The Erasure of the Global Working Woman

Jan/17/2021 / by Jeni Dhodary

A woman is born not into a world, but into a warzone. We see this with Buchhu Devi, who begins her day at three every morning after a fleeting night of rest. While the rest of the world has yet to awaken, she is already making the three kilometer trek across her village to gather water for her family. As she navigates the unpaved roads transporting her across a fraction of rural India, she greets a darkness she knows all too well. It is a darkness that follows her into the day, as she squeezes in a full time job at a local construction site while juggling her household duties: the duty of a mother to cook, to clean and to look after her children. At her inability to carry out these tasks, she faces frequent abuse from her husband.

“I have no time, not even time to die,” she expresses in an interview with Oxfam India. 

The tragedy in Buchhu Devi’s story is that it isn’t just her story — it is the shared plight of millions of women across the world, many of whom are the casualties of an extractive domestic labor industry. Globally, women represent less than 50% of the labor force despite contributing $10.8 trillion in uncompensated domestic labor every year. In conducting essential household tasks such as cooking, subsistence farming, cleaning, transporting water and more, they are a part of an invisible industry valued at three times the global technology industry.

This erasure of the global working woman reflects a great economic calamity. It is of special concern in South Asia, where a mere 23.6% of women are integrated into the formal economy despite providing millions of dollars of integral services every day. In India, women perform an estimated 3.26 billion hours of daily domestic duties amounting to $260 billion every year annually. With the value of their contribution surpassing the size of the neighboring economy of Nepal, a similar narrative is being written in Bangladesh, where women carry out an upward projection of $259 billion in domestic obligations every year. Their roles fortified by an unspoken law that governs the many patriarchal households in South Asia, women evidently drive an invisible industry that extracts from them more than it gives in return. If accounted for in economic calculations, their contribution would easily amount to 10% to 39% of every nation’s GDP. Yet domestic labor remains overlooked and without compensation, forcing women into cycles of dependence and abuse. 

It isn’t that women don’t want to work. In Nepal alone, over a million working age women desire formal employment, but cite familial obligations as interfering with their ability to seek it. With their domestic duties further competing with their ability to pursue an education or participate in a trade, women are quietly subsidizing an economy at their own expense — and they are doing it from their homes. 

By trapping women in domestic obligations, this gendered household model diminishes their chances of autonomy. With climate change expediting the spread of new viruses and accelerating water scarcity, the expectation of caring for sick relatives and walking long distances to fetch water will continue to fall on women. All the while, they will continue to remain financially dependent on their resident patriarchs due to a systemic denial of their labor. 

This is erasure. Compelled to uphold an industry that perpetually subjugates them, women are the victims of a violent economic narrative that must be rewritten. To rewrite this narrative and to incite a revolution against our invisibility, it is time we finally grab the pen.


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