‘What will the others think?’ Reflections on social norms and unpaid care work in Tunisia

Soufia Galand Gender, Women's Economic Empowerment

“Shhhh, the Others are listening! We can’t do that, the Others will see us!” I come from a migrant family, and we are what we could call a ‘modern’ one. However, this has never prevented my mom from being obsessed by the ‘Others’, how we should be like ‘Them’ and do as ‘They’ would expect us to do. I remember asking her, how come those people are everywhere we go, dictating our life when I do not even know them! As I grew up, I imagined these ‘Others’ as tiny people living in every persons’ head, scrutinizing every single action, then judging and gossiping about it. Of course, every person has their own set of these ‘Others’ which vary depending on their situation. 

The gendered divide of care work  

Last week, I was hanging out with my aunt, who was telling me how busy her friends were since becoming grandparents, ironically explaining that the man was even ‘helping out’ by hanging the laundry to dry. She then burst into laughter as I stood there surprised, not understanding what the joke was. My other aunt seemed to have got it, as she joined her in laughter, “Washing the dishes I can understand, but hanging out the laundry, no way!” In this case my aunts were the ‘Others’ my mother had made me aware of. My aunts had accepted this social, gendered division of roles as a fact. Not only had they internalized the idea that care work is a woman’s duty, they accepted this work to be outside of a man’s responsibility. 

But what could I expect? This norm is enshrined and directly protected in Tunisian family law where men are the head of the household. The law goes as far as to offer men the benefit of a tax reduction because of their designated ‘family’ role while women, who spend most of their time and money on daily family needs, get no such tax reduction. Gradually I understood that this ‘joke’ was not just a one-off family insight, it is a societal and a political issue.  

Unpaid care work amounts to billions of hours provided by women in their homes and communities, through caring for their children, the sick, elderly, and through domestic activities. What has been an unrecognized and undervalued norm in my family and many others across the world, is actually a legitimate form of work. 

The gendered divide of time 

This made me think, in how many other families in Tunisia are girls raised with the idea that care work is their responsibility? Recent research from Oxfam in Tunisia found that if you are a woman, care work takes up 60% of your time, 2 to 10 times more than men. If you are a woman living in Tunisia, you are probably spending up to 8 hours of your day doing unpaid care work, compared to only 45 minutes for men. This number increases if you live in a rural area, and if you are in a low-income household. 

Why? Let’s think about it for a moment. What care tasks are you in charge of at home? Do you have anyone else to help you? Do you outsource them? Do you have a washing machine? Access to clean water? Reliable electricity? A creche at your workplace? Of course, accessible services and resources are key to improving the situation and reducing the time women spend on care work. But above all, the equal sharing of the responsibilities between women and men will drastically reduce the time spent on unpaid care activities.  

This gender disparity in time use creates an enormous restriction on women’s time and their ability to choose how and what to use it on. When we quantify this time, we can see that what may appear like an individual/household issue, is actually an enormous economic one. This year’s Oxfam Davos Report, Time to Care, estimates the value of unpaid care work at 10.8 trillion dollars per year or around 13% of the global GDP. In Tunisia, the number is even more dramatic, the domestic and care economy is estimated to be equivalent to 64% of the GDP. 

Dividing care work more fairly 

If care work was more equally shared between men and women, and public institutions invested more in quality public services, the time and intensity of care activities would decrease. This would free up women’s time to use as they want. Be that in the paid workforce, in their community, at school, or on their own well being. Well, in fact, we would all benefit from that.  

Hanging the laundry out to dry, as with all other care work, is a neither a man or woman’s job. This is my obvious reality, and the one in which I believe many of us live. Is it yours? If so, here are some ways to silence the voices of the ‘Others’ in your life, change the dialogue on unpaid care and shift the norms which can limit women from flourishing in all areas of their lives.  

  1. Look into your daily life. Use the Oxfam Care Calculator to see just how much unpaid care work you do and how much money you would earn if this work was adequately valued. Use the Care Calculator to start a family experimentPut your number of hours up on the fridge, and compare all your numbers and how they differ between family members.
  2. Connect with local women’s rights organizations and get involved in their advocacy work on unpaid care and parental leave. Make sure to see if they provide support services to assist carers. 
  3. Say it to politicians. Sign Oxfam’s Make Care Count Petition to lobby governments to increase public investment in care services and parental leave. If you are in a country such as Tunisia which has a gender-responsive budget law adopted but has not put in practice yet, talk to your local representative. You have the right to be present in the consultative sessions for planning and budgeting at the local level. Check out the Marsad Budget initiative for more information.  
  4. If you have a partner, take the opportunity to speak to them about the amount of time spent on care work, how it is a shared responsibility and how together you can envision and plan your life together differently in solidarity. And in the workplace, if you’re a soon to be father, take your paternity leave. 

Soufia Galand

This post was originally written for the Women’s Economic Empowerment Knowledge Hub. Find out more about the initiative here.