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Hilal Her

Unpaid Work and Pakistani Women

October 2023

Women bear the burden of carrying out a significantly larger share of the world’s unpaid work, amounting to about 11 billion hours per day (Progress of the World’s Women, 2019-2020, UN Women), which accounts for three quarters of the total. Globally, women are responsible for three times more care and domestic work compared to men. In low and middle income countries, women dedicate even more time to unpaid work than women in high income countries. 

Women and girls are frequently expected to take on unpaid domestic work and care due to the gendered nature of domestic and reproductive roles. While there is limited evidence regarding the impact of individual-level factors (such as perceptions of distress, cumulative stress load) and ecological factors (such as household conditions, space constraints, and noise) mental health, in terms of stress, in the context of unpaid work, it is important to acknowledge the contributions of drudgery and the physical demands associated with such work.
Based on data from the World Bank, it is evident that the female labor force in Pakistan constitutes merely 25 percent of the overall workforce. One of the main contributing factors to this phenomenon can be attributed to strongly ingrained societal norms, exemplified by practices like chardiwari, as well as the prevalence of gender segregation. Within the context of a traditional patriarchal framework, women are typically relegated to the confines of the private sphere, where their responsibilities mostly revolve around undertaking unpaid care work. 
The opportunity cost borne by women for unpaid work is staggering with far-reaching consequences in underdeveloped nations such as Pakistan. They are unable to participate in decision-making or public and cultural activities due to their work obligations. 
In the context of Pakistan, women are commonly perceived as the primary agents responsible for upholding and propagation of the cultural values and norms. Consequently, any endeavors or contributions made by women beyond the domestic sphere are often regarded as lacking importance and relevance. As a consequence of this phenomenon, a significant number of women discontinue their employment upon entering into marriage. In Pakistan, a significant proportion of female MBBS graduates, approximately 60 percent, opt not to pursue careers as medical practitioners due to societal expectations that prioritize their familial responsibilities. Women, who whether compelled by circumstances or personal preference, engage in public activities and pursue jobs, are not accorded the same level of societal esteem as those who adhere to purdah. However, the unpaid effort of both the women is not recognized. Based on certain estimations, the aggregate expenditure associated with women’s unpaid care labor amounts to over one-fourth of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP). 
According to data published in the UN Women’s flagship, Progress of the World’s Women, 2019-2020, report: “For every one hour a man spends on unpaid care and domestic work, Pakistani women spend 11 hours doing the same. In contrast to Pakistan, women in fellow Muslim states Egypt and Oman spend nine hours and two-and-a-half hours on unpaid work for every one hour men in those countries do the same.”
Despite the increasing number of women participating in the labor force, a significant proportion, particularly those engaged in occupations such as agriculture remain unaccounted for inside the formal economic framework. Similarly, those engaged in home-based labor are often not recognized as ‘workers’, and their places of work are not typically considered as formal workplaces. 
Women belonging to underprivileged backgrounds, namely migrant populations, experience the greatest hardships inside the informal economy. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Pakistan exhibits a notable level of urbanization within the South Asian region, indicating a significant influx of individuals from various regions of the country towards urban centers in pursuit of improved economic opportunities and quality of life. 
These marginalized women migrate to urban areas in order to engage in domestic labor, facing potential lack of social protections and welfare provisions, mistreatment, occupational risks, and unfavorable working circumstances. Simultaneously, this practice perpetuates the gender-based segregation of employment.
In contrast, women who do not have the financial resources often find themselves burdened with repetitive, time-consuming, and physically demanding household chores. The component of drudgery, which constitutes the majority of unpaid work for poorer women, can lead to significant fatigue and stress. 
In the current societal context, it is observed that women and girls are predominantly assigned the primary responsibility for undertaking unpaid care labor. This includes tasks such as child rearing and schooling, providing care for aged, sick, or disabled family members, engaging in cooking and cleaning activities, etc. On average, these individuals dedicate a substantial amount of time, ranging from 12 to 16 hours per day, to fulfill these responsibilities. Women may experience higher levels of stress, including burden and role strain in comparison to men. Additionally, the absence of breaks for leisure, communication with loved ones, self-care, resulting from unpaid work can ultimately ensue in the form of physical and emotional strain. Sustained high levels of cortisol may explain certain negative mental health effects, such as depression, that women may experience while performing unpaid care work. Moreover, it has been found that women who provide long-term or high-intensity care for a sick or elderly relative are more likely to experience psychiatric issues such as depression, anxiety, and lower quality of life, the main reason for which is that their responsibilities restrict their social life as well as limiting their ‘me time’. 
The participation of women in the formal workforce does not always lead to a significant improvement in the equitable distribution of household tasks. Furthermore, it is observed that women who are employed tend to be confined to activities that are considered socially acceptable and respectable, often resembling care giving roles. These occupations are frequently underestimated that results in lower wages, perpetuating the traditional gender role of women as primary caregivers, even within the realm of public employment.
It is imperative that the contributions made through unpaid employment are duly acknowledged and protected by means of comprehensive legislations. Nevertheless, this singular action is insufficient in addressing the problem of women’s limited engagement in the workforce. In order to address this issue, it is imperative that males begin to assume an equitable portion of nurturing and care giving tasks within both the domestic sphere and broader societal contexts. 
In order to achieve transformative change for women, it is vital to implement policies that acknowledge, diminish, and reallocate the burden of unpaid work. Government incentives can play a crucial role in facilitating this transition. In order to ensure comprehensive treatment, it is imperative that both entire communities and local governmental bodies actively participate in the provision of healthcare services. This would facilitate the increased involvement of women in the formal labor market, allowing them to engage in volunteer and recreational activities, allocate more time for personal pursuits, and perform aptly in professional domains. These outcomes would have positive implications for their psychological wellbeing and overall welfare. HH

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