March 9, 2008

International Women’s Day is an opportunity not only to evaluate women’s progress in areas such as education, employment, and politics, but also to honor the importance of what has been traditionally viewed as “women’s work”: cooking, cleaning, and childcare.

For many of us, an incredibly precious and important part of our lives is the well-being of our children, the comfort of our elderly parents, and a safe, clean home where we can count on nourishing meals. Yet society gives little recognition to the daily labors required to nurture a family and a home.

Lebanese women are caught in an unenviable position. While their participation in the workforce has increased, gender stereotyping and discrimination mean that they have retained the primary burden of household work. Their task has been made harder by a society that clings to the importance of a well-kept home while at the same time disparaging cooking and cleaning as trivial and unimportant in comparison to the “real” work of making deals at an office or clocking hours at a factory. This societal attitude has deeply undermined the skills required to care for the ill, raise children, and prepare meals several times a day, and in many cases, to perform such work simultaneously.

The lack of respect for household work is shown by not only Lebanese men, but also by many Lebanese women. This is most obvious in the treatment of migrant domestic workers. Each year, tens of thousands of women from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Ethiopia, and other countries leave their own families behind to help the Lebanese manage theirs. While many receive good treatment from their employers, far too many others are treated as if they are barely human and as if their work has little value.

Seeming to forget that they hired a domestic worker because they themselves found the demands of cleaning, cooking, and childrearing to be overwhelming, many employers think nothing of requiring domestic workers to be “on call” around-the-clock and fail to provide them even one day of rest per week. In fact, some employers want this help without paying for it or even when they cannot afford it. Nonpayment of wages, for months and sometimes years, is one of the most common problems faced by women domestic workers.

Even the Lebanese government treats these women and their work as if they were invisible. By excluding domestic work from the labor laws, the government denies domestic workers the minimum standards of employment that other workers enjoy, such as a day off once a week, limits to working hours, and a minimum wage. This exclusion symbolizes how labor associated with traditional female roles of care-giving is not yet given full respect as work, and unfortunately gives employers wide latitude to exploit domestic workers.

Those opposed to reforming the labor laws assert that domestic work is a special case, a form of work that cannot be regulated because it takes place in private homes. Many employers claim they treat their domestic worker like their daughter or as part of the family. If this was truly the case, it is puzzling that these employers would not support basic labor protections for those they care about. Research shows that while some Lebanese families treat their domestic workers well, many others do not take this approach and do require guidance from the law – common complaints made by domestic workers include inadequate provision of food and restrictions on their freedom of movement.

In the worst cases, employers may physically or sexually abuse domestic workers. These situations carry strikingly similar themes to domestic violence. In such cases, employers may belittle and insult the domestic worker, or beat her for small mistakes in her work. Violence such as slapping or pushing a domestic worker may often be socially sanctioned as “discipline.”

How could treatment of domestic workers, guests in this country who spend their days and nights caring for Lebanese families get to this point? International Women’s Day is a key moment to reflect on not only the status of Lebanese women, but of all the women in Lebanon, including migrant domestic workers. This day is a reminder to see the parallels in the struggle for equal rights.

Lebanese society has a choice: to continue the status quo, liberating itself from housework by passing it on to poorer sisters from around the world, but leaving them open to exploitation and abuse. Or it can take steps to value household work, such as providing equal labor rights to domestic workers, and giving them the dignity they deserve.

Nisha Varia is a women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch and the author of several reports on migrant domestic workers, available at http://hrw.org/campaigns/women/2006/domestic_workers/reports.htm.