Do people really care about others?

By Arvind M. Dhople, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Florida Tech

(International Women’s Day, March 08)

                After more than 100 years, International Women’s Day (March 08) draws millions to commemorate the advancements made in human rights and to discuss the challenges women continue to face in politics, education, employment, and other areas of daily life.  However, the origins traced back to March 8, 1857, when female garment works in New York City staged a protest against inhumane working conditions and low wages. 

                International Women’s Day provides an opportunity to highlight the contributions of women around the world and reflect on the gains in gender equity that have been lost during the COVID-19 pandemic.  The pandemic has had a harmful effect on women, especially those who were already disadvantaged, and has widened health and social inequities.  Rises in gender-based violence, child marriage, and school dropouts of girls, reduced access to sexual and reproductive health services, and economic insecurities due to job loss, withdrawal from the workforce, and stalled career progression are a blow to gender equity everywhere.

                The domestic, emotional, and caring labor and lower status essential work that keep families and households together, is essential to health.  Maintaining hygiene and safety, such as by cooking, cleaning, feeding, and “doing the dirty work”, is mostly done by women, and particularly women of color.  As a result, such women form the bedrock of our economy and societies.  COVID-19 has exposed the ways in which low-value work has been taken for granted and the discrimination and lack of status it is given.  Health-promoting domestic work is largely ignored by health systems and economic estimates.  Better wages and conditions and inclusion of this labor in gross domestic product (GDP) are needed to properly value this work.  Taking an intersectional lens to gender here will be crucial.

                The majority of both paid and unpaid contributions to producing health and health care come from women, as part of the labor force and within communities and families. It seems that women’s unpaid contributions to health care in the health system in 2015 was equal to 2.35% of global GDP – almost US$1.5 trillion.  These women provide a substantial hidden subsidy for global health systems, yet, 5 years later, remain unrecognized and undervalued in official estimates of the value of the health sector.

                If caregiving is undervalued and underpaid, women will be undervalued and underpaid; and if women are undervalued and underpaid, caregiving will be undervalued and underpaid.  This is a vicious duality for women and health.  The solution is to seek a gender balance in caregiving and work, where men are also able to enjoy the benefits of being able to have time to care for their loved ones.  With increased work flexibility and children returning to school, this change could be catalytic both for women’s progression in the labor force and for achieving a gender balance in caregiving.

                As countries look to post-COVID-19 recovery, there is an urgent need for institutions and governments to redesign economies more equitably.  They should be based on feminist, intersectional, and anti-racist principles that generate understanding of the inextricable link between, and need for social systems of, child care, value, and pay for domestic labor.  Recovery from the pandemic also calls us to think about the importance of investing in health and social care more generally, which will have the effect of freeing up the time of women who are the main producers of the unpaid care and unpaid caregiving by alleviating the burden of non-communicable disease and other long-term conditions and disabilities.

                COVID-19 has harmed the health and economic security of women worldwide.  But the pandemic has also made the invisible contribution of women to health care much more apparent and provided important momentum to advocate for its measurement, recognition, and fair compensation with no disparities due to sex.  This opportunity must be seized.