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Unpaid Care Work and Divorce Settlements!

An Andalusian Court recently awarded a woman more than 200,000 euros, calculated at minimum wage for the 25 years of unpaid domestic work she did throughout her marriage. The award was part of a divorce settlement.


News reports said the woman’s marriage was governed by a separation of property regime, which means that each party owns what they earn. In this case, since the wife never worked, she was left with nothing. But the judge ordered the man ‘to pay her “204,624.86 euros (US$218,300), calculating the figure based on the annual minimum wage” throughout their marriage, said the ruling by a court in the southern Andalusia region, a copy of which was seen by AFP.’ https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/world/2023/03/07/man-ordered-to-pay-ex-wife-for-25-years-of-housework/


Similarly, a Chinese court awarded a woman 50,000 yuan in 2021, as compensation for the household duties handled by her during their five years of marriage, when the woman argued that her husband had neither helped with domestic chores nor in caring for their son. The judgement followed a new civil code China introduced in 2021 which states that a ‘spouse is entitled to seek compensation in a divorce if he or she bears more responsibility in child raising, caring for elderly relatives, and assisting partners in their work,’ the BBC reported. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-56178510


In that case, the Judge ruled that ‘the division of a couple's joint property after marriage usually entails splitting tangible property. "But housework constitutes intangible property value."


Though the compensation stems from divorce proceedings, the underlying principle in both decisions is that housework and caregiving have economic value.


Historically, care work, paid or unpaid has fallen on the shoulders of women, simply because society sees domestic work, caring for the sick, the elderly and children as primarily the duties of women. This is true across all socio-economic classes and cultures. Even where women have their own careers, expectations are that the woman would also attend to household chores and be primary caregivers.


It is an unequal distribution of work which is also undervalued.


In September 2021 the Global Citizen reported that ‘The total value of unpaid care and domestic work is estimated to be between 10% and 39% of gross domestic product. It contributes more to the economy than sectors like manufacturing, commerce, or transportation, adding that the International Labour Organisation had found that ‘if care work was valued the same as other work, it would represent a tenth of the world’s economic output. Some governments depend on unpaid work to compensate for public services, widening the global gender gap further.’


Global Citizen also reported that:


  • Around the world, 42% of women can’t secure jobs because they’re responsible for caregiving.

  • Women and girls undertake more than 75% of unpaid care work in the world.

  • In 89% of households, women and girls perform the majority of household chores.


And how does that translate for Sri Lanka? A Sri Lanka Labour Force Survey of 2020 placed the economically active population at 8.5 million of which only 2.5 million or 34 per cent were women. Then there is what is termed the economically inactive population which comprised 8.3 million. The survey found that while 73.5 per cent of the economically inactive population was women, 45.3 per cent of this population engaged in housework. Broken down along gender lines, the survey found that 60.3 per cent of the 45.3 per cent were women. No surprises there.


The phrase ‘economically inactive’ is, in itself, an affront, to all unpaid care workers, as housework is assigned to this ‘inactive’ category. Granted, there are many, both men and women who for reasons such as illness, physical or mental disabilities, or the inability to find employment, are unable to contribute to the economy. But by which yardstick does housework become an economically inactive contribution to the economy? Why is only paid employment treated as an active contributor to the economy?

Unpaid work is indeed immeasurable, yet valuable.


For more than a decade the Women & Media Collective has campaigned for house and care work to be computed as an economic value. One of its earliest campaigns was ‘Gedera Wedath Weda.’ (Even House work is work). In the pandemic years, WMC got more creative in getting its message across, using social media platforms to raise awareness among as many communities as possible. As the Senior Project Officer of WMC Velayudan Jayachitra told the CSW67 forum on “Education, Innovation and Technological Change: Using the COVID-19 Digital Age for Empowerment,” on March 7th, that digital campaigns, particularly a children’s art competition has brought the discussion on unpaid care work to the forefront at homes and amongst school teachers. Some video messages centred around cultural and religious festivals focussed on the unequal burden of responsibility that falls upon women during such celebrations.


Indeed, the discussion has moved forward, with more people aware of the inequality and the absence of an economic value in the work women do. But more needs to be done. Governments must step up, and for a start acknowledge the economic value to the country’s GDP. The change is necessary in the here and now, before divorce settlements become the norm in computing the years of unpaid work as compensation. Of course, if Sri Lankan courts were to follow the Chinese and Andalusian examples, it would be a great wake-up call for men who shirk their household responsibilities.


And what of the unmarried, who are often designated primary caregivers of parents and extended family? Who would compensate them?


It is in the women’s psyche to take on household chores and caregiving responsibilities without question. But the onus is on the men in the family to begin sharing that responsibility, unless, of course, they are willing to shell out monetary compensation for the work their partners do.


Moreover, it is time, society stopped splitting household chores and caregiving responsibilities along gender lines.


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