Yasmine Abdallah, who works in a bank in Cairo, gets up every day at dawn to prepare lunch and pack food for her toddler and husband before she wakes up her baby and takes her to daycare. When she gets home around five in the evening, she finishes off the cooking and does house chores as she feeds her daughter before putting her to bed.
Abdallah is thankful she can afford decent daycare, otherwise she would not have been able to work. She is also not alone: there are many examples of working women like Abdallah around the Arab world, juggling unpaid care work alongside their paid jobs, some not only caring for children but also elderly parents while also being responsible for household chores such as cooking and cleaning.
A report released earlier this month quantifies this phenomenon. Entitled the “Progress of Women in the Arab States: the Role of the Care Economy in Promoting Gender Equality”, the report, which examines Egypt, Jordan, Palestine and Tunisia, scrutinises the allocation of unpaid care and the state of the paid-care sectors and care policies and makes recommendations to redistribute care and guide investment in the care economy.
Although the value of care as a public good is widely acknowledged, the responsibility for it is largely confined to the private sphere of the household and falls primarily on women and girls, the report said.
According to the report, carried out by UN Women and the Economic Research Forum, a NGO, married women employed outside the home have by far the highest work burden in all four countries, underscoring the “double-shift” phenomenon that acts as a strong deterrent for women to look for paid work outside the home.
According to a policy brief summarising the findings of the report, the recognition, reduction, and redistribution of unpaid care work is a pressing issue for gender equality in the Arab world. The region has the highest female-to-male ratio of time spent on unpaid care work and the lowest rate of female participation in the paid economy of any world region, it said.
Women in the region spend on average between 17 and 34 hours per week on unpaid care work, whereas men spend between one to five hours, depending on the country.
The report shows that employed married women engage in almost the same number of hours of unpaid care work as their non-employed counterparts in Egypt and Jordan. In Tunisia and Palestine, they do slightly fewer hours.
In Egypt, married women spend seven times as much time on domestic work as married men. Unmarried women are not better off, as they spend six times as much time on domestic work as unmarried men, the report says.
“Egyptian women spend almost the same amount of time on unpaid care work whether or not they are employed, which reflects the double burden many face,” a policy paper on the Egypt chapter of the report said.
According to the report, the gender gap in labour-force participation in Egypt remains large, with Egypt ranking 143rd out of 153 countries in 2017. Only 21 per cent of working-age women in Egypt were in the labour force in 2018, in contrast to 76 per cent of working-age men, it said. Part of this is attributed to the burden of unpaid care work.
“Gender inequality in the distribution of unpaid domestic work plays an important role in this gender gap in labour-force participation in Egypt,” it said.
To help turn the situation around, the report presents several recommendations, including increasing the number of childcare institutions. From 2006 to 2017, the number of children aged under three years old grew at an annual rate of 3.6 per cent to reach over 11 million children, whereas the number of childcare facilities in the private sector only increased by 1.2 per cent per year.
Besides calling for increasing investment in care for young children, the report sees a need for investment in facilities that provide care for the elderly, ill, and disabled as well.
Women were found by the report to be not only at the core of unpaid care work, but they are also central to paid-care services. The report shows that women are almost four times more likely than men to be employed by the public sector and private sector in paid-care sectors such as health, education, social work or domestic work, compared to other sectors of the economy.
While most paid-care jobs are concentrated in the public sector, the share of the private sector has been growing. The report sees this as an opportunity for the greater involvement of women in the work force.
The report calls on the government not only to incentivise private-sector investment in care institutions, but also to encourage businesses to establish nurseries at workplaces through tax deductions or the preferential pricing of utilities.
In the meantime, the report stresses that there should be a means to facilitate access for children from poor families. “Subsidising quality childcare for the poor is an important area for public interventions to support the outreach of early childhood care and education services to different vulnerable groups,” it says.
While working on introducing new policies, the report also recommends working on changing attitudes. “Involving men in unpaid care work is essential for its redistribution,” the policy brief said. To do this, it calls for “intensive communication and advocacy campaigns to address the stereotypes, barriers, and attitudes towards gender roles in Egypt and to promote behavioural change.”
The report was produced within the framework of the UN Women and International Labour Organisation Joint Programme “Promoting Productive Employment and Decent Work for Women in Egypt, Jordan and Palestine” funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.
It was produced as a regional companion to UN Women’s Progress of the World’s Women report on “Families in a Changing World: Public Action for Women’s Rights’ Programme” funded by the Swiss Development Cooperation.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.