My husband says not to look for a job too far from my house because I also have to do housework and asks me to wait. Mita (pseudonym) went on to express his frustration saying, “If this pandemic hadn’t happened, I would have extra money to spend on my children, I would have had a job. Mita is a 32-year-old former factory worker whom we interviewed as part of a project to understand Covid-19 in Bangladesh. Mita quit her job during the pandemic, and when she started looking for a job again, she had far fewer options due to her husband’s specific instructions.
The harsh reality of the pandemic is that it has not affected all groups in society equally. Women have lost opportunities for growth and employment because they bear the brunt of the domestic burden.
With the closure of public and private educational institutions, offices and transport at different times during the pandemic, the labor market has been disrupted for all. However, the pandemic has caused an economic downturn that has placed a double burden on women.
In Bangladesh, almost 31% of the informal workforce is made up of women. People who worked in the informal sectors lost their jobs without notice and were the most affected. Numerous studies conducted around the world have indicated that women’s careers are affected even if they are able to keep their jobs and that there is a tendency of women to reduce their working hours during the pandemic.
We hoped, seeing how stressful and exposed household responsibilities are in all their fullness, that men would start to do their fair share. But they continued to let the women of the house take over. As a result, household responsibilities have increased more for women than before the lockdown. To explore this, we asked 28 female respondents and 12 male respondents in Bangladesh about the specific effects of Covid-19 on their household responsibilities and whether there was a gender dimension to these impacts. We found three recurring themes.
First, families in patriarchal societies have an unequal division of labour, with the majority of women experiencing double work pressure within the household compared to men. For example, Yamin Begum, a 41-year-old housekeeper, mentioned the increased household workload during Covid, saying, “Yes, during the lockdown, work pressure increased. I had to boil water several times a day I had to keep things clean a lot – with soap and water and made sure everyone washed their hands I also had to cook food for everyone.
This was no anomaly as 21 of our 28 women surveyed said the pandemic and initial lockdown brought them a host of challenges, including increased household chores due to the extra precautions they had to take at cause of covid. Although more family members were staying at home, 16 of our respondents mentioned that they had not received any additional help during this period. The other 12 women interviewed received additional help from other family members who are women.
The second theme was men’s perception that household chores were less strenuous than their job and the prevailing belief that household chores are an integral part of women’s daily lives and should not be seen as a burden. Men generally think that household chores should be done by women, as they have always seen women spend most of their time taking care of household responsibilities. A 32-year-old tea stall owner from Kalyanpur said, “There is less pressure in housework. My work needs more energy.
The third theme was that the women themselves preferred that their husbands and sons not be involved in household chores. Some of our female respondents said they were not used to their husband’s help in the kitchen or with regular household chores.
“Have you ever seen men working in the kitchen? Never! Even though now I have a little pressure due to the confinement, these tasks (cooking, washing, cleaning and taking care of the house) are my responsibility . I can’t ask my husbands to do this. My mother, my mother-in-law never did this, how can I?” laughed Nasrin, 46, who lives in Agargaon slum in Dhaka.
Our results confirmed the idea that women tend to take on more household chores than men, and that for many women, confinement has resulted in an increased burden of responsibilities. Surprisingly, many women had to bear this increased workload without any form of support, which led to their recovery on low incomes.
Despite our common sense of progress on gender in Bangladesh, much remains to be done to bring gender equality into the household realm. These results are direct indicators that should prompt policy makers to consider the inequitable distribution of domestic work and unpaid care work when drafting policy responses for Covid and future pandemics.
Amal Chowdhury is a research assistant at the Brac James P Grant School of Public Health at the University of Brac.