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COVID-19 may be prompting men to help out at home, evidence from the Maldives suggests

Sara Duerto Valero and Cecilia Tinonin
Photo: Nishan/UNFPA Maldives
Photo: Nishan/UNFPA Maldives

As COVID-19 lockdown measures increase the amount of domestic and care work needed at home, the fear has been that women may be shouldering an even greater burden – at the cost of their incomes and well-being. The real frightening fact, however, is that until now, this fear was founded on ad-hoc accounts and stereotypes rather than hard evidence.  
A week after the lockdown began, UN Women and the Maldives’ National Bureau of Statistics partnered with telecommunications providers Ooredoo and Dhiraagu to launch a Rapid Assessment Survey, and received 4,754 responses. Here’s what we learned.

 

Everyone is spending more time on unpaid care and domestic work 

The COVID-19 pandemic puts the spotlight on care work. From care provided by medical professionals to care given by family, its importance cannot be understated. In contrast with previous humanitarian crises, COVID-19 underscores unpaid care as a key dimension of emergency response – it’s an enabler of both well-being and income-generation, given the school closures, elder vulnerability and work-from-home arrangements. Lockdowns are also multiplying the domestic workload, another form of essential work, particularly since cleaning can prevent infection. 

With a multiplied workload that cannot be outsourced, at the risk of bringing infection into the home, many women and men worldwide have become teachers, nurses and cooks. In the Maldives, more than half the people surveyed report spending more time on unpaid care and domestic work.

Rapid assessment data clarifies that some of the new burdens are being shared: the intensity of the childcare workload has increased similarly for men and women, although these perceptions are subjective, depending on how much work they performed prior to the crisis. As women in the Maldives often move into their husband’s home after marriage, men are more likely to note increases in the intensity of care for older and sick adults. Women, on the other hand, are doing more of the additional unpaid domestic work, and the differences are large (13% men, 22% women). 

Proportion of people who reported increases in the intensity of unpaid care and domestic work, by sex

 

Source: UN Women Rapid Assessment Survey (28 April 2020).
Notes: Figure reflects the proportion of people who stated that at least three of the unpaid care or domestic work activities had increased since the spread of COVID-19, n = 4,730. Weights were applied to adjust for age, sex and educational attainment.

 

Women may be doing more than men, but how much more?

The evidence is clear: the COVID-19 crisis affects women’s and men’s time differently. Besides the larger domestic burden for women, were they already spending more time on these chores before the pandemic? The Maldives has yet to conduct a time-use survey, so no assumptions can be made. Information on the “most time-consuming” activities can provide some clues, although no definitive answers. Data show that women spend the most time cooking, cleaning and providing physical care to children, while men mention a broader range of activities, many of them quicker by nature. There are other differences: single mothers, who devote the most time to cooking and cleaning, appear to have little time left for childcare. Married women, on the other hand, can share the workload and are thus more likely to cite childcare as their most time-consuming activity.  

Proportion of population reporting the most time-consuming unpaid care and domestic activities, by sex and marital status

 

Source: UN Women Rapid Assessment Survey (28 April 2020).
Notes: The figure reports only the categories with highest frequencies. Other categories are not reported because the number of observations is negligible, n= 3,005. Weights were applied to adjust for age, sex and educational attainment.

 

COVID-19 has prompted men to help more 

Evidence suggests that a silver lining of the lockdown is the increased male help with household chores and care responsibilities. Most women’s partners and sons are helping more. However, men still get the most help, not only from their spouses and daughters, but also from other family members.

Proportion of population who noted an increase in help with household chores and care work, by sex

 

Source: UN Women Rapid Assessment Survey (28 April 2020).
Notes: n= 2,198. Weights were applied to adjust for age, sex and educational attainment.

 

Women who need it most receive the least help

Conversely, it is the women that need help the most who are getting the least: that is, women of reproductive age living in households with children and older women without children. This is particularly concerning, as the increased workload may lead some working mothers to abandon paid jobs or older women to quit before retirement age.

Proportion of people who receive help with household chores and care work, by age-group and sex

 
 

Source: UN Women Rapid Assessment Survey (28 April 2020).
Note: People 75 years are not depicted because the number of observations is negligible. n= 2,198. Weights were applied to adjust for age, sex and educational attainment.

 

Employed women in the Maldives are also less likely to get support from their partners. As women are more likely to be in informal employment, less protected by social security and earn less than their partners, this may partially explain why they are working fewer hours since the crisis began

Proportion of employed population receiving more help from their partner since COVID-19, by sex

 
 

Source: UN Women Rapid Assessment Survey (28 April 2020).
Notes: n= 1,478. Weights were applied to adjust for age, sex and educational attainment. 

 

A renewed call for data on time use

COVID-19 has highlighted that those providing unpaid care and domestic work are delivering essential services. With no possibility of outsourcing this work, women and men are rolling up their sleeves. Doing so enables others to function and mitigates the risks of an otherwise devastating pandemic. Yet, this contribution is rarely recognized. Data have focused primarily on deaths, infection rates and market losses. At best, they include job losses, but rarely do they tackle the time dimension of unpaid work. 

Time-use data is a valuable asset, with or without a crisis. Granted, collection is expensive and tedious, but without it we remain blind to these essential contributions to our economy and well-being. As COVID-19 highlights the importance of unpaid care and domestic work in humanitarian settings, will data-collection efforts start including time-use surveys consistently? We can only hope so, because until then, all we can do is keep guessing.  

 


For data on more countries in the region, go to the resource page: Surveys show that COVID-19 has gendered effects in Asia and the Pacific

Sara Duerto Valero is UN Women’s Regional Advisor on Gender Statistics for Asia and the Pacific. She has published widely on gender statistics and development indicators. Before joining UN Women, she worked in the United Nations Statistics Division, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. She holds a post-graduate degree in Development Cooperation from the Université Libre de Bruxelles.

Cecilia Tinonin is a Statistician and Time-Use Specialist at the Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. She has published on data for development. Before joining UN Women, she served the International Labour Organization, the United Nations Conference for Trade and Development, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. She holds a PhD in Agricultural Economics and Statistics from the University of Bologna, Italy, with visiting fellowships at the University of Oxford and Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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