BY Chantal Umuhoza
A few months ago, I was invited to a meeting out of the country. I was suppose to receive full financial support for this trip. But, to my dismay, the invitation was cancelled when the organizer (an international women’s rights network) learnt that they would incur more costs because I had to travel with my few-months-old baby. The knowledge and experience I was going to bring to this meeting didn’t matter anymore.The amount of money they would have to spend to accommodate me and my baby was more important and warranted a cancellation.To them, it was not “cost efficient” and there wouldn’t be “value for money” given they would incur costs almost double of what they incurred with other participants. So I became easily replaceable, just like that.
This reminded me of a similar incident. I was organizing an event where we invited women leaders from cooperatives to a meeting. The hotel in Kigali where we would host the event asked me not to invite women with babies because, according to them, they would incur more costs for cleaning. Some of the women had babies and because I didn’t want them to miss this meeting, I instead asked them if they might be able to leave their babies with their partners for the time they were away. They said this was “unheard of”. That men don’t take care of babies. I then considered asking them to find someone else to attend from their cooperatives. But then I realized that these asks were unfair because these women were being punished for having babies. So, I informed the hotel that if they can’t host the women with their babies, I was moving the meeting to another hotel that would be able to accommodate them. They finally accepted.
At the meeting, the women either came with their babies or found someone else to help take care of the babies while they attended the meeting. The hotel didn’t have a child care facility or service. My organization, which is a women’s rights organization, didn’t have a policy either to handle the child care costs of participants. This meant that the women with babies incurred additional transport and other costs themselves.
The two experiences made me realize to what extent the different systems and actors in society contribute either directly or indirectly to reproducing gender inequalities and how women can be affected by this. These include male partners who take no role in unpaid care work including child care, the private businesses that have no consideration for child care facilities and services, as well as non governmental organizations, including women’s rights organizations, that lack policies to recognize the burden of unpaid care responsibilities and to help women navigate hardships of patriarchy. Finally, there is also the State’s refusal to allocate sufficient resources to put in place affordable care facilities and services for all women. We all play different roles that maintain the status of care work being the sole responsibility of women, yet we still expect them to participate equally and fully, in other things.
Having been in global, regional and national advocacy spaces in which we (women’s rights activists) call on our governments to do better regarding women’s rights including recognizing, reducing and redistributing unpaid care work, I cannot stay silent on this issue, especially when it’s being done by those who seek to change the various systems of oppression and discrimination against women.
In an ideal world, all care work should be a shared responsibility among all people, the state and all institutions (public and private) to enable everyone to participate in other activities without being held back on the basis of their gender. If women’s rights organizations don’t do enough to support women who are affected by gender inequalities, how can we expect our governments to do better? Of course this will have a cost but it’s a worthwhile cost if it is invested in practices that challenge the patriarchal system.
Like the international women’s rights network that cancelled my participation, most women’s rights organizations and feminists organizations still don’t have the policies in place to support women with infants or other needs. Those who do not incur “extra costs” in our feminists meetings should be discussing how to change the policies affect those we leave behind.
There’s a push, especially by donors, to be “cost efficient” and implement work while ensuring “value for money spent”, but as women’s rights and feminists organizations, we need to be careful to not fall into this neoliberal capitalist trap of what we consider to be “valuable”. We are increasingly obsessed with achieving quantitative targets of set indicators and missing the goal we have of challenging systematic discrimination and dismantling systems of oppression and we risk practicing neoliberal feminism as described by Alexi Lubomirski in the article “How neoliberalism colonised feminism and what you can do about it”.
I might have been easily replaceable as just another participant, but there’s no other participant that can speak of my own experience better than myself. I cannot be represented because it’s my own lived-experience that no-one one else can speak to. Looking back, if I had asked the asked the 5 women with babies to find replacements, I would not have heard their own stories as leaders of women cooperatives, as women who have mobilized and worked hard to improve their livelihoods.
Rwandan society remains largely patriarchal and almost all care work is women’s responsibility. Despite a number of progressive gender sensitive and responsive legal and policy instruments that have been adopted, Rwanda still doesn’t have policies and programs to ensure the sharing of care work, including child care. In Rwanda, women spend 27 hours per week doing unpaid care work, while men spend only 9 hours in the same period of time.
The recently revised National Early Childhood Development Policy focuses on early child education for the purpose of human development and isn’t trying to address unpaid care work directly.
Unequal patriarchal gender norms jeopardize many efforts to liberate women economically, physically, psychologically, religiously and socially.
As CSOs and specifically women’s rights and feminists organizations continue to push for progressive policies to address gender and social inequalities, let’s walk the talk and lead by example.