Thirty-two-year-old SM Sharmin, a marketing executive at a private organisation, was cooking while also speaking to one of her clients over the phone, and helping her eight-year-old daughter with her online classes.
The client on the other side of the phone was rebuking her for a small mistake done by her office, and Sharmin was trying to make him understand that it was not her fault.
Suddenly, Sharmin noticed her curry was about to burn. “I was so nervous that instead of switching off the stove, I dropped my phone into the hot pan,” she said.
Sadly, she couldn’t expect her banker husband, also working from home, to help her by looking after the curry while she was on the phone.
Instead, she got a lecture.
“I was scolded as to how one can be so absentminded so as to drop the phone in the hot pan. He asked me to leave my job if I can’t balance my responsibilities,” she added.
A recent study by Oxfam International showed that 43 percent of 3,558 women surveyed in five countries, reported feeling more anxious, depressed, isolated, overworked or ill due to taking on even more unpaid care work during the current pandemic.
The data is similarly skewed in Bangladesh.
A rapid assessment by Brac’s Gender, Diversity and Justice Programme early on during the pandemic found 91 percent of 557 women working in formal and informal sectors reported doing higher amounts of unpaid care work, and 89 percent reported having no leisure time at all.
Brac’s findings also warned of a negative impact on women’s mental health as a result of the extra work.
This correspondent also interviewed 20 female young professionals and entrepreneurs based on Facebook, who run their businesses alongside raising their children and household work. And 18 of them gave responses which echoed Oxfam International and Brac’s findings.
Although these women said men have been participating in household work, as compared to before Covid-19 struck, almost everyone reported that the pandemic has affected them disproportionately.
All reported difficulties in creating a work-family balance, which resulted in psychological distress and a deteriorating relationship with their spouses — sometimes even leading to domestic violence.
Those who have formal jobs mentioned they are forced to prioritise unpaid care work at home over their office duties, which resulted in added psychological stress as they worried about their reduced productivity.
Their fears are real, especially at a time, when the global job market has been shaken up and some of their colleagues have already been laid off at their respective workplaces.
Sharmin says she wakes up at 5:30am and needs to finish cleaning, preparing and serving breakfast for five, wash dishes, feed her toddler, and get her eight-year-old daughter ready for online classes by 10:00am.
After that she starts her own work but also needs to help her daughter with her classes, as well as prepare and serve lunch for the family in between. She herself is rarely able to eat until after five when her “official” working hours are over.
After doing the rest of the day’s household work — washing clothes, taking care of her elderly mother-in-law, helping her older daughter with homework, preparing evening snacks and dinner, she hardly gets any time for herself.
If you think of the value of Sharmin’s daily unpaid work, it amounts to no less than the remuneration she receives for her paid work.
She would have to pay around Tk 7,000 for full time domestic help, around Tk 7,000 for a home tutor for her daughter, Tk 15,000 for a full-time nurse for her mother-in-law, and Tk 10,000 for daycare for her two children.
An online clothing seller, Sabina Khandaker (not her real name) spoke about how she was tired of pulling the weight of both her business and family. She can only give around three hours of her time to her business while doing household chores and childcare for around eight hours.
When she raised the issue of taking care of the baby during certain periods such as when she goes live on Facebook to show her wares to viewers, her husband told her to stop ranting all the time about her duties, which led to their relationship deteriorating significantly.
“This June, for the first time in six years of marriage, I was physically abused by my husband after a heated argument on this,” said Sabina.
Although Sabina left the house immediately, a week later she received a phone call from her mother-in-law (who did not live with them and was in her village home), who yelled at her about having the audacity to leave her son alone at home, who had apparently become sick from work and having to cook for himself.
“I had to return immediately to nurse him and I’m back to doing the bulk of the work alone.”
A recent study of Brac Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), Brac University, which surveyed 122 female entrepreneurs found that women spent an average of 7.5 hours on unpaid care work and household chores every day, up from 5.4 hours before the pandemic hit.
However, even despite the pandemic, the trend over the years shows just how disparate men and women’s unpaid care work is.
A survey conducted by ActionAid Bangladesh found that women spent 7.78 hours, 7.56 hours, and 5.76 hours in 2016, 2017, and 2018 on unpaid care work daily, whereas men spent only 1.32, 2.37, and 1.92 hours respectively.
The data shows the huge discrimination of a gendered phenomenon.
Women’s rights activist Khushi Kabir of Nijera Kori believes redistribution of unpaid work is the key solution to this discrimination and the idea of redistribution must be rooted in our minds from childhood, through family and school education so that children learn to respect these activities and are inspired to share the work evenly.
“For the older generation, there must be enough awareness programmes to change their mindset about this unappreciated work, and both social and mass media can play a great role here by writing, discussing and debating about men’s role in household and care work,” she said.
Dr Abul Hossain, project director of Multi-Sectoral Programme on Violence against Women, Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, informed this correspondent that currently the ministry has no programme or initiative to address the agenda of redistribution of unpaid care work and ensuring men’s participation in the process.