Tha Saroeuna is the mother of six young children. Working at night is the only option for Saroeuna to ensure that they all have enough food and the children can go to school. Her husband is a construction worker and together they earn approximately 200$ per month.
Besides taking care of her children, Saroeuna also cleans, washes, cooks and when they don’t earn enough, she sells vegetables that she grows at the local market. With very little time for herself, by the end of the day she is exhausted, but has no other choice but to carry on.
“I want to change my job [working during the night] but I have six young children […] and I have to look after them during day time”.
Saroeuna’s story resonates with millions of women not only in Cambodia, but also around the world. Women like Saroeuna not only carry the heavy burden of poverty, they also take on the household chores, caring for children, the ill and the elderly.
Our wives, mothers, grandmothers, sisters and daughters provide an essential service to our communities, ensuring the wellbeing of individuals and families, but how much of this work is appreciated and valued by society?
Women disproportionately spend more time on household chores and care work than men. According to a report released by ILO in 2018 on care work and care jobs, in Asia and the Pacific region women do four times more unpaid care work than men. This figure is even higher in Cambodia where men perform only 18 minutes of caring and household services per day, compared to 188 minutes for women.
Due to deeply rooted and culturally accepted gender roles and social norms that define “caring and household work” as a woman’s job, women across the world spend a lot of their time meeting the expectations of domestic and reproductive responsibilities. How is this work affecting women? If you are a woman, I don’t need to tell you as you already know.
The impact of this work deeply affects women physically, emotionally, economically and politically. The constant family work and care for children, husbands and the elderly take a toll on women’s overall health and well-being.
Because of the care responsibilities and domestic work, women’s participation in the workforce is also negatively affected. With limited time to improve their skills and look for better jobs that will allow them to earn a higher income, a lot of women are pushed into the informal sector.
Once in the informal economy, women’s opportunities for decent work and access to social security are very limited, keeping them trapped in poverty. Additionally, if women are expected to do all this work by themselves, it is no wonder there are so few women participating in politics and taking on leadership roles.
Unpaid care work is a barrier to gender equality and women’s economic empowerment and without recognising it and addressing it, the road to gender equality will be a long and hard one. Women’s domestic work and care within the family has long been taken for granted, it’s unappreciated and invisible, although their contribution to the economy is huge.
According to a recent report released by Oxfam before the start of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the unpaid care work performed by women accounts to the equivalent of $10.8 trillion (yes trillion). Our global capitalist economy generates enormous wealth, but also creates huge inequalities, mostly felt by women.
The report also indicates that worldwide, men own 50 per cent more wealth than women. Men also predominate in positions of political and economic power; just 18 per cent of ministers and 24 per cent of parliamentarians globally are women.
The same report highlights the increase in inequalities across the world, with only 2,153 billionaires having a combined wealth greater than that of the remaing 4.6 billion people. Cambodia is no exception to the global trend. With a GDP growth at seven per cent per year, Cambodia is one of the fastest-growing economies in the region.
The progress that the Cambodian government has made in the last few decades is undeniable. The poverty has been reduced significatively, the maternal mortality has decreased, and health coverage has increased, the income levels are growing, and the quality of life is improving.
However, this growth is hindered with the increasing levels of inequality between rich and poor. The country still lacks essential quality public services, like health care, childcare and education that women like Saroeuna and her children could access.
So, the question is: What more can the Cambodian government do to address the economic inequalities and increasing care crisis?
With concentrated efforts and political will, Oxfam believes that a more human economy is possible, where everyone has secure jobs and decent work and every woman and child can fulfil their potential. Increasing spending on social protection policies, ensuring access to maternity protection and income support for women during pregnancy and after birth are fundamental steps in the right direction.
Investing in public childcare services and child support could free up time for women allowing them to access formal work and create new jobs in the care industry. Through a more progressive taxation system, it’s possible to improve the quality of essential services, such as health care and education.
Additionally, paid maternity leave for all women in the formal and informal sector, as well as increased paid paternity leave can promote shared responsibility of care between women and men.
The government is also in a key position to take steps to transform social norms and challenge stereotypes that confine women in taking care of the house and her family as their “primary role”. Maybe then, a more equal society that cares for all citizens is possible where the needs of women like Saroeuna are addressed and their dreams of having a better life can become a reality.
Mariana Anton is Regional Policy Coordinator for Social Protection, Oxfam Cambodia