Domestic work, care and the environment

This uneven distribution of housework and care of vulnerable family members tends to cast women as the Earth’s housewives, as demands on the household to recycle and otherwise separate waste, or make efficient energy and water decisions fall more heavily on women. In addition, women, who surveys repeatedly find are more concerned about environmental problems and more likely to act to reduce them, will be sourcing food which is most nutritious or cleaning products which are least damaging. Eurobarometer surveys consistently find women to be more concerned about environmental problems, and more likely to take action to mitigate them, than men. Most recently, women have been expressing greater concern about climate change and the impact of chemicals on the environment and human health. Women are also more likely to think that air quality is worsening. Despite men being more likely to see how reducing carbon emissions may have a positive effect on jobs, the economy and energy security in the EU, women are more likely to have taken positive action to fight climate change, reduce waste and separate it for recycling, cut down their use of disposable products and to buy local and seasonal food. Women are also more influenced by energy efficiency and eco-labels in their purchasing decisions (European Commission, 2017a, 2017b). This chapter will later consider women’s role in community activity and environmental action, which are sometimes seen as extensions of their domestic concerns.

The EU divides ‘time’ into three segments: work, home and leisure, the relationship between which is dynamic. It argues that

declining marriage rates, increasing divorce rates, dropping fertility rates, new family arrangements and evolution of social attitudes around these, have contributed to new household types and the reduction in the [size of the] average EU household....

(European Parliament, 2016a: 9)

The average number of children born to families in the early 1960s (2.4) has now become the size of the average European household. About 32.5 per cent of households in the EU now consist of one person, and these are more likely to be women (18.4 per cent of women live alone) than men (14.1 per cent). The two main reasons for this difference are that women outlive men, and that young women are more likely than men to leave their parental home, with 84 per cent of men between 18 and 24 living in their parental home compared to 75 per cent of young women (European Commission, 2016).

Women-only, and women-headed households, however, are known to be poorer and more vulnerable than their male equivalents. In the USA, the percentage of families living below the poverty rate is 10 per cent overall, but the largest percentage of families living below the poverty rate - 27 per cent - is that with female householders and no husband present (Seager, 2018: 30). In the UK, almost half (48 per cent) of single parent households are recorded as living in poverty: 86 per cent of single parent households are headed by women (Women’s Budget Group, 2018), a figure equal to the EU average (Malgesini et al., 2017). Twenty-three per cent of single female pensioners live in poverty compared to 18 per cent of single male pensioners (Women’s Budget Group, 2018), one reason for which is that unpaid domestic and care work, low paid and much part-time work do not earn viable pensions.

Poverty causes those who live with it a number of environmentally related problems, including living with fuel and food poverty, pollution and susceptibility to extremes of heat and cold. There is extensive evidence that poverty, pollution and ill health are related at the neighbourhood level (Brook et al., 2017) as well as at the global. Over 90 per cent of pollution-related deaths take place in low- and middle-income countries, and as a Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health has established, the majority of these are of women and children (Landrigan et al., 2017). Fouillet et al. (2006) found when researching vastly increased mortality rates during the extreme heat wave in France in 2003 that this was disproportionately high amongst women. This was an incidental finding to their main research, and they were unable to identify any clear explanation, but the World Health Organization (2010) proposed that living alone and being in poverty are contributory factors.

Environmental justice movements from North America in the global North to South Asia in the global South have demonstrated that women are particularly affected by pollution and other environmental degradation because of their role in the household, greater poverty levels and lack of influence in decision-making. For example, women living and cooking indoors in rural areas in poor countries are particularly vulnerable to developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease through burning biomass to cook (Sana et al., 2018). The situation for women of colour, and women from First Nation backgrounds is compounded. For example, Judy Sze has documented the experiences of a group of mothers of African American heritage living on a busy road in New York City, concerned about the health of their children who had developed asthma. When they contacted City Hall to express their concerns, they were met first with indifference and then, following a visit to their apartments by environmental health officials, with a suggestion that it was poor housekeeping practices which had caused their children’s respiratory problems (Sze, 2004).

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