Everyone wants more time and energy. But they mean one thing in rich countries and something else entirely when look through the eyes of the world's poorest families. Poverty is not just about a lack of money. It's about the absence of the resources poor needs to realize, their potentialities.
Two critical ones are time and energy. Emphasized on energy & time, Bill & Melinda Gates released their 'Annual Letter' 2016 version on 22 February. This year they dedicate the letter to high school students. They've a great belief on these students that, Bill and Melinda think, they (students) are the ones who will ultimately solve these problems.
More time. More energy. As superpowers go, they may not be as exciting as Superman's ability to defy gravity. But if the world can put more of both into the hands of the poorest, it will allow millions of dreams to take flight.
Globally, women spend an average of 4.5 hours a day on unpaid work. Men spend less than a half of that time. Unpaid work is what it says it is: it's work, not play, and you don't get any money for doing it. But every society needs it to function.
We can think of unpaid work as falling into three main categories: cooking, cleaning, and caring for children and the elderly. The fact is that the burden of unpaid work falls heaviest on women in poor countries, where the hours are longer and the gap between women and men is wider.
This massive number of hours these girls spend on these tasks distorts their entire lives. It's almost impossible for those of us lucky enough to live in rich countries to understand how unpaid work dominates the lives of hundreds of millions of women and girls. The reason? Economists call it opportunity cost: the other things women could be doing if they didn't spend so much time on mundane tasks.
In the letter Melinda Gates pointed it out that the world is making progress by doing three R-led economists call Recognize, Reduce, and Redistribute.
Recognize that unpaid work is still work. Reduce the amount of time and energy it takes. And Redistribute it more evenly between women and men. Rich countries have done a great job of reducing the time it takes to do most household tasks. In poorer countries, though, most women still haul water, clean clothes by hand, and cook over an open flame.
The solution is innovation, and students can help. Some of them from today's students will become engineers, entrepreneurs, scientists, and software developers. So they can take the challenge of serving the poor with cheap, clean energy, better roads, and running water. Or maybe students can invent ingenious labour-saving technologies.
Can we imagine a machine that washes clothes using no electricity and very little water? But Reducing by itself isn't enough, because it's not just that housework takes a long time; it's also that every culture expects women to do it. If tasks start taking less time, societies can (and do) simply assign women more tasks to fill up the time they're deemed to have available.
No matter how efficient we make housework, we won't actually free up women's time until we Recognize that it's just as valuable as men's. This isn't a global plot by men to oppress women. It's more subtle than that. The division of work depends on cultural norms, and we call them norms because they seem normal-so normal that many of us don't notice the assumptions we're making. But your generation can notice them-and keep pointing them out until the world pays attention.
In fact, studies show that when fathers are able to take time off from paid work when their children are born, they spend more time with their kids and doing other kinds of housework for years to come. As a result, they form a stronger bond with their partners and children. That's one reason why Melinda think access to paid family and medical leave is so important for families.
Melinda concluded her letter by a story which from one of her personal experiences. She said in her letter, when it comes to Recognize, Reduce, and Redistribute, the story of Anna and Sanare, the couple I stayed with in Tanzania, is pretty inspiring.
When they got married, Anna moved from a lush part of the country to live in Sanare's drought-ridden area. She had a hard time adjusting to the extra work that meant. Finally, Sanare came home one day to see Anna sitting on the steps ready to leave, her bags packed and their first child, Robert, in her arms. Sanare, heartbroken, asked how he could persuade her to stay. "Fetch water," she said, "so I can nurse our son." And so, recognizing the imbalance, he did. He started walking the miles to the well every day.
At first the other village men made fun of him and even accused Anna of witchcraft. But when he said, "My son will be healthier because I'm doing this," they started redistributing the work with him. After a while, when they got sick of working so hard, they decided to build water tanks to collect rainwater near the village. Now that they've Reduced, no matter who goes to get water, Anna or Sanare, it's a lot closer- and they both spend more time with Robert and their other kids.
Istiaque Ahmed Shawon is a graduate of American International University Bangladesh. He can be reached at [email protected]