Sat, 08 Mar 2003

May God bless women!

Solita Sarwono, Psychologist, Gender Specialist, Wasenaar, The Netherlands

On March 8 the world focuses its attention on women: the poor, rich, illiterate, highly educated, housewives, the jobless, career women, traditional, modern, young, old, married and single. In short: all women from diverse cultural, social, economic and religious backgrounds.

They all share something in common, their role as care givers. For thousands of years this care giving has always been the main role women are expected to play and to master well.

Even queens and other wealthy women waited upon by domestic servants are still given the responsibility of taking care of their husbands, caring for and educating their children, and taking care of the elderly.

They must ensure that their servants do their jobs correctly. No woman can escape this duty, even if she is single or childless, or living in a modern Western society. How women perform this duty is very much affected by the social, cultural and religious milieu in which they live.

In traditional Tunisian communities, young girls learn from their families to accept getting married, being a good wife and giving birth to boys as their most important goals. Failing to present a son may lead to divorce, which is very shameful and an excuse for the husband to remarry. Tunisian men who work in cottage carpet industries leave their families for 11 months a year to sell their wares. Women look forward to the day when they come home, when they can show their love and care, and the rugs they have produced over the course of the year.

The husband will assess the results of his wife's work in caring for the children, his parents who live in the marital home, the household and the rugs produced. If the husband is not happy, the one month stay will turn into a time of fighting and screaming, and the man may soon leave again.

Sometimes religious expectations also affect the form of care given by women. Women married to members of the Hezbollah group in the Middle East do not worry about losing their husbands or sons in battle or to a bomb blast. They reportedly pray to be blessed with many sons who can be educated and trained as strong fighters -- though young women now also participate in military training and prepare themselves to perpetrate suicide bombings.

The preference for boys is also very strong among the Chinese and the people of India. Some 30 million baby girls in China and 23 million in India "disappear" each year, through abortion or "mercy killing". Despite the preference for males, females are still needed for procreation and for family care -- so girls are "imported" from other villages, cities and even from other countries to serve as brides when the supply of young women runs low.

In Indonesia, the variety of cultures and gaps in education, employment and wealth color the expectations of women. While the elite strive for a quota for women in the legislature, the peasant wife struggles day and night to put food on the table for everyone (sometimes skipping meals herself). Working women who can afford a maid delegate their caring duties to her, blaming her when something goes wrong but rarely praising her when things are done right.

Women from low-income families have a much greater burden of responsibilities and duties to perform, leaving them little time to rest. Most women accept family care as their main role. Unmarried women living with parents or siblings will take care of the parents or nephews and nieces.

In industrial Europe and North America, women have a higher level of education, higher employment rate, fewer children -- many even prefer to remain childless or stay single -- and the divorce rate is high. Women live with their spouses and young children only, separated from the parents and grandparents. Without domestic help, women (and men, too) have to do the household chores in addition to pursuing their careers.

Despite emancipation, women still bear a greater responsibility for family care compared to men. With an rapidly aging population in the Netherlands (13 percent of the population are 65 or older), and with an average of only 1.6 births per woman, the woman's task is shifting from caring for children to caring for the elderly.

Most elderly people who can no longer live independently move into retirement homes, or remain in their own homes where they must be taken care of by a nurse. However, the massive demand for such nurses has led to a need for unpaid volunteers, mostly women on moderate incomes with children of their own. Their contribution to the care services is calculated as reaching 1.3 billion euro, and the Dutch government is planning to provide financial rewards for these voluntary care givers.

Women all over the world play a crucial role in maintaining life through the provision of family care. Some are appreciated and rewarded for their work, while others are neglected or taken for granted. Let us spend some time to think about all the love and care we have received from our mothers, wives, daughters, daughters-in-law and even our maids, and show some heartfelt appreciation to them.