In Bangladesh, as elsewhere, men are considered to be the head of the family and its most important member, since it is most often men who earn the income that houses, feeds, and clothes the family. Men also have a far easier time than women in seeking paid employment. Work is typically divided along gender lines, with men being responsible for "outside" work and women for housework and child care. In Bangladeshi families, income earning is usually the responsibility of males, while the remaining family members - usually women and children are economically dependent. Women have no choice but to live in this dependent condition, due to their relatively lower educational levels and fewer marketable skills, the resultant lack of available employment opportunities, and a lack of social acceptance of women earning a living. This problem is, perhaps surprisingly, particularly acute for middle-class women. The poorest often have no choice but to allow the women to find paid work, while in the upper classes, women are usually educated and can find other ways to spend their time. Middle class women, however, face the greatest social obstacles in engaging in work outside the home, leaving them few choices but to be full-time housewives. Meanwhile, even those women who have paid jobs must continue bearing responsibility for household work, with its many time- consuming tasks. As a result, many women spend most of their time on housework. Women also perform paid labor within their homes, such as taking in piece work or assisting in family productive activities, such as farm work, running a family business, etc. Typically, however, any work that receives little pay is considered unimportant and labeled as "women's work", despite the fact that such work actually bring tangible economic benefits to the family. Since housework and childcare are unpaid1 and are carried out almost exclusively by women, they are considered to be without monetary value. Further, there exists the perception that women innately 1 We are not suggesting that these activities should be paid; rather, that their value should be recognized and acknowledged.
4 "know" how to cook, clean, raise children and manage a household, these are not considered skills or talents that women work hard to acquire from their mothers as young girls, but are rather considered trivial, unskilled tasks. This attitude towards women's unpaid work belittles women's status in the family, society, and the nation. This paper addresses these issues, and offers suggestions for remedying some of the problems caused by the lack of importance given to the contributions women make to the family and to society through their unpaid work. Background and rationale2 Many important decisions about resource allocations are made based on economic calculations. Thus if there are significant problems with those calculations, the basis for the decision-making may also be called into question. Yet, there is a deep and generally ignored problem* with all national economic calculations of GDP, the most widely-used measure of national well-being. The guidelines used internationally to 2 This section draws heavily on Marilyn Waring's book If Women Counted . All references are to her book unless otherwise noted. * There are actually several problems with calculations of GDP, such as the fact that it also ignores the environment and natural resources, and since it is measured per capita, does not distinguish between countries with fairly equal divisions of income and those with strong disparities. Amartya Sen (as cited in Farmer 2005) has repeatedly pointed out to his fellow economists that income is a means to an end, not an end in itself, and it is livelihood, not income, that should be of paramount importance. This paper, however, focuses on women's issues, rather than on a broader critique of GDP. calculate GDPâ€”the United Nations System of National Accounts (UNSNA)â€”contains many biases that, whether or not deliberately, result in the exclusion of most work done by women around the world (Waring 1998). Under the UNSNA guidelines, women's labor is generally only counted in national accounts if it takes place in the paid workforce, be it in a factory, on a farm, or in an office. If a woman works, but is not paid, then her labor does not count for anything in terms of national measurements of wealth. According to the 1953 UNSNA definition, production totals include "all primary production, whether exchanged or not" (Waring 1998). If a man grows vegetables as his primary occupation, then those vegetables are registered as part of national wealth, even those that are consumed at his home rather than sold on the market. But if a woman grows vegetables for home consumption, they do not count unless she is growing them as her primary occupation. As Waring explains, this means that the creators of the UNSNA feel that the " primary production and the consumption of their produce by non-primary producers is of little or no importance ." In other words, women's work is of little or no importance. It is very difficult for most women to explain exactly which of their many occupations (raising children, taking care of the house, doing farm work, helping their husband with other income-generating work, and so on) is their primary occupation. Once a woman becomes a mother, and in fact usually prior to this, she has so many occupations that it is
5 impossible to label any one as 'primary.' But national statistics are arranged so as to ignore 'non-primary' occupations, thus essentially eliminating consideration of the contributions of women. If a woman states that her primary occupation is housework, then she is considered as not contributing anything to the economy. Most types of agricultural work are included in the UNSNA. Some activities, however, are specifically excluded, including carrying water, weeding, collecting firewood, subsistence crop production, and housework. Is it coincidence, asks Waring, that these are specifically the activities most likely to be carried out by women? The fact that housework is specifically excluded from the UNSNA suggests that housewives are not considered as doing anything of economic value. Yet housewives' activities include food processing, food preparation, care of family members, care of clothing, shopping, household management, and maintenance of accounts. "It is likely that our failure to assign a price for the services of the homemaker has tended to convey the impression that they are valueless rather than priceless." --economists Marianne Ferber and Bonnie Birnbaum (Waring 1998) Yet the tasks commonly performed by women are not entirely lacking in importance. Certainly clean clothes, a clean home, and meals are essential to those earning an income, as well as to everyone else in society. Little as it may receive financial recognition, it is also obviously important to have someone who takes care of children, the elderly, and the sick. Women's contributions are undoubtedly essential to the home and thus to society, yet they are assigned no economic value. Meanwhile, a man sitting behind a desk pushing papers, or selling a harmful product, or pedaling war, is considered to be making an economic contribution that must be counted. According to the current system, Waring observes, drug dealers, pimps, and arms dealers make an economic contribution to society; a woman staying home to take care of her children and elderly relatives does not. Imagine the kind of society we create when prioritizing useless or harmful economic activity over social activity; perhaps this goes a long way towards explaining current crises in terms of the heavy burdens placed on working families to meet their needs to earn an income and take care of family members. After all, with only income earning valued by society, society will offer no assistance to carry out other duties, and the difficulties faced by families which receive little or no support from employers or the State to balance work and family responsibilities is well-documented.