By Haider Rizvi
UNITED NATIONS, Mar 9, 2010 (IPS) – “What do I get from them? Nothing but bullsh*t,” says Nupur Acharya, reflecting about how she is treated by her husband and two grown sons on daily basis.
The 50-year-old Indian national who is currently settled in New York says she not only cleans the entire house every day, but also works in the kitchen from morning to evening, which makes her feel more like an unpaid maid than a respected wife and mother.
While the household labour of millions of women like Acharya goes unnoticed by many economists, recent research by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) suggests that the fate of millions of women across the world who work in factories, farms, shops and offices is often little different, despite a treaty adopted in 1979 by the U.N. General Assembly intended to eliminate discrimination at home and in the workplace.
On the eve of the International Women’s Day Monday, the Geneva-based U.N. agency that tracks labour rights violations worldwide released a report suggesting that it remains a distant possibility for a vast majority of women to find decent job in both the public and private sector, even when they are fully qualified.
Despite signs of progress in gender equality over the past 15 years, there is still a significant gap between women and men in terms of job opportunities and quality of employment, according to the ILO report, entitled “Women in labour markets: Measuring progress and identifying challenges.”
The study’s authors say that more than a decade after the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing adopted an ambitious global platform for action on gender equality and women’s empowerment, gender biases remain “deeply embedded in society and the labour market.”
The report shows that the rate of female labour force participation showed a slight increase from 50.2 to 51.7 percent between 1980 and 2008, while the male rate decreased slightly from 82 to about 77 percent. As a result, the gender gap in labour force participation rates has narrowed from 32 to 26 percentage points.
The ILO researchers say the increases in female participation were seen in all but two regions, Central and South-Eastern Europe (non-EU), and the CIS countries and East Asia, with the largest gain seen in Latin America and the Caribbean. In almost all regions, though, the rate of increase has slowed in recent years. It was in the 1980s and early 1990s that gains in numbers of economically active women were strongest.
At the same time, the share of women in wage and salaried work grew from 42.8 percent in 1999 to 47.3 percent in 2009, and the share of vulnerable employment decreased from 55.9 percent to 51.2 percent.
“While there have been areas of improvement since the Beijing conference (on women rights in 1995) and more women are choosing to work, they still don’t enjoy the same gains as men in the labour markets,” said Sara Elder of the ILO’s Employment Trends unit and main author of the report.
“We still find many more women than men taking up low-pay and precarious work, either because this is the only type of job made available to them or because they need to find something that allows them to balance work and family responsibilities. Men do not face these same constraints,” she noted.
The report shows that there are three basic areas of lingering gender imbalances in the world of work.
First, nearly half (48.4 percent) of the female population above the age of 15 remain economically inactive, compared to 22.3 percent for men. In some regions, there are still less than four economically active women per 10 active men.
Second, women who do want to work have a harder time than men in finding work.
And third, when women do find work, they receive less pay and benefits than the male workers in similar positions.
“Labour markets and policies must be much more attuned to a broader paradigm of gender equality, one that adapts and builds on the unique values and constraints of both women and men,” Elder said. “Faster and broader progress towards equality in occupations and employment opportunities is required and possible.”
The ILO report says the initial impact of the global economic crisis was felt in sectors dominated by men, such as finance, manufacturing and construction, but the impact has since expanded to other sectors â€“ including services â€“ where women tend to predominate.
Researchers at the ILO say their findings show that the global female unemployment rate increased from six percent in 2007 to seven percent in 2009 – slightly more than the male rate, which rose from more than five percent to over six percent.
Female unemployment rates were higher than male rates in seven of nine regions. In the Middle East and North Africa, the difference was as high as seven percentage points, according to the report, which points out, that “while women and men workers may now be almost equally affected by the crisis in terms of job losses, the real gender impact of the crisis may be yet to come.”
“We know from previous crises that female job-losers find it more difficult to return to work as economic recovery settles in,” Elder said. “That’s why it is important to ensure that gender equality is not a fair weather policy aim that falls aside in the face of hard times. It should be seen as a means to promote growth and employment rather than as a cost or constraint.”
In a statement, Jane Hodges, director of the ILO’s Bureau for Gender Equality, said the resolution on Gender Equality at the Heart of Decent Work, adopted by the 2009 International Labour Conference, must guide ILO efforts towards a labour market in which “all women and men can participate freely and actively, including efforts to facilitate women’s economic empowerment.”
But that will be difficult to accomplish when gender stereotypes still predominate in nearly every country in the world.
“The physical appearance is more critical in cases of women than men,” said Afaf Konja, a female journalist who covers the United Nations for a major television channel based in West Asia.
“If there are female and male candidates who are clinically overweight, it is highly unlikely that a female, even if she is more talented, would be selected,” she told IPS. “And, even if a female is hired, she is likely to make less money than her male counterpart.”
The situation of women, according to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, is not going to change until men, particularly those in power, are willing to change their behaviour.
“Changing mindset and habits of generations is not easy,” Ban noted.
The U.N. chief has stressed that there is a need to state “loud and clear, at the highest level” that discrimination against women must come to an end.
Meanwhile, as the world celebrated International Women’s Day Mar. 8, Acharya says she is tired of being asked by her husband and son to iron their shirts, find their socks, and cook and serve all their meals.
“I say on this day, if you are a man, please don’t make your better half a servant,” she said.