She works: How do we recognise and value domestic work?
In recent years, as I have continued to grow older, I have endeavoured to eat healthier consistently. The journey started when I attended a 10 week lifestyle modification course called Eat, Live & Be Well, that is ran by Dr. Dennis Nturibi and the team at Ask-a-Doc (who have been my doctors for at least the past decade). These savvy, youthful doctors are great at the business of healthcare – and they try help people like me navigate the demands of life, because as David Sasaki points out, Work is Hard.
As part of my trying to eat better, I have been working hard to influence my colleagues at work to do the same. We increasingly are eating more high fibre diets, more fruits and vegetables than before. So it was striking when I saw Benjamin digging into a number of slices of peanut-butter laden, white bread, sausages and Kenyan tea (the one that God made – if you haven’t tried it, you simply must place it on your bucket list and make it as we do). I assumed that he was having a “cheat-day” as one would on occassion to satisfy a craving – but then he clarified.
He woke up a bit late and spent sometime handling holiday homework with the kids, this morning, then he rushed off to work. He didn’t have breakfast and so by the time he was in the office, he was hungry (the biggest enemy of healthy eating because you then eat anything). “So why didn’t you have breakfast at home?” I wanted to know. As it turns out, there were no healthy high fibre cereals this morning and he hadn’t thought to organise them before.
“This is why I miss my wife (who is currently traveling),” said Benjamin, “Such details would never pass her by and I wouldn’t have missed cereals.”
This condensed some thinking that my team and I have been doing lately around the “Leave No One Behind” agenda. We have been trying to think about some of the groups of people who are being left behind the global development agenda – especially in our context – and we have been trying to get as specific as possible.
Women, we have become increasingly clear are being left behind in many ways. Look at Benjamin’s wife, for example. A successful business person, she has a highly demanding job of her own just like he does. They go home together from work in the city on most days and get home, just as tired from the pressures of the day. But as with most working women in our part of the world, when she gets home, she has many other details to see to – not least of which is Benjamin’s morning cereal. Many husbands have little to no idea what happens in their kitchens, how the socks they remove and throw on the floor next to the dirty clothes hamper (to the constant chagrin of their wives) find their way back into the closet.
Even men like Benjamin who are more active parents in their households (active in that they are very involved in bringing up the kids at a practical level – they do homework, they play with the kids, they make pancakes with them and totally mess up the kitchen, etc), know less about the kids’ development than mummy does. She still is a lot more aware about the details around cleaning, cooking than he is and when she travels, he manages – but at a deficit.
How do we value the unpaid domestic work that professional women do after they go home?
The situation is worse for stay-at-home women – especially in the rural areas. Benjamin’s wife has a formal job in her business, pays taxes and earns a salary. She is a lot more independent than a stay-at-home mum, who in most cases in Kenya, depends on the husband who goes to work.
In Kenya, domestic work is not viewed as work – and most stay-at-home mum’s are deemed not to work. Kenya – and most other countries globally – does not have policies that recognise or acknowledge the value to the economy that stay-at-home women give. By the way, the number of stay-at-home dads is too negligible today to discuss.
But consider her life: she is up by 5am, makes breakfast, feeds the kids and her husband, lays out their clean cloths for school and work, cleans the home, takes care of the kitchen garden and maybe the few chickens around the compound, goes to the market, fetches water and often firewood, washes and irons cloths (by hand), cooks dinner, takes care of the kid’s evening routine, feeds everyone, cleans up after everyone, has an answer to “I can’t find my…” and “mama, where are my socks” and “I left that paper on the table and I can’t find it” and still has the energy or patience to take care of her husband’s conjugal needs. She often is first to rise and last to retire – and sleeps the least number of hours. 7 days a week.
How do we value the unpaid domestic work that stay-at home mums do all day?
For the country to have formal programmes that recognise and value the work that is done around the home, the country has to formally consider domestic work as work. For this to happen, the country would need to recognise that domestic work has a quantifiable contribution to the economy. The questions that arise as people think through this include:
- Is there actual value in a clean shirt to the economy?
- Does this unpaid work have monetary value and if so, what is the formula that could be devised to ascertain this monetary value?
- What are the dimensions of this conversation in our context and how does culture come into play
- …. and many many other questions.
Of course this conversation has happened at global level – as evidenced by the existence of the Sustainable Development Goal number 5.4
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.”
But context is important in this sort of conversation. It would be interesting to figure out in what direction Kenya’s conversation should take and who should lead it.