Wives should be paid for housework

What you need to know:

In Uganda, housework is not recognised as an activity that has economic and social value. Statistics show that over five million women and girls are engaged in care work that is not paid. Unpaid care work costs the country billions of shillings every year but as Gillian Nantume writes, is anyone paying attention?

From 2016 to 2023, Yasmina Muhammad was a housewife, performing every chore that society allocated to the female gender.

“My culture places a high premium on marrying young virgin girls. So, I got married when I was 16 and within a year, I was a mother. When I first met my husband, I was working part-time in my brother’s business, earning Shs1 million a month. After I gave birth, requested me to quit my job and concentrate on taking care of the child and the home,” says the mother of three.

Yasmina’s husband decided to pay her Shs2m per month, which he faithfully did until after she gave birth to their third child.

“Every day, I woke up to clean the house, sweep the compound, wash the clothes and prepare lunch. I would rest for two hours before starting on supper. I cannot lie to you that I enjoy care work. It is boring work. I did not know how to use a smartphone or how to operate a laptop. I was so detached from the world,” she says.

The cashflow also dried up. Her husband stopped paying her because, ‘with three children, the responsibilities become too many.” In secret, Yasmina hit the job market again.  

“I got a good job in a company that offered me an opportunity to upgrade my skills. I am now completing an IT course. My husband works upcountry, and when he learned that I had resumed working, he punished me by not returning home for six months. During that time, he did not send a single coin for upkeep. But, when he saw I was not remorseful, he came accepted the situation,” she adds.

Her husband hired a maid to take care of the house chores and look after the children. He pays her Shs150,000 every month.     

Care work is critical to our well-being, providing essential domestic services, and freeing up men to do productive work for the socioeconomic development of the country. This work involves such things as cooking, washing clothes, taking care of the children, the sick and the elderly, and working in the garden. Society expects women to do this work without payment because it is a ‘labour of love.’ However, little attention is paid to the impact such work has on a woman’s life.

A 2020 Oxfam report estimated that globally, women, 15 years and above, spend 12.5 billion hours every day on unpaid care work, amounting to $10.8 trillion annually. In Uganda, according to the 2021 National Labour Force Survey, 27 million people are engaged in unpaid work. Of these, 21 percent are directly in unpaid care work in the home, 41 percent are in subsistence agriculture, followed by 39 percent in other unpaid work.

Frances Birungi-Odong, the executive director of Uganda Community Based Association for Women and Children’s Welfare (UCOBAC), says our social norms have shortchanged women.

“The work assigned to men by society attracts renumeration. On the other hand, the care work assigned to women attracts no payment. We need to recognise that care work is important to the survival of societies. Someone has to look after the children. Someone has to grow the food we eat. While care work develops societies, it does not contribute to the development of a woman because it is unpaid,” she says.

The 2021 National Labour Force Survey shows that females spent an average of 46 hours a week on unpaid work compared to 28 hours for males. People in the rural areas spent an additional four hours weekly on unpaid work compared to those in urban areas.

Who should pay for care work?

Yasmina says the responsibilities of their home lie squarely on her husband’s shoulders because he failed to continue paying her the monthly Shs2m.

“My money is my money. I do not buy anything for our home. When I leave work in the evening, I go home to rest and rejuvenate myself to face the next day at work. I do not touch house chores. Where will I get enough time to dedicate to the company I work for, if I start going to work looking tired because washing the children’s uniforms made me sleep late? If people praise the cleanliness of our home and our healthy-looking children, my husband takes the credit. So, let him do some of the care work,” she says.

Andrew Ssemwanga, an accountant, says while he does not pay his wife, he is not averse to giving her monthly ‘upkeep.’

“Besides being my wife, what else does she do for me? Washing? Cooking? Looking after the children? If can outsource all those chores. As a man, it is inherent for me to take care of my wife. That is why I give her upkeep to meet the needs I don’t want to know about. If care work is supposed to be appreciate, it should not come as a sequence – something that must be paid for every month,” he says.

So, should it be a payment, an entitlement, a gift, or upkeep? Experts like Viviana Zelizer, a sociologist writes,” Framing it (women’s money) as something she was due, confers a dangerous level of entitlement. And yet a payment implies something a little too close to a working transaction. The notion of this money as a gift, however, implied layers of subordination.”

In case wages are to be paid, how should this care work be valued? Should it be on a case-by-case basis?

Valérie Duez-Ruff, a lawyer and feminist writes, “The amount of compensation should be based on the professional loss of earnings of the person doing the domestic work. The spouse who gives up their career, or reduces their working hours, and therefore gives up their career growth, both financially and in terms of promotion, is at a major disadvantage compared to the partner who has the more typical career path.” 

The assumption is that the spouse – who is the main beneficiary of the care work – should be the one to pay, but where does this leave the poor man who can barely afford to take care of his family? Are middleclass women worth more than their rural or urban poor counterparts?

Birungi-Odong, a feminist, says the government should pay for care work, adding that when making budgets, accounting officers should include the contributions made by women to society.

“The recognition of care work should be reflected in our laws and policies otherwise society will continue to see care work as unimportant. The government should provide social protection for all households. In this way, a household may hire a maid, because women would also love to sit back and have someone else cook the meal or clean the home,” she says.

Unpaid care work is more about service delivery

Sustainable Development Goal Five calls for the recognition and valuation of unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies.

Angella Nakafeero, the Commissioner, Gender and Woman Affairs, in the Ministry of Gender, Labour, and Social Development, rubbishes the notion that men are supposed to pay for care work.

“That is looking at care work from a very narrow perspective. Recognising unpaid care work is really about investing in social services and infrastructure. When we have quality health facilities and services closer to the people, women will not spend a lot of time walking to the health centre for treatment. If the support services in health centres are adequate, women will not spend a week or two caring for a sick relative or a baby. The time saved can be used to do productive, paying work,” she says.

Giving the analogy of mobile money which has enabled people to make transactions wherever they are, Nakafeero says if women have adequate childcare facilities or clean water close to them, they will have more time to themselves.

“This is where we want to go as a country. All government ministries, departments and agencies have to invest in service and infrastructural provision to reduce unpaid care work,” she says.

Access to water, electricity, and energy-saving stoves will go a long way to lessen the burden on women walking long distances to collect water and firewood. Also, places where many women work, such as markets, should have childcare sections and the people who provide the childcare should be well paid.

Encouraging men to share housework

Redistribution of house chores will go a long way in breaking societal norms on care work. Other than physically giving birth and breastfeeding, there is no chore that a woman does that a man cannot do.

Chris Sibolo, a public relations manager, would not mind being a stay-at-home father. “If it were possible, in this economy, I would give up my job just to look after my children. I would like to have more time with them but unfortunately, we have to hire someone to look after them. Every time I leave home, it feels like I am delegating my role as a father to someone else,” he says.

On the other hand, Felix Mugisha, a businessperson says although he may not share the care work in his home, he makes sure it is facilitated.

“I give my wife 90 percent of my salary, not as payment for work done, but to run the home. It has worked perfectly for us. The ten percent I remain with is enough to live on because I walk to work. I do not know what she does with her money but I as a man, and I do not need a woman’s money to take care of me,” he says. 

In rural communities, men like Sibolo and Mugisha are labeled as ‘bewitched’ because stakeholders have fallen back on awareness creation campaigns to encourage the redistribution of care work.

“If a woman spends two hours on fetching water from the stream, the husband can suggest that the family embraces rainwater harvesting. It will make a big difference to that woman. If they are subsistence farmers, the woman can talk to her spouse to mechanise their processes so that they can produce more food than they would have with the hand hoe. It makes life easier,” Nakafeero says.

Some schools of thought are of the view that recognising care work reinforces gender stereotypes.

“We (men and women) all do a lot of work. I think society has gotten into a wave of idiocy where people think everything you do must have a return on investment. Recognising care work make it easier for us to exploit them. If I pay you, how can you refuse me anything I ask? You cease to be my companion and instead, become my employee. If men can belittle the women they paid dowry for fifty years ago, what about a man who is paying his wife every month?” Ssemwanga asks.  

Implications of not valuing care work

Valuing care work means generating data and evidence in all sectors of the government and society. However, Nakafeero agrees that the government loses a lot to unpaid care work.

“It holds many implications. First, you are not able to have women’s participation in the economy. Supposing all Ugandans, including women, were gainfully employed, and paying their taxes. How much would the revenue body collect? Wouldn’t it improve everyone’s quality of life? Recognising unpaid care is relevant today, given that we have not met all the targets in the National Development Plan III. We have made progress in some areas, but in other areas, such as transforming the social norms to enable men and boys engage in care work, we are yet to get there,” she says.

While policy makers shy away from discussing the burden of care work in Uganda, globally, other countries are making strides in recognising it. In Bolivia, the constitution, under the 2006 Misión Madres del Barrio program, the government provides permanent social security for mothers. In Finland, Sweden and Denmark, tax breaks are provided to families that hire registered domestic workers and companies for household work. In Belgium, a government program which begun in 2004 provides vouchers to people who hire registered companies for housework.

No amount of money can make up for the grind of housework if women are not free to choose whether they want to engage in productive work, or in care work. However, there should be a concession, promoting men’s support and recognition of unpaid care work.