At the end of twentieth century the issue of women empowerment and development took a noticeable shape even though injustice and violence against women have been carried out since ancient age. Scholars identified lack of ‘economic power’ was the primary cause of women’s suffering and including women in outside world by educating and opening job market for them was thought as a universal panacea to this problem. The common doctrine was that when women have economic power like men do they can be independent and raise their voice in every sphere of society.
In January 1 of 1976 the United Nations declared the following decade as - ‘United Nations Decade for Women’ - to promote equal rights and opportunities for women around the world. Measurement of equal rights and opportunities is done by Gender Equality Index which uses three dimensions such as reproductive health, empowerment and women’s labour force participation. Bangladesh ranked 47 in GII in 2017 whereas India’s position was 108. In 1970 only 23 per cent of working age women participated in labour force in Bangladesh whereas it increased to 33 per cent in 2017 which is considered as a good thing. But unfortunately very few statistics talk about the female educated labour force who are leaving job market and those who are not interested in job market at all.For example, only 58 per cent of all working age women in America either looking for work or currently in work during 2010 and Bureau of Labour Statistics of America is expecting the rate will fall further down by 2020. Statistics says other 40 per cent of working age women who are not looking for any work is most likely to be married. In India nearly 20 million women left job market from 2005 to 2010.
So now the question arises, why so many women are disinterested to work and leaving workplace even though scholars advocate economic empowerment as the key to women’s empowerment?
The problem is that women are not burden-free unlike men. Being empowered or staying in labour force is another burden on women’s shoulder alongside with staying in reproductive sector (i.e. child bearing and rearing) and community management (e.g. domestic work, caring for sick family members). Activities of these three sectors are altogether known as the triple burden which is put on women’s shoulder by modern gender biased social framework though it is not considered a burden in different cases (e.g. women who enjoys their job). Women have been working in reproductive and community management sector for centuries and it is now so much taken for granted in our society that advocates of women’s empowerment do not consider these activities as work. Though in recent years scholars are paying more attention to this issue, for example study of Unnoyan Onneshan done during 2013 says that women’s unpaid work in Bangladesh accounts for more than 10 per cent of GDP in Bangladesh though it is not included. So reproductive and community activities are also a kind of work which take sufficient amount of time and energy like productive sector and there is no way to ignore their contribution in society.
It seems empowerment comes with a heavy cost and the price of empowerment is the leisure time that women have at home, if any, after performing all other domestic works. So, after working outside all day then working at home till midnight how much empowerment do women in our society enjoy? Unfortunately, the answer is disappointing even for women who hold a PhD and work in prestigious institutions. Research done by SHS University in America shows that among the respondents, 60 per cent of women are victims of domestic violence (physical or psychological or both) by their intimate partner whereas only 30 per cent of women face violence in the household where only male is the breadwinner. These kinds of researches throw a strong controversy on the claim that economic power equates to women’s empowerment. Research done by Health and Safety Executive in America also shows that working women are more likely to suffer from high rate of stress than man do.
So if economic empowerment is the key, then the price for this key is putting on extra burden on women’s shoulders and women who cannot bear this burden leave labour force. But we should not conclude that the latter group does not relish any empowerment at home. As earlier studies show, non-working women suffers relatively less intimate partner violence than working women in America. Women who cannot keep up with all three burdens eventually leave labour force to reduce the amount of burden. Research done in America show that 43 per cent of married women with children leave their work completely or for a long period of time because they cannot keep up with all these burden from outside and inside of home. There is another possibility that women leaving labour force are already empowered enough so that they do not have to join labour force though lack of proper and satisfactory research in this sphere is an issue. For example, often women in Bangladesh choose not to work on their own free will and they are satisfied with the treatment they enjoy in domestic sphere by their spouse.
In modern time, families often employ housemaid for doing household chores but women in our families have been doing these chores for ages and the thought that these domestic works can have appropriate value never crossed our minds.Instead of encouraging women to put triple burden on their shoulder by working outside shouldn’t we pay them for their contribution in family? This payment may not be in monetary terms but with respect and ending violence.
Md. Rakib Hossain, The author is a student of Development Studies at Dhaka University