In the words of Sepali Kottegoda: “By framing care work as acts of love, one avoids recognizing that there is labour and time expended”


Sepali Kottegoda, founder and Director Programmes for Women and Media Collective. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

Sepali Kottegoda, the founder and Director Programmes of Women and Media Collective in Sri Lanka, spoke to UN Women about her research on unpaid care work in Sri Lanka for the first International Day of Care and Support (October 29).

If I asked a woman ‘What do you do at home?’, if she’s not earning an income, she would say she does nothing. Her spouse would say the same. In our field research, these women were given a diary to fill each day, and they said, ‘We never realized we were doing all this work.’

The problem is that society does not look at it as work.

Unpaid care work is work done for the well-being of household family members. It’s everything from cooking and cleaning to washing, laundry and looking after family members, including children, the elderly and those who fall sick.

In Sri Lanka, women typically take on this weight, which is couched in sociocultural norms of motherhood, of being a wife, a woman or a girl. The idea of sharing housework equally is not on the cards, nor is it something that informs policy.

During our discussions, some women said: ‘We do this because of love’. Love is not something only packaged for women. By framing care work as acts of love, one avoids recognizing and acknowledging that there is labour and time expended. This is one of the primary factors that keep women out of the formal labour force. Women’s contribution in terms of their labour is not recognized on the one hand, and women’s engagement in paid work is irregular on the other.

It’s important for women to recognize the value of the work they do. When their work in the home is not considered part of the economic input to that household, the scales are uneven. Because the person earning an income is given far more value than the person at home making that money stretch further. In our discussions, some men felt affronted, saying, ‘Now do you want me to pay my wife?’ And we had to say, ‘We’re not talking about monetary payment, we’re talking about value.’

We started our research on unpaid care work in 2017 in six districts in Sri Lanka – Colombo, Kurunegala, Badulla, Nuwara Eliya, Batticaloa and Gampaha. We had women working in the free-trade zones, agriculture and the plantation sector, urban low-income women, women survivors of the conflict and returnee migrant workers. Our sample comprised 700 women and 100 men.

The Time Use Survey designed for our study revealed that men spent 8.98 hours per day on unpaid care work, while women spent 13.77 hours – much higher than the census data released in 2020, which was 1.6 hours and 5.7 hours respectively. This is because we had captured more types of activities, including voluntary work because unpaid care work is also about maintaining the wider social security of that household. A key takeaway was the importance of capturing the simultaneous activities of women during a day. For example, when we asked what they did at a certain time of the day, they would identify cooking rice while also chopping vegetables, putting clothes to soak or feeding the baby.

Several policies can be instituted to address these issues. One is providing quality day-care centres and care for the elderly and those with disabilities, through national budgetary allocations and training programmes for carers.

We also need to bring these issues into school curricula to break down cultural prejudices and norms that keep boys out of the domestic space. I can say from personal experience that I wouldn’t have known how to bathe my first baby if my mother hadn’t shown me. It’s not something you’re born knowing, it’s something you learn, and men can learn it too. It won’t disrupt anybody’s lives if girls are taught to repair a bike and boys are taught to keep a house clean.

We need discussion at the societal level on this issue and the long-term impact it has on women and girls’ opportunities. We can begin with realistic paternity leave, not just three days. Paternity leave should be available over the course of the year, so it can be taken as, and when, the father needs to look after children or perform household activities.

We also need to recognize that Sri Lanka has a fast-aging population. In another 10 to 15 years, 25 per cent of the population will be above 60 years of age. And women are living longer than men. If women are the ones doing the care work, what’s going to happen when they’re all older? We need to make provisions for their care as well.

In our study, we asked respondents if they agreed or disagreed with statements like ‘The man should make all the decisions in the household’ and ‘A woman should not go to work after she has children’. The ‘completely disagree’ responses were from younger people and those with a higher level of education. Younger men were more likely to say women should go out to work compared with older men. These shifts in attitude take a long time, but it’s something we can all work towards.”