely hectic work in the home from dawn to late night.
We know that the status of women in our society is directly rooted in conventional prejudices that need to be changed. One of these is that a woman who does not work outside the home has no economic value. As for housework it is viewed as something 'obligatory' or 'customary' for women. Significantly, women share the same view.
The three factors which perpetuate this conventional perception are the gender disparity in education, limited role of women in decision-making and policy formulation at all levels and the propensity of women to undervalue their own contribution.
If the status of women is to be uplifted, some concerted measures are called for. The report, Economic Contribution of Pakistani Women through their Unpaid Labour, is spot on in recommending that a start has to be made from our child-raising practices.
We know how the girl child is discriminated against in the family and society. Regrettably, very often it is the mothers themselves who are the biggest culprits.
If the worth of a woman receives greater recognition, the daughters would also be cherished and provided the same nourishment, care and education as their brothers. It is also important that the worth of a woman is taught to boys from early childhood and they are not brought up to believe that they are of a rank superior to their sisters.
Women in policymaking positions in various organisations and the government in sufficient numbers could play a major role in introducing family-oriented perspectives in the workplace. Part-time jobs, shorter and more flexible hours and tax benefits for families could facilitate the participation of women in the formal workplace and not penalise those who prefer to stay home to give time to their family.
But above all, it is important to recognise a woman as a human being who is entitled to similar rights as men. The best form of recognition of the housework she does is for the male members of the family to share domestic responsibilities equally.
The fact is that housework is the very basic economic function in a society and it is the woman who shoulders the responsibility of performing it. She is the main caregiver in a family in our society where no social structures exist to look after the young and the old and also the very sick, in many cases. If Pakistan is surviving in spite of rampant poverty — said to be affecting 51 per cent of the population according to one source — the country has to be thankful to its women.