The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of the current care economy. Women, who have traditionally assumed a greater burden of both paid and unpaid care work, have suffered from the consequences of lock-downs, school closures, and work-from-home arrangements. The reports and accounts emerging so far suggest that the gender imbalance in the distribution of care work is no different, or perhaps even worse, in my home country Pakistan. However, while the care crisis is gaining prominence globally, it remains essentially missing from the policy debates in Pakistan on post-pandemic economic recovery.
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to participate in the summer school on Feminist Political Economy: Concepts and Tools to Analyse Intersecting Inequalities organized by Central European University in collaboration with SOAS University of London and Birkbeck College. Over the five days, we had interesting discussions on unpaid and underpaid care work. Such work builds the foundation for capitalist production and structures, and is riddled with social and gender injustices and inequalities. Here, I hope to share some of the learnings from these discussions in the context of Pakistan to imagine a way forward for a gender-inclusive post-pandemic recovery.
Care Work and Social Reproduction
The Covid-19 pandemic, and the measures to control it, have “deepened the centrality of households and reproductive work in the functioning of capitalism” (Stevano et. al; 2021). It becomes essential to place social reproduction at the heart of the policy and economic analyses and the responses for the post-pandemic recovery. Social reproduction here is referred to as encompassing “all the work, unpaid and paid, and the socio-cultural practices, institutions, and sectors that are essential for the regeneration of our lives and society”. In a country like Pakistan, which ranks the third lowest rank in the world on the Global Gender Gap Index, turning a blind eye to the “care crisis” may risk worsening the existing gender and socio-economic inequalities even further.
Intersecting Inequalities, Power imbalances
An examination of the care chains in Pakistan highlights the sociocultural and economic system of oppression and exploitation sustained through power imbalances and intersecting inequalities. It also helps us understand who benefits and who loses from the care crisis.
Women make up almost half the population of Pakistan, but constitute less than 25 percent of the formal labour markets in the country. The invisible labour of women seems to keep the wheel of the formal economy going, with women spending 10 times more time than men on unpaid care and domestic work. Many of the estimated 8.5 million domestic workers in Pakistan are women, who move from villages to urban areas with limited education and skills to look for work. However, a vast majority find themselves in exploitative and vulnerable employment in this highly unregulated sector. Public provision of childcare services in the country is negligent, private sector daycares remain limited and unaffordable for many, and a study shows that only 27 percent of the surveyed private-sector employers offer some level of childcare support to parents despite provincial regulations mandating it.
Social Protection and Investment
The “gendered and multi-dimensional impacts” of Covid-19 call for social protection responses that address “the fundamental drivers of gender inequality, including unpaid care work and responsibilities”. The UN Covid Response Tracker shows that a number of countries have adopted gender-sensitive measures to address unpaid care work. Unfortunately, care work and care burden remained essentially invisible in the policy responses of Pakistan, which has yet to introduce a policy in this area.
Moving forward, Elson’s (2019)’s “Triple R” approach to “Recognize, Reduce, Redistribute” the unpaid care work can be adopted to close the gender gap in Pakistan and to plan the road ahead for the future of care provisioning and services. First, we need to recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work. This entails social protection measures such as paid maternity and parental leaves, childcare support, and flexible work-hours. Secondly, there need to be better and sustained social investments in care infrastructures (such as daycares) and technology to reduce the care burden that falls on women. And thirdly, the care work should be redistributed more equitably, by for instance, bringing in men to undertake their share of the housework and other care responsibilities (e.g. through advocacy campaigns, offering “parental leaves” instead of just maternity leaves, etc.)
At the same time, existing labour laws and regulations need to be strengthened to safeguard and protect the rights and interests of the working populations, particularly the vulnerable groups including women.
The pandemic has created a perfect opportunity to reimagine a gender-inclusive future for Pakistani women and girls. However, we cannot achieve this without centring social reproduction into the conversation of the post-pandemic economic recovery. Pakistan cannot afford to continue to ignore the “care crisis”, sustained through social and economic injustices. We need to hold our government representatives and policymakers accountable to recognise unpaid care work and its gendered impacts, and to address the care burden that is a part of the everyday lived realities of women. Pakistan can, and should, do more to build back better for its women, and a feminist vision can help ensure that we achieve an inclusive path to recovery.
This blog post has been written by Sumbal Bashir, a participant of the OSUN-funded summer school at the Central European University in Feminist Political Economy, a course designed by The summer school was designed and taught by Sara Stevano, Lecturer in Economcs at SOAS and Hannah Bargawi, Senior Lecturer in Economics. Sumbal Bashir is a gender advocate and researcher from Pakistan, currently based in Italy. She was awarded the Fulbright scholarship (USEFP, 2015-16) and Policy Leader fellowship (European University Institute, 2020-21), and her work focuses on gender justice and social inclusion.