Honour your maid, fight for women's rights

Honour your maid, fight for women's rights

Charity begins at home. So do women's rights and gender equality. That's why who is doing the dishes at home is for me not a petty personal issue, but a political one.

But whenever I raise this topic _ that a couple's equal share of household chores is an an indicator of gender equality in society _ I almost always get a blank stare from professionally successful women.

They don't have to do the dishes, you see.

You know the cliche: Behind every man's success is a woman. It works the same way for women. Like men, they need back-up support from someone in the family to enable them to achieve self-realisation and pursue career advancement. Men get it from their wives. And the wives get it from their maids.

Mind you, many single women are caught in the same trap. Since cultural and social expectations fall on daughters to take care of elderly parents, they cannot pursue their careers smoothly without domestic help.

According to Grant Thornton International Business Report 2012, Thailand ranks No.2 in the world for the proportion of women in senior management at 39%. Many attribute this spectacular achievement to equal educational opportunities and cultural openness for women's participation in Thailand.

I have a theory of my own.

It's the same theory that I think can explain why the notion of gender equality has not really taken root here despite the remarkable advancement of women at the top.

True, education and cultural openness are important factors. But equally important is the wide chasm of disparity which ensures a constant supply of poor rural lasses as cheap domestic help so working women can pursue their career goals.

Just when the supply of rural lasses begins to run dry because there are better jobs with higher pay and personal freedom for them to turn to, migrant domestic help comes along in the nick of time to rescue working women.

It's this luxury to have cheap help who look after the kids, cook, do the dishes, wash and iron the clothes, and clean up the mess that makes it possible for working women to chase after their dreams.

By not having to shoulder the double workload that comes with double sexual standards, privileged women therefore do not have to confront the patriarchal values that oppress women as a whole.

Consequently, "successful" women do not feel the need to question why women's work in the home _ be it as mothers or carers of elderly relatives _ is given no economic value and taken for granted as a free service.

Worse, they feel guilty of not being able to fulfil those expectations.

When there is no questioning, they don't see how this labour oppression through gender bias is intertwined with other more subtle forms of gender exploitation which perpetuate the glass ceiling, condone sexual harassment, and blame women for abortion, even rape.

So it's great news indeed that domestic workers are now legally entitled to better protection from the Labour Ministry's new regulations.

By making it mandatory for employers to give both Thai and non-Thai domestic workers a day off each week including overtime pay, annual holidays, and paid sick leave, the new regulations help to ditch the long-held belief that household and care work have little economic value.

More importantly, it helps to dismantle the feudal legacy that robs domestic help of human rights and dignity as equal human beings.

Yes, a lot more still needs to be done. Employers who breach the law need to be taken to court to pay compensation. Working hours and conditions need to be legally spelled out, as well as a minimum wage for domestic help.

If it takes root, this new value for care work will snowball into other policies to give long-overdue recognition to personnel in many fields. The role of nurses, for example, will receive more economic value and remuneration. So will those of teachers and people in social work. It will also help bring about more supportive policies for mothers and those who provide care for ailing relatives.

Hopefully, this refusal to be taken for granted will enable more women to think more seriously about other cultural values that put women down.

Society can no longer take women's nurturing work in the home for granted. Nor can we with our domestic help. If real change in women's gender roles is going to start somewhere, it is here: on the home front.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is Editorial Pages Editor, Bangkok Post.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on social issues, gender, and Thai Buddhism.

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