This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7
Division of labour
But the power of childbearing is a blessing laced with bitterness, because in every society in the world it is a power that is turned back against her. And, instead of defining just one difference between men and women, women’s ability to bear children is used to define their entire lives. The labour of childbirth is just the beginning. Though the cord that binds mother to child is severed, the role that binds woman to domestic work and child-rearing holds fast throughout her life.
There can be few generalisations that hold as true throughout the world: unpaid domestic work is everywhere seen as woman’s work, woman’s responsibility. It is important, vital work. Food must be cooked, infants fed, clothes washed and mended, water and firewood collected. And it all takes time. A woman in a Pakistani village, for example, spends around 63 hours a week on domestic work alone. Even in the rich world, where water comes from taps and cookers heat at the flick of a switch, a housewife works an average of 56 hours a week.
But housework is invisible work. Those long hours - totalling 40 billion each year in France alone - go unvalued, unrecognised, unpaid. Yet their contribution to society is enormous. If the services provided free by a housewife in the US in 1979 had to be purchased with wages at market rates, they would cost $14,500 a year. On this kind of calculation it is estimated that unpaid housework done in the industrialised countries contributes between 25 and 40 per cent of gross national product (GNP).
Domestic work is not, however, the only work women do. There are relatively few women anywhere in the world who can claim to be ‘just a housewife’. Even in Europe 35 per cent of married women have a job. And of those remaining women without formal employment nearly half are either retired, in full-time education or looking for work.
But a working woman in Europe can expect little or no help from her husband at home. In Italy 85 per cent of mothers with children and full-time jobs outside the house are married to men who do no domestic work at all.
In the developing world the picture is the same. There is ‘man’s work’ and there is ‘woman’s work’. And, because many women do additional work outside the home, whereas few men would dream of doing any additional work inside it. ‘woman’s work’ always ends up simply being ‘more work’. In a village in Rwanda, for instance, men tend the banana trees and do most of the paid labour outside the home. Women, on the other hand, do virtually all the domestic work, three-quarters of the other agricultural work and half of the work with animals. Taken together. women in this village work over three times as much as men.
Women do not choose to take on extra work in addition to their domestic responsibilities. They have no option. In most parts of the world a woman’s labour - in the fields growing food, packing transistors on a production line, typing a never-diminishing pile of letters - is absolutely vital to her family’s survival. In fact it is a rare family indeed which can manage on the proceeds of just one person’s labour. Eighty-three per cent of women with four children in France have full-time jobs outside the home too. And they are working because they need the money.
The chief injustice lies less in the extra work women must do outside the home than in the assumption that it is their role - and their role alone - to do all the work inside it. This assumption is a triple injustice. It is unjust because it means that women around the world end up working twice as many hours as men. It is unjust because they are not paid for those hours of work. And - the final insult - it is unjust because domestic work is looked down on as not being ‘real’ work at all - because it is unpaid. The circle is finally closed by men’s refusal to take on work that is both unvalued and unpaid, Woman’s work it is and woman’s work it will stay - part of a vicious circle that keeps women trapped on the treadmill of a double day.
Work or children
In the centrally-planned economies, and in kibbutzim communities in Israel, the emphasis is more on paying wages for domestic work and child-care outside the home. But the economies of scale involved in this solution have inherent drawbacks: in the kibbutzim parents and children found they missed the intimacy, warmth and privacy of traditional family life; while in the USSR there is a disturbingly high rate of illness among the 30 per cent of children cared for in overcrowded crèches.
Solutions like these, that depend on the good-will and commitment of men (at home and in government) seem unlikely to succeed. This is because the status quo - with women providing gratis the major part of the world’s domestic services - suits both husbands and governments very well. They have a ready-made class of labourers providing, for nothing other than board and lodging, a whole spectrum of services that would otherwise have to be purchased in the market place.
The failure of more just, more humane, solutions for easing women’s double workload have left them with some very difficult decisions to make. Many are in an impossible position. If they work a 15-hour day they put their own mental and physical health at risk. If they work fewer hours they may not earn enough or grow enough food to support their families, If they do less domestic work they may put the health of their children at risk. Small wonder that, for these and many other reasons, women are beginning to take advantages of the new forms of contraception that are now available in many countries - and are opting for fewer children.
The family-planning boom
At long last it is possible for substantial numbers of women to choose when, whether and how many babies they will bear. And for those women that choice means better health for themselves and their babies. Just as, in a garden, seeds planted too closely together yield small, sickly plants with little resistance to disease, so babies born too soon after one another stand less chance of a healthy life. Studies in Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan found that babies born within one year of each other were nearly three times as likely to die before their first birthdays as babies born more than four years apart.
And, just as seeds sown too closely take all the goodness from the soil that nourishes them, so a woman’s body too becomes sapped of its strength: less able to work long hours in field or factory, less able to withstand the cold of a long New York winter or the ills that lurk in the warm mud of a Bangladesh summer.
Most women understand only too well what incessant childbearing can do to their own and their children’s health. And half of all women in the3l countries investigated by the World Fertility Survey have decided they do not want any more children. In the space of just one generation, the average number of children women want has dropped from six to four, and a quarter of married women are now using some kind of contraception.
Availability of contraception
Nor are lack of knowledge and the shortage of contraceptive services the only factors affecting a woman’s desire and ability to have fewer children. Often her own preferences are opposed - by her husband, her religion, her doctor, or her government.
The sheer number of abortions (estimated at around 50 million a year) is a poignant testimony to the lengths women will go to the guilt and heartache many women experience - and which cuts deep into their relief - is bad enough. In the poor world, where only one person in two ever sees a trained health worker, a woman who decides to have an abortion is a woman deciding to risk her life. And she knows this only too well, having seen the bloodless faces of other women in the village.
But, for these women, abortion - heartbreaking and dangerous though it is - often seems the only solution. They calculate the threat to themselves, or to their other children, that a new baby would bring. And they take their decision.
Why women have children
In rural areas of the poor world children are valuable: not just for their bright-eyed smiles and the joy of watching them learn and grow, but because their labour is needed. In Latin America, for example, where women bear an average of between four and five children, the biggest families are found in regions where crops like coffee and peanuts are grown. These crops need individual planting and weeding, and their fruit needs picking one by one - so those extra pairs of young hands can make the difference between a ten-hour and a 15-hour day in the fields. In Mexico 72 per cent of parents say the reason they had children was for economic support’.
It is not only poor rural women who want more children. The double burden of responsibility that forces a woman to weigh up the costs and benefits of work and children and choose between them means that many women - rich and poor - who are using contraception would dearly like a first, or another, baby.
Using contraception may release them from their biological destiny of conceiving and carrying babies. And it is certainly the first step in releasing them from their social destiny of child-care and domestic work. But the price of that freedom is often the sacrifice of a wanted child. That women must pay this price, or make this choice at all, demonstrates the failure of the family to serve women’s needs in modern society.
In traditional subsistence communities, where labour and harvest are shared, men. women and children are bound together with ties far stronger than love: joined by the firm knots of interdependence. But cash, jobs and wages loosen the knots and create new ones. Wages are tied to wage-earners. Jobs are tied to towns. The ties that bind women to domestic work loosen last of all, so it is men who have tended to take the majority of jobs.
In theory jobs for men and housework for women should sort people neatly into nuclear families. In practice the trend is for men and women to separate, rather than cling to one another, cemented together by their complementary roles in the nuclear nest.
Migration is a major cause of this high number of female-headed households. The population of the world’s cities doubled between 1950 and 1980 and will have doubled again by the year 2000, when half of the world’s people will live in cities. And most of those people will not be hailing cabs or boarding elevators in the concrete and glass high-rises of the rich world. They will be scrambling into buses and rickshaws, standing in queues at factory gates, spilling into the shanties and townships, the favelas and barrios, of the poor world.
The failure of the family
These women are doubly disadvantaged. They are often left without help at crucial times of the year, having to manage the ploughing, the planting and harvesting on their own with as much help as their relatives, children and friends can spare. And their rightful share of their husband’s wages is often spent far away in the city, leaving them waiting in vain for a letter to arrive at the village post office.
Nor is migration the only factor prising women and men apart. Divorce rates are rising all over the world, in rich and poor countries alike. Since 1960, for example, the divorce rate has doubled in almost every European country, trebled in the Netherlands, and there has been a more than fivefold increase in the UK. Each year over one million children in the US see their parents divorced; in Barbados the divorce rate rose ten-fold between 1948 and 1975; and in Bangladesh and Mexico one in every ten women who have been married has been divorced or separated.
Many of these divorces are due to men leaving their wives. And it is a man’s economic power - the money in his wage packet, the salary in his bank account - that levers him away from his wife and children. A man who works 40 hours a week for a low wage, for example, may see his wife and children as expensive nuisances. A man with a larger salary tends to leave for different reasons. He can afford to treat his wife as a commodity, discarding the old and used to make way for the new.
But the jobs that lead men to abandon women can cause women to abandon men too. A woman with a professional job, for example, has less need of a man to provide for her children and can begin to pick and choose, selecting only the man who offers enough money, prestige or love to make up for the fact that he leaves all the domestic work to her. Illegitimate births in Denmark, the US and Sweden trebled between 1960 and 1976,
A similar phenomenon is occurring in some of the poorer urban areas of the developing world. Here, however, the likelihood is that neither partner is in formal employment and a man who refuses to do domestic work turns out to be more trouble than he is worth. In the Dominican Republic and in Panama, for instance, ‘non-formal unions’ outnumber marriages and in many other Latin American countries they comprise one-fifth of households.
Migration, jobs and wages are strong magnets wrenching marriages apart. But death is the strongest of all. In many countries it is not a living man that abandons a woman, but a dead one.
One in ten women in Bangladesh who have ever been married are widows: one in 20 in Colombia and Mexico, In the rich world women in their sixties outnumber men by four to three. In older age groups the ratio is still more uneven, with twice as many women as men aged over 80, This unevenness is because of women’s longer lifespan, which averages six years more than men’s in the rich world and two years longer in the poor world. One-third of people living alone in the US are old women, and old women outnumber old men living alone in the UK by four to one.
In some parts of the world an old woman never loses her niche in the family, often acting as mother to her grandchildren while her daughters and daughters-in-law are out working. Eventually, however, many old women need to be cared for themselves, And, as usual, it is women who take on the responsibility. In the industrialised world 70 per cent of the health care for old people is provided by women at home. And, again, it is women who are forced to choose between domestic work, children and employment. In the UK, for example, an estimated 300,000 women remain unmarried and childless so that they can care for their ageing parents.
Depending on the family
But basing national plans on this assumption is neither realistic nor just. The necessity for women to work outside the home, together with the rising rates of divorce, separation, migration and illegitimacy. demonstrate that it is unrealistic. And placing these responsibilities on women’s shoulders alone is unjust.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7
Anti-Muslim fervour is rife – yet is being ignored by the authorities, says Lewis Garland.
Mari Marcel Thekaekara congratulates the country’s Dalit community on finally winning legal protection against discrimination.
‘The Wicked Witch is dead’ but although he’s celebrating, Alan Hughes urges us to fight on against everything she stood for.
Argument: Should prostitution be legalized?
Argument: Is it time to ditch the pursuit of economic growth?
If you would like to know something about what's actually going on, rather than what people would like you to think was going on, then read the New Internationalist.
– Emma Thompson –
Save money with a digital subscription. Give a gift subscription that will last all year. Or get yourself a free trial to New Internationalist. See our choice of offers.