The Burden Of Unpaid Care Work On The Mental Health Of Low-earning Women in Zimbabwe

By Michael Gwarisa

Every morning, Felistas Makombe (32), from Ruwa has to wake up early and leave for work around 5:00 Am. She works as a cleaner in one of the leading cleaning companies in Zimbabwe. She has to take the earliest bus into town to ensure she gets to work on time and starts cleaning before offices open.

With the ongoing road rehabilitation projects in Harare, most roads have been closed and motorists have to either make plans to leave work early or find alternative routes on time lest they get home around midnight. This has taken a toll on commuters like Felistas as they also have to adjust their times to fit the schedules of commuters and private vehicles.

For Felistas, the traffic jams have made juggling between work and domestic work back home a nightmare.

I get home around 20:00 hrs at times because of transport challenges these days. I have a newborn baby who needs feeding and chores to take care of whenever I get home. My husband will also be waiting on the sidelines,” says Felistas.

She admits that even though she enjoys doing the chores and taking care of her family, the routine is taking a toll on her mental health.

“Because I don’t get enough sleep at times, I end up dosing at work and at times it makes it difficult for me to concentrate on work.”

Her job does not pay much, thus she can’t afford a domestic helper or outsource services from those who do work on a freelance basis. This has increased the load of unpaid care work on Felsitsa. Unpaid work refers to services provided within a household for its members, including personal care and housework. Unlike higher-earning women who can give more attention to and spend more quality time with their children by outsourcing household tasks, women like Felistas who lack the financial means are often burdened by repetitive, time-consuming, and physically demanding domestic tasks.

A study by Soraya Seedat and Marta Rondon on Women’s well-being and the burden of unpaid work shows that the burden of unpaid care work on low-income women may cause substantial fatigue and stress. Because of the gendered nature of domestic and reproductive roles, women and girls are often expected to assume unpaid domestic work and care. Unpaid care work is a major factor in determining both whether women enter and stay in paid employment and the quality of their work.

Mrs Tafadzwa Mugazambi-Meki, a Psychologist and Director for SALT Africa Trust told the HealthTimes in interview that unpaid care work is responsible for the majority of mental health woes facing women especially those in low-income settings.

“Unpaid care work has been shown to negatively affect women’s physical and mental health, Zimbabwe is not spared. The disproportionate burden of unpaid domestic and caregiving duties on women leads to higher levels of stress, fatigue, and burnout, which can contribute to poor mental health outcomes,” said Meki

She added that the main drivers of mental health challenges for women with heavy unpaid care work burdens in Zimbabwe include social norms that reinforce gender roles, lack of access to reliable and affordable childcare and other support services, economic constraints that limit women’s ability to outsource domestic tasks, and the sheer physical and emotional toll of constant caregiving responsibilities, especially when they go unnoticed and are regarded a duty.

“Women engaged in high levels of unpaid care work in Zimbabwe are at increased risk of developing mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress disorder. We can also look at suicidal ideation as being a risk factor. Low self-esteem is also a common phenomenon. The chronic stress and social isolation associated with care duties can exacerbate these conditions.”

She said the worst-case mental health scenario for women with extreme unpaid care burdens is the development of severe, debilitating mental illness that interferes with their ability to function in daily life. This according to Mugazambi can lead to a downward spiral of poor physical health, strained social relationships, and economic insecurity.

“In new mothers, this can affect bonding with the newborn. Essentially, it poses a threat to the mother’s ability to be of sound mind to take care of the children leading to unhealthy attachment styles in children, which may potentially lead to behavioural issues/disorders amongst the children.

She added that to improve the mental well-being of Zimbabwean women with high unpaid care burdens, strategies should focus on challenging gender norms and redistributing care work more equitably; increasing access to affordable childcare, eldercare, and other support services; providing mental health resources and counselling specifically tailored to the needs of caregivers; and expanding economic opportunities for women to reduce their financial dependence and enable them to outsource some domestic tasks.

Meanwhile, Mrs Edinha Masiyiwa, from the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe (WCoZ) Health Cluster and Director for the Women’s Action Group (WAG) said self-care could be a starting point in addressing mental health issues facing women experiencing heavy loads of unpaid care work.

“First of all, I think both men and women need to share the unpaid care work equally. Looking at the mental health of women heavily burdened by unpaid care work, you find that self-care is of great importance. When you are caring for someone, you tend to forget yourself,” said Mrs Msiyiwa.

She added that not prioritizing self-care in working women results in burnout and reduced productivity. She said other diseases such as high blood pressure and diabetes might also creep in. According to Mrs Masiiyiwa, when someone does not care for themselves, they might have bad eating habits that affect their physical health. Self-care is about self-awareness and taking steps when one realizes that they are not well. It is important to recognise the different aspects of self-care which are, physical, emotional and spiritual.






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