News / Asia

Q&A with John Hendra: Women, Cultural Norms and Unpaid Work

FILE - A child holds an umbrella as a Chinese woman tries to cook in the rain.
FILE - A child holds an umbrella as a Chinese woman tries to cook in the rain.
Frances Alonzo
There is a growing movement of promoting access to work and education for the world’s women and girls. There is evidence that countries that have a higher proportion of gender equality report higher rates of economic growth and human development. Women’s empowerment is also seen as a poverty reduction tool. 
 
But all too often, due to cultural attitudes, women and girls are left out because of an unequal burden of unpaid care work in the home. It is often young girls who are pulled out of school to maintain household chores and care of family. 
 
As John Hendra, Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, explained to VOA’s Frances Alonzo, there needs to be a concerted effort to not only challenge long held cultural attitudes but to also find ways for the family to distribute the work in the home to include men.
 
HENDRA: Unpaid care work is domestic work, like meal preparation, cleaning, washing clothes, cleaning the home, water and fuel collection. And it also means direct care of people, so children, older persons, persons with disabilities, which in some cases takes up to two to four hours a day of their time. It takes their time from being able to participate in paid employment.
 
There’s a lot of lost income from the women not being able to fully access employment.  For example, in Asia Pacific, it loses an estimated $42 to $47 billion on an annual basis. And another $16 to $30 billion is lost each year due to gender gaps in education. So it really means that there is a cost to the family, but there is also a cost to the regional economy if women have to spend an undue amount every day, a disproportionate share of this very important unpaid care work.
 
ALONZO:  How long does it take for there to be a cultural shift in attitude?
 
HENDRA:  Cultural change is not a short term endeavor, it’s medium to long term.  The good news though is that change is possible. In Korea, they were able to turn around a very highly skewed sex ratio at birth where at one point, I think it was about 115 boys to 100 girls.  But by talking about how important it is to really have a proper balance, to have much more respect in terms of girls, the Korean society was able to change that. So it’s very important to really be able to know that change is possible, but it’s really important to be able to challenge some of these underlying gender stereotypes.
 
In terms of unpaid care work in Asia, there are very strong cultural norms. And so it’s really important to rethink the concept of masculinity, in terms of how important it is for fathers to be able to spend time with their children, caring for the children, it’s much better for their overall relationship. It’s much better in terms of enabling women to have full access to education, full access to all their rights. It’s really important to drive change, to rethink traditional attitudes and in terms of engaging men and boys really in stronger promotion of gender equality. 
 
ALONZO:  But it seems very difficult in those countries where there is a boy preference.  What easy ways can be implemented, that cost no money, that might help these communities?
 
HENDRA: I think you are absolutely right. I think, in China, there’s still a strong set of cultural norms that really continue to emphasize the role of women as a good wife, a good mother, and the one who bears overwhelming responsibility for household work.  In Malaysia, there is the nation of character project, which is focused on 25 values that are important in terms of character in children. And again, it reinforces the woman’s most important task, in terms of home and family. I think you find the same thing in Cambodia, in Vietnam.
 
So you are right, there’s a very strong cultural practice that really reinforces these cultural attitudes and that is hard to change. But I do think there are some things that can be done. One is, first of all, recognize the whole issue of unpaid care work. Secondly is to really be able to have an understanding of the economic cost of women not being able to fully participate in paid employment, the economic cost to the family, more importantly perhaps even the economic cost to society. It’s really important in terms of being able for young girls to have full access to education.
 
So it’s really important, so it’s something that doesn’t cost money, but it’s to be able to redistribute the care responsibility in a family, more towards men, so that young girls are not the ones that really suffer. Often young girls are the first to be pulled out of school. So it’s really important to be able to do whatever is done within the family context. Again, and that does not cost money, but really make sure that the one that doesn’t suffer are girls. It’s really critical that we really look at the issue of unpaid care work because it’s really about ensuring that women have greater access to employment, to education, to leisure time.
 
Women have the same right as men to be able to access these things after work, but if women are doing sort of double job, in terms of working all day and coming home and working four hours on their own, it’s really an infringement of their rights, but probably more importantly, it’s really a huge opportunity cost for economic growth and human development.

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