Domestic work has become a phenomenon to study in the area of gender and all of its complexities.There are plenty of resources and research into the way in which families all over the world share the responsibility of domestic work. However, one thing that has become clear, is that domestic work is often regarded as the woman’s responsibility. Certainly, it is true that with the ongoing feminist movement attitudes have significantly changed in some countries, however, this is only to a certain extenet and domestic work is still not shared equally as of yet.In this article I will discuss why domestic work is an obstacle of women when discussing matrimonial property.
The burden of Domestic Work At The Core of Gender Inequality
The characteristics of domestic work are summarised by the United Nations General Assembly as followed:
‘Meal preparation, cleaning, washing clothes, water and fuel collection and direct care of persons…carried out in homes and communities’- (United Nations General Assembly: 2013)
Most importantly, the main characteristic of domestic work is that it is unpaid. Domestic work often leaves women with a strain of responsibilities. It is true that due to the driving power of the feminist movement, in many countries, women have begun their economic journey into work. However, this has not necessarily led to attitudes around domestic work changing and domestic work continues to predominantly be assigned to women. This has led to the term dual burden, referring to the idea that women not only have to now work and earn money but are also still responsible for domestic work. A dual burden can lead to many consequences including a detrimental effect on women’s mental health and extra strain on the family as a whole, often leading to a breakdown of the family unit or even sometimes domestic abuse.
Globally, unpaid domestic work goes unnoticed, undervalued, and unrecognized. The Global Gender Gap report of 2020 summarises and examines different countries and the progress toward gender equality. The report focuses on four different areas where women are unequal to men: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and lastly, political empowerment. The report shows Iceland ranking first and best, while Yemen falls to the bottom of the list. This report is critical as it is important to see where countries are failing to provide equality for both men and women. In countries such as India, domestic work is closely tied with the woman. A recent report from OECD on time use, suggests that women in India spend 300 minutes more time on housework than men. This consequently means while men have the opportunity and time to further their careers, Domestic work is an obstacle for women to flourish and grow in both their professional and personal life.
So, What Burden of Domestic work Got to Do With Matrimonial Property?
Matrimonial property is the property or assets that are acquired during or before marriage. This can be by either spouse or both. An example of matrimonial property can include the home in which the couple lived during the marriage.
At the end of a marriage, there is a legal division of what each spouse is entitled to. However, depending on that particular country’s law, the factors to determine who gets what after a divorce, differ. For example, in the UK, some of the factors that they consider (under section 25, Matrimonial Causes Act 1973), include; income and earning capacity, any physical or mental disabilities, the welfare of children and family, and the contribution a spouse has made to the family’s welfare.
What is most important about this list, is that it includes the contribution the spouse has made to the family’s welfare. This is linked to domestic work. This leads to the problem of how legal systems all around the world will divide matrimonial property between the couple. If a woman is not in paid work, but heavily contributes to domestic work in the family home, she has still contributed to the family’s welfare indicating how domestic work could be an obstacle for many women. Unfortunately, there is no way to ‘measure’ how much domestic work someone has contributed and then put that into the material.
This problem is not as significant in a country like the UK, where the percentage of women employed is higher than other countries. In the UK, 72.5% of women are in the labor force. This figure is above the global average, which in 2019 stood at less than half of women participating in the workforce, (47.7%). It is therefore less of a problem in an area such as the UK, as more women can show evidence of contribution to the family in monetary value. In a country where employment for women is lower and more women are performing domestic work throughout the day, evidence cannot be produced to demonstrate the unpaid work in the house and community.
In a country such as Pakistan, where only 21.92% of women are in the labor force and the country ranks 151th on the Global Gender Gap report, the story differs significantly. Women are often left with no choice other than staying in a marriage where they are more vulnerable to abuse, neglect and often no say or choice in their life decisions. If we dismantled societal attitudes and structural inequality in these lower ranking countries, women may begin to gain more political empowerment. Political empowerment can lead to more women in decision making allowing an environment and society in which a woman feels she can leave the marriage and be able to have her fair share in matrimonial property.
Human Rights Watch recently led a webinar on matrimonial property in Kenya. Some of the issues that were raised include the dilemma of how we weigh and measure the amount of domestic work. There is no formula or legislation for judges to follow and therefore it is completely up to their discretion to decide what the woman will receive. This is hugely unfair and often leaves the woman with nothing to her name and can lead to further marginalisation in the community. If not measured, unpaid and domestic work would continue to be a significant deterrent for women’s wellbeing and progress.
‘Women in rural Kenya work on average about 52 hours a week, men work only 42’.(UNDP, 1995. Human Development Report, Valuing women’s work: p. 92)
If we valued domestic work as highly as the world values paid work, it is possible women would not face as many problems such as the issue of providing evidence for the matrimonial property. We must find the gaps in the law and provide informative legislation that can guide the judges to make the fairest decision possible.
How do we go about making a fairer decision?
It is important to bring this conversation to the table and discuss the problems that women face when they can not reach paid work. We can not allow women to be left without anything when a marriage finishes, especially when she may have contributed more hours of domestic work than the husband has in paid work.
We must therefore talk about some of the many interventions that need to be implemented to minimize the effect of domestic work on women-
- Women must be included in the decision making, after all women make up half the world’s population. This means we must continue with empowering women and funding programmes that encourage women and girl’s leadership all around the world. Furthermore, developmental strategies and policies that result in more decent job opportunities for women.
- Government policies are an important step in dismantling the structural causes of gender inequality. Maternity leave has been offered in many countries for women who are in work and have just had a baby. However, we know this is now becoming outdated and the idea of paternity leave practises a much fairer system for women. Paternity leave, instead, allows men to take paid time off work with their newborns. This policy, most performed by the nordic countries, encourages men to participate in the home, consequently allowing women the opportunity to participate in the economy as well as start a family.
- We must continue the progress to value women and girls in a global society. Education in schools must take a gender neutral approach to help destroy engrained ideas of gender roles and gender norms. These long-term approaches may have an impact on societal views in the future, encouraging men and women to see domestic work as a shared responsibility.
If we can get the world to value women, domestic work may begin to get recognised as an integral part of the family unit. More importantly, when women are seen as equal, more women work and this gives economies a potential to grow. We must keep all countries on track to continue tackling the employment participation gap. In the 21st century, domestic work should not be an obstacle for women to achieve their dreams and goals. Women have the right to exercise the full potential of their education and skills and be able to leave a marriage confidently and receive a fair share of matrimonial property.
Helpful resources for wider reading around this topic area:
Click here for an article from Human Rights Watch on Matrimonial Property in Kenya.
For a quick overview on women’s economic participation globally, click here