The hardest workers

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Economic empowerment is one of the key tools for promoting gender equality. Since women constitute a large number of informal sector workers, economic empowerment has become an essential issue in South Asia.  Economic and social issues are intertwined, each affecting the other. A closer look at the economic growth of the country shows how the weakened state is failing to encourage the empowerment of women. The lack of an investment atmosphere, poor capital expenditure, decline in the health sector, extremely modest rises in education and road expansion, an increasing unemployment rate, a highly risky dependence on remittance flow, inflation and privatisation all suppress economic growth. Globalisation is affecting the structure of the economy giving less priority to agriculture, a sector in which mostly women are engaged.  Women’s roles are currently beginning to shift from the private to public sphere, but most women who engage in work outside the home  play a double role, doing their second shift inside the home.

Economic policies have just begun to take gender inequality into account. In Nepali society, for example, many say that the authority to make financial decisions lies with female family members. This is still often not the case however. Even when women are technically in charge of money (through women’s financial cooperatives for example), male family members often informally take over decision making. This situation is mirrored in organisational participation and state policies. We all officially agree that men and women should be treated as equal citizens, not on the basis of male or female gender. But this concept is more slippery when put into practice. The concept of citizenship is based on rights and duties, equality and reciprocity.

As such, most gender-related organisations agree that the most important part of undertaking gender-sensitive projects is initiating a different line of thinking. But when women enjoy economic empowerment, a paradigm shift from inequality to equality can occur without a conscious effort to change minds. One avenue through which to address gender-related economic disparities is care work, our work done within the home. Many Nepali women are occupied by this work most of their waking hours, preventing their participation in policy debates and other public affairs. In this way, women often cannot participate in the democratic process as fully as their male counterparts.

Care work

“Every time I see a mother with an infant, I know I am seeing a woman at work.  I know that work is not leisure and it is not sleep and it may well be enjoyable.  I know that money payment is not necessary for work to be done.  But again, I seem to be at odds with economics as a discipline, because when work becomes concept in institutionalised economics, payment enters the pictures….No housewives according to this economic definition, are workers”Marilyn Waring, Former MP, New Zealand (1999) Care Work is a service provided to others, which can be either paid or unpaid. The type of work everyone does at home like cooking, cleaning, caring for the elderly and children and all other kinds of household work are considered productive work. Our economy only addresses that works which is connected to financial benefits. Our economy fails to recognise that such care activities take up a large amount of time and energy. Caring for an entire household is such an enormous task, many men are loathe to do it. Even if it is recognised that all these services in the household sector are an equally important and valuable form of production, there is still the dilemma of how to make these services visible and how to make them count as labour and work. In some families, where female members also work outside the home, workers are hired to look after the elderly or young children, or even to cook, clean or wash clothes, for financial remuneration. This is the beginning of a slow transformation from household chores to organised productive work.

Social Security

Social security is one of the most essential features maintaining justice in a society. One aspect of justice is a level playing field for both men and women. Social security is obviously important to both social and economic development.  But we cannot measure social security only in terms of cost, but also as an investment in human assets for better productivity and freedom.  In this sense, care work contributes to social security. Care work can reduce the impacts of poverty and inequality and can support social rights. When people are part of a well-functioning household, they benefit from that support system and can better handle outside stressors. Women maintaining their households protect their families from the social problems our country struggles with. In a nation where institutionalised social support is minimal, family members must rely on each other and women are often the anchors of this support system. Still, care work is generally not considered work throughout Asia. It’s time that we collectively recognise its indirect contributions to the GDP through its maintenance of the household.


When we analyse gender from an economic perspective, we mostly focus on informal aspects as the majority of women in this region work in the household on tasks that are largely unorganised.  Until the state gives priority to these tasks and counts them in the GDP, the path to equality is blocked.  A economic perspective on gender also requires the economic strengthening of women so that they may engage in what is considered more productive work. Taking cultural and social norms into consideration, we must move forward into a more mutually cooperative work atmosphere. Women’s empowerment must align with the particular society’s customs and values in order to be effective. By taking these factors into consideration, women can be empowered to both enter different sectors of the economy and to be recognised for the hard work they do at home.

Poudel is associated with Friedrich Ebert Foundation, which works in areas of democracy, trade union, media and gender





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