The deadly result of zero-rating women’s work

Ian on Sunday

For God’s sake, what is going on? A young Pakistani girl is shot in the head for trying to educate herself and others like her. A 23-year-old Indian female medical student is beaten, gang-raped and thrown out of a bus like a piece of old rubbish in New Delhi and subsequently dies. And these are just two of countless stories told and untold.

Here too it seems not a day, and certainly not a week, passes without our stomachs being turned by appalling news of women cruelly abused, beaten and, often enough, murdered in headline – hot, red blood.

20130113ianIs this something new and terrible in our society or has it always been so but only now revealed by a more alert public, more concerned government services and a more vigilant media?

Whatever the case, the prevalence of this cowardly and gruesome abuse of women is a standing indictment and grievous affront in any society. Government and community action to reduce towards zero this scourge must clearly continue to be a priority.

But underlying the physical abuse of women is a larger, universal problem affecting the status and well-being of women. It is that the work they do as housewives and mothers is counted for nothing in economic models – which is extraordinarily ironic since the word ‘economy’ is rooted in the Greek for ‘managing a household.’ Zero-rating women’s work in this way represents brutal, paternalistic discrimination which insidiously leads to women’s degradation.

Consider, for instance, the case of children in the home – the countless tasks of nursing, nurturing, feeding, dressing, teaching which fall mainly on women from day one of life; none of that is included in GDP. All of that all-important work is ignored and unpaid.

Unpaid work like this “makes all the rest of work possible,” says Marilyn Waring, a former New Zealand cabinet Minister and Professor at the Institute of Public Policy at AUT University in Auckland. “The market wouldn’t survive if it wasn’t able to exist on the backbone of unpaid work.” Professor Waring calculates that unpaid work is the largest sector of any economy.

And, all around the world, much the greater part of that work is performed by women.

The UN states that although women make up half of the world’s population, they own only one per cent of the world’s wealth.

So imagine, for instance, this absurdity. Women in the countryside who do subsistence farming, producing food which is often healthier and more affordable than processed goods brought in by multinationals, do not have their output counted in GDP while money spent on imported goods does count.
It is astonishing that such vast, back-breaking, productive toil goes unrecognized.

The official lens through which we see the economy and the world is completely distorted.

Contrast, for instance, the zero counted for women’s absolutely indispensable work in hundreds of millions of homes with, say, the destruction of age-old forests by lumber companies or the pollution of rivers by mining companies both of which attract huge additions to statistical national wealth. Mankind must be mad to be comfortable with such nonsense.

When I was in Toronto once Professor Waring spoke at a conference on the economics of mothering. She was utterly commonsensical and convincing.

Interviewed afterwards she said, “For me the patriarchal economic paradigm is the theory and practice of economics that says that women’s unpaid work is not worth anything at all.

It’s not that I want to estimate its monetary value. I want to make it visible for policy-making purposes, for fairness and equality. If you’re not visible as a worker, then you’re not visible in the distribution of benefits.”

“If you’re not visible as a worker, then you’re not visible in the distribution of benefits.” That is the key. If women as housewives and mothers were more visible economically, if the prodigious  volume of devoted work they do day in and day out was given official recognition, do you think, for instance, that such valuable actors in society would have to use up as much as 85 per cent of their daily calorie intake to fetch water and suffer, as they do in many rural areas of the world, from anaemia and spinal and pelvic deformities from carrying heavy pails for miles before their families rise in the morning?

In such a case, if their true value was factored into national accounts, there is no doubt that the location of public sources of water would be very quickly improved. The fact is that if a woman’s work is given no value she will be treated worthlessly.

“If you are not visible as a worker, then you are not visible in the distribution of benefits.” That is a great cause of the belittlement and ill-treatment of women.

But it goes deeper. This belittlement of the role of women, this official obliviousness to the value of what they do in the home, creates an unspoken sense of their expendability, leading all too easily to neglect and cruel abuse as if such objects do not matter much in a man’s world.

Give women’s role as home-carer and mother its true and full value and the current extreme and odious level of physical abuse would rapidly diminish. Time for action.


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