Dr Karem Roitman speaking for MAHM at Feminism in London conference Oct 2015

Posted in: MAHM Blog


Dr Karem Roitman

Good morning, my name is Karem and I am a lecturer and consultant on socio-economic development and gender. Today, as part of Mothers At Home Matter, I would like to bring an international perspective to this panel on unpaid labour. I am aware some have critiqued our panel as representing solely the concerns of middle-class, white, women. I strongly disagree. What we are talking about today is the concern of every woman. In fact it is the very future of humanity we are discussing.

Let me start by setting the context. I will be using Ecuador, my home country, as my case study.  It was in Ecuador that I, without realising, learned what it meant to mother, to care, and what care was worth. We learn these values as children, from the culture that bathes us, before we are ever aware of the governmental discourses that exist.

I remember many times going to the market with my mother. Holding on to her hand, feeling safe and adventurous, we would go to the outdoor area where indigenous people brought fresh produce to sell. We navigated piles of papayas, potatoes, and peas; the smell of ripe earth, warmth fruit, and tired human permeated every breath. We stopped to negotiate a kilo of oranges and the casera, or saleswoman, praised the sweetness of her product, dramatically slashing a green orange to demonstrate its fresh, orange pulp, splashing me with fragrant juice in the process. Without stopping, she started to load up her scale, noting that she was only giving us the best, most beautiful fruit. She did all of this with one of her breasts uncovered, and a little toddler hung from it, moving back and forth with her chest, while his eyes spied us, never loosing his suckle. Another woman walked past: she had bags of various beans hanging from her hands– red, green, white, and mixedporotos. A baby, maybe 8 or 9 months old, was tied to her back with a cloth. As she walked slowly, peddling her product, the baby was rocked to sleep by her steps.

From experiences like this I picked up so many values…values I only became conscious off once I started my own journey into motherhood. For instance, without realising it, I learned to breastfeed from these moments, when I saw little ones latch and unlatch as needed to quiet every whimper.  But I also learned that certain women needed to go out and earn a living even while caring for their children. I saw tired, sweaty kids, sleeping at their mother’s feet and learnt that some mothers’ labour was apparently worth more than others…some women’s care more highly guarded by society, some children’s care more precious.  I learned that poor women carried and fed their children on their breasts – other women had maids to carry and feed their children…

Now, remember that there can be disparity between a lived culture and the discourse spouted by its government.  Ecuador’s government has been progressive in the social arena, especially in the last decade. It has worked with the UN and other international bodies to support gender equality in multiple spheres. But concentrating on care and women, what has it done?

It has strongly focused on the first year of motherhood, putting in place a 12 week maternity leave (very little, but better than the USA!), a 10 day paternal leave, and supporting breastfeeding for 12 months (until recently it was only for 9 months), by mandating that breastfeeding mothers be given two hours to feed or express milk.

But what about mothering and caring work that happens beyond this maternal work in infancy?

The media has recently highlighted the government’s voluntary pension scheme for housewives. The state estimates 1.5 million housewives in Ecuador, who produce the equivalent of 15.5% of the country’s GDP, which is more than this oil economy receives from oil! Housewives can now sign up for a pension that would pay off when they turn 65 and into which they can contribute on a sliding scale.

The pension offered by the government is supposed to acknowledge the work these women are providing, and also acknowledge that women are made vulnerable by undertaking unpaid work. They are vulnerable economically because they are financially dependent on another, but also psychologically and socially because if their work is not seen and not valued by society, they might also be unseen and unvalued by those around them.

I would like to concentrate on this policy because I see in it parallels for the UK and other states; lessons to keep in mind, and dangers to avoid. First, it is interesting to point out that while the current government has gotten lots of publicity about this pension, a pension for housewives has in fact been in place since the early 1970s. This new pension does make significant changes, but it also highlights that:

Government policies are vacuous without cultural changes.

Putting a policy in place without working to affect how society views its benefactors leads to policy failure. In this case the policy feel into disuse and the way housewives were thought of did not change.

De jure and de facto experiences of women can be worlds apart.

Putting in place a legislation that gives women a pension does not mean the income will get to them. We do not know, for example, if the money will go to the women once it is given out, or whether it will be forcibly taken from them. A public policy does not change dynamics in the private realm without a more general cultural shift.

Promising equality can be dangerous.

The danger with policies that promise to have addressed inequalities, even if then haven’t addressed them, is that they can deafen us against the voices of those suffering. In other words, if the women who are now eligible for this pension attempt to decry conditions they find unfair, if they raise their voice against feeling undervalued or having to work double and triple burdens, they can now be quieted by being told ‘…but now you get a pension’… So be careful of policies that offer just a bit, but not enough.

Another substantial concern is how women’s work has been valued in the social narrative to explain why they deserve a pension. It seems to me women’s unpaid work is often valued by using a model of ‘replacement’. By this I mean that we look at women, see what they do, and see how much it would cost to replace them. There are various problems with this system, notably that it misses various positive and negative externalities. Thus for example, with mothers and some of the caring work they do in early infancy:

What a woman does Replacement model
Give birth …. Well, we can’t really replace that, but we can make it more efficient….no need for looong pregnancies were women are tired and less able for up to 44 weeks with doctors needing to be on call on weekends and holidays…. And thus we see a tremendous increase in C-sections at 37 weeks. In a private Ecuadorian hospital (in Guayaquil), 85% of private patients (thus high income patients) are undergoing C-sections (Kemp 2013). This is a stupefying statistic. It is impossible to justify this medically. The truth is that except for extreme circumstances were medical intervention is needed, humans evolved to be born when the baby’s body decides it is ready to face the external world, and humans evolved to be born through the vagina. The process of birth expels liquid from the lungs, populates the gut with correct microbes, affects neural development… not to mention the great trauma that a major abdominal surgery inflicts on a woman’s body.[1]
Breastfeed Well this one is easy: formula. And it is extra convenient because it means that the mother does not need to be tied to the baby, others can help, schedules that are convenient can be more easily set.

…. but again we are missing the positive and negative externalities – the immunological value of breastfeeding, how breast milk adapts to new pathogens in the environment as the mother picks these up from kissing her child, the economic costs of formula feeding for a family, the ecological costs of formula creation, transport, and disposal. The undervaluing of the social network needed to make breastfeeding successful. Again, formula can be a medical necessity, but formula is not what humanity has evolved to grow on, and it carries costs often ignored.

Clean the home, make food, create a home… We can hire a maid at minimum wage, or buy easily accessible processed food. Positive externalities: work provided for others. Negative externalities: traditions lost (such as the cooking of traditional food which holds within it the language of a specific culture), creation of only minimum wage jobs other women are trapped in (see Nancy Fraser on leaning-on).
Look after children Increasing childcare facilities can answer this. 24-hour nurseries already exist in the USA and the idea is catching. Schools are being asked to provide full time childcare for kids in the UK. In Ecuador legal changes have supported a social understanding of a ‘need’ for ‘initial’ education for children younger than 4 years old. The Ecuadorian state has seen a massive increase in children between 3 and 4 years enrolling in its childcare system: from 29, 813 in 2006, to 185,141 in 2013 (Brown 2014).

The negative externalities – sadly, a lot. As our understanding of neurodevelopment in children increases, we know more about their need for attachment with their primary carer especially during infancy. Children need to be held; something that is only possible with a one to one ratio in childcare – a very expensive proposal. Anecdotally in most traditional cultures children are held most of the time. In some cultures children are not allowed to touch the floor before they are six months. Touch and movement are central to brain development. In contrast, new parenting gurus in the west proclaim the need tonot pick up children for fear of spoiling them…

On a more sociological note we must be aware that as greater parts of our children’s lives are lived in the public realm, they fall under the direction and oversight of government, meaning that the state has a greater voice in the values they are exposed to, how they are brought up.

In short, just looking at it from a biological perspective, humanity has evolved to be cared for by mothers. This caring work is invaluable for our human survival. Replacements are profitable for various corporations (from formula companies, to childcare facilities and health insurance providers), but are simply not up to par. Perhaps this is why we find endless mythologies eulogizing and supporting mothers through the world. In Islam, for instance, there is a tradition about a man who asked the Prophet four times ‘whom should I give my honour and time to the most?’, and three times he was told ‘to your mother’. Only on the fourth time was the answer ‘your father’. Also in Islam breastfeeding for two years is encouraged were possible, and women aren’t required to leave their homes and work. In fact, if a wife requests it, she could be remunerated for the services she provides to keep a household and even for nursing.

Having covered all these lacunas and oversights in the replacement model of valuing caring work, there are two further issues that are even more important.

First, while caring work might include some or all of the activities listed above (and while several of the parts listed above can be fulfilled by men), it is fundamental to realise that caring is more than any of these parts or even their sum. Caring is greater than the sum of its parts. Caring is a relationship. It is an investment in someone else’s life that requires time, generosity, kindness, forgiveness, and grace. How can this be quantified and monetised? How can this be translated from the private realm to the public.

Second, How can we quantify the value of giving women the ability to choose their life path? As a society we would be incensed if a girl was told she could not be a doctor, or an engineer, or a soldier. However, if a woman chooses to spend hours, days, months or years of her life caring for others – in other words, in an active, self-giving, and productive manner, we have no qualms telling her that that is not an option. At the moment, a patronising voice emerges from all political parties in Ecuador (and the UK!) saying ‘Come now, little girl, you don’t really want to stay home and care, do you? You could be great things! Now, stop that nonsense, stop being dramatic, drop the children off, leave the elderly in the home, and move on!’. But caring is no nonsense. It is a choice and it is a fundamentally valuable need for humans.

Let’s talk a little bit more about choice. When looking at labour distributions in Ecuador the government found that considering paid and unpaid work, on an average week women work 77.39 hours while men work 59.57 hours (INEC 2012). Women on average undertake 4 times the amount of unpaid work a man does, with no significant differences based on area of residence, education level, or ethnicity (Ibid). Women want the choice to care and also be involved in the public sphere that gives them economic independence, societal value, and which impacts on their caring lives. But how can one have it all? The only option is to outsource something. But this choice is only a real one for some women. If you are part of a well-off family in Ecuador, you may feed your baby in the morning, drop him off at grandma’s for the morning, pick up a healthy ready made meal from a specialty store, come home for lunch to feed your baby and put him down for his nap, return soon after work and play with him before bed time… Or you might opt for high quality childcare, with a one adult to two children ratio, and where webcams are ever pointed at your child so you can log in at any second to see what she is doing, to send her little electronic messages or text suggestions for her carer on real time. And come home to play with her in a clean house that was cleaned for you.

But few women have these choices. The women I have met have had to lock their children in a room all day in order to go out and earn enough to survive –often cleaning other houses, looking after others’ children. They don’t have families they can rely on. Sisters and mothers have many times migrated to work as maids, to care for other’s grandparents in Europe. I have played with some of the children, left behind, children who have received such little stimulation, such little physical care, that when we sang ‘head, shoulders, knees and toes’, they struggled to move, their limbs atrophied from lack of normal child play.

Undervaluing care supports a global crisis. Women move through the world in search for payment, for the money that promises their children a better life, and their children stay behind or stay locked in.  The promise of a better future seldom materialises but the costs of missing out on their mothers’ care to the children’s development are all too high, as replacements simply don’t fulfil developmental needs.

If feminism is about wanting true equality of choice for all humans, then this is a pressing issue. And even more so for women of colour and migrants with low incomes. Those who are seldom here to debate the question because they are working and trying to care for their children with little or no support. Women whose caring work is so undervalued, that they are pushed to put their children in poor quality child care – in no way comparable to what they could provide  – in order to survive. Women whose caring work is so undervalued, that they begin to undervalue themselves. Women whose caring work is so undervalued, that daily life turns into mental and emotional abuse. Women who the state would have us believe can easily be replaced.

A small pension is not enough to value the work these women provide. A promise of equality in the political sphere is not enough to alter the heavy burden, for almost no recognition, these women bear.  Governmental changes are good and needed, but we desperately need a cultural shift that comes to realise the intrinsic and instrumental worth of caring in every part of the world.


Brown, Maria. 2014. ‘Educacion inicial: ni guarderia ni escuela’ Para el Aula.USFQ. https://www.usfq.edu.ec/publicaciones/para_el_aula/Documents/para_el_aula_11/pea_011_0004.pdf (Accessed November 3, 2015).

INEC. 2012. ‘Encuesta del Uso del Tiempo’  http://www.ecuadorencifras.gob.ec/documentos/web-inec/Uso_Tiempo/Presentacion_%20Principales_Resultados.pdf (Accessed November 3, 2015).

Kemp, Melisa and Sheri Palmer. ‘Explanations for an Increased Cesarean Birth Rate in Guayaquil, Ecuador’ Journal for Undergraduate Research. BYU.  http://jur.byu.edu/?p=6662 (Accessed, November 3, 2015).

[1]For a fabulous discussion on what we gain through birth, please read What’s Going on in There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life by Lisa Eliot.

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