The 61st Commission on the Status of Women, held at United Nations Headquarters in New York, was organized around the priority theme “Women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work” with an emerging issue/ focus area on the empowerment of Indigenous women. An interactive dialogue on the empowerment of Indigenous women was a part of the official schedule of meetings and numerous side events, organized by member states and NGOs, addressed the necessity of engaging with Indigenous women on policy. A key issue that stood out for me is the devaluation of women’s work, both within the home and outside of the home. If women’s work is considered to be less valuable than that of men, then women as persons, by this logic, must be considered lesser as well.
Globally, women earn 23 percent less for their work than men. The UN Women campaign “Stop the Robbery” successfully reframes the global wage gap as theft. Of course, equal pay for equal work was a prominent topic of discussion during the meetings, as were the issues surrounding unpaid care work. According to the International Labour Organization, the time women spend on unpaid work is at least double that of men. The ILO prepared a study on the paid versus unpaid work ratio for both women and men focused on 46 state economies, half considered “developing” and half considered “developed”. (I use this terminology here in line with the study but will add that the dichotomy of “developed versus developing” is fraught with problems associated with western and capitalist ways of framing what a “successful” and “legitimate” nation looks like). The results of the study expose just a slight difference between the developing and developed countries. According to the study, women in the developing countries spend a daily average of five hours and nine minutes on paid work and four hours and eleven minutes on unpaid work. Men in these countries spend a daily average of six hours and thirty-six minutes on paid work and one hour and thirty-one minutes on unpaid work. In the developed countries, women spend a daily average of four hours and thirty-nine minutes on paid work and three hours and thirty minutes on unpaid work. Men in these countries spend a daily average of five hours and forty-two minutes on paid work and one hour and fifty-four minutes on unpaid work (ILO, Women at Work Trends 2016). The results show that this issue is neither regional nor hemispheric, but global.
The responsibility of caring for children, the sick, and the elderly is most often delegated to women. Despite the critical need for this kind of work, domestic labor is not given currency within the global economy. The ILO states that care work contributes to about ten to thirty-nine percent of GDP for national economies (Ibid). States both rely on and benefit from unpaid care work, without having to finance and provide these essential care services as policy. The weight of this economy of care falls almost exclusively on women who are offered neither reimbursement nor recognition and respect for the vital contributions they make within their communities and nations. Sustainable Development Goal 5.4 states a commitment to “recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate” (UN, 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, 2015). Part of economic empowerment for women is not only paying women a fair and equal wage for all of their work but also providing flexible services and support for women to pursue work outside of the home, especially if they are also primary caregivers in their homes. In her CSW opening remarks, UN Women Executive Director and UN Under-Secretary-General Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, stated, “almost all women do some sort of work. If you are a woman, you are a worker period”. Simply existing as a woman in a world ordered by patriarchy is work. Globally, women continue to move across domestic and public spaces in their profound contributions to the economic and psychosocial well-being of their communities and nations.