By Claire Mom
Having relatives or caregivers prepare a meal, collect water and run errands is not startling in Africa. As a matter of fact, it is part of tradition in some places.
The amount of time spent on these activities might not seem significant. However, the effect it has on young girls and women – who are the primary victims in this cycle – is haunting.
This practice is called unpaid care work. It refers to all unpaid services provided within a household for its members, including care of persons, housework, and voluntary community work. It is usually carried out by women and girls and seen as part of their chores but draws no pay or adequate compensation at all.
‘In 2016, Action Aid calculated that women spend four additional years over their lifetime working versus men. They perform 75% of unpaid work globally, dedicating, on average, four hours and 25 minutes daily which is more than three times men’s average of one hour and 23 minutes,’ Dr. Victoria Daaor, the Executive Director of Elohim Development Foundation said.
While some examples of unpaid care work can be distinctly identified, others beg the question of being recognized as invisible labour or a labour of love. One of such is postpartum care and babysitting popularly known as Omugwo in Nigeria.
‘Omugwo’ is an Igbo word used to describe the practice in which a nursing mother and her baby are taken care of by a close family member for a short period of time post-partum. In most cases, it is done by the new mother’s mum or mother-in-law. In cases where they are not available, another close female family member steps in.
This simply means women give up over 3000 hours of their time to take care of a new mother and child. However, while their efforts are recognized in some homes, others view it through a lens of entitlement.
‘Why do I have to pay my mother for coming to take care of my wife and new child? It is her grandchild. I take care of her problems anyway, so it is her duty to take care of mine. If she insists I pay her, I will, but it won’t be from a place of satisfaction,’ Mr Ezekiel Salle, a resident of Abuja, said.
While unpaid care work does not only drive gender inequality as most of these caregivers are women, it might be perceived to some as a violation of human rights given the trade of valuable time without adequate compensation. This is difficult to argue though, especially in the case of Omugwo, since most women argue that they provide such support without any compulsion and out of love for their families.
‘It is so much pleasure for a mother or mother-in-law to go and take care of her grandchild. As soon as they see their daughters or daughters-in-law are pregnant, they start preparing to go. Some even book tickets to fly outside the country in cases where their children reside abroad. Literally, one might look at it as though they are being used. I don’t look at it that way. It is your bloodline,’ Mrs Dooshima Agur, the Executive Director of Initiative For Women’s Health Development and Rights Protection, said.
In most African homes, the woman is entitled to gifts and praise when the period of care is over. But is this compensation enough?
“I don’t think the compensation we get after Omugwo is enough, it gets draining sometimes. Value has to be placed on us so we look forward to going for more, it feels nice to know your efforts are appreciated the way they should rightly be,’ Mrs Rebecca Abudar, a nurse at the Federal University of Agriculture Hospital, said.
Hiring professionals such as retired nurses and midwives to render postpartum care is an option many overlook. The debate of the quality of care rendered is usually the bone of contention given the disparity in levels of connection to the new mother and child.
‘Having a hired nurse is great but it won’t be the same as the care from the grandmother who has a direct connection with the baby. You see, the hired help does not have an emotional attachment to the child; the grandmother does. Although the nurse will do a great job given her medical expertise, I think the grandmother will be the best fit for the child,’ Mrs Abudar said.
Omugwo in Nigeria relies heavily on the labour of women with a reward depending on the family’s financial status. This means women who come from poor families get little to no adequate compensation as opposed to those who come from financially stable homes. The difference in remuneration for women leaves a tilt in the fight for women empowerment.
‘There should be a policy that ensures people who engage in postpartum care are remunerated accordingly. These people are kept away from their sources of livelihood for so long, it is only proper they have a legal backing should any arrangements made with the family fail,’ Mrs Agur said.
Claire Mom is a Nigerian journalist notable for her advocacy for gender equality and sexual and reproductive health rights.
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