Amid the pandemic, women bear the burden of ‘invisible work’
This photo essay is part of a series produced from the Capturing Human Rights fellowship program, a collaboration between the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and the Photojournalists' Center of the Philippines
When she was living with her ex-partner, Amy (not her real name) spent most of the day doing chores and taking care of her children. Then she would go to the fish port in the evening and work until 3 a.m.
“My ex rarely helped out in the chores,” Amy said. To make matters worse, her alcoholic husband beat her up almost every week.
Breaking up with her abusive husband was easier said than done. “Where will I go? Who will look after my children when I go to work?” Amy asked.
According to Oxfam International, chores like cleaning and cooking, as well as looking after children and elders, are crucial to “human and social well-being.” Yet the responsibility often falls disproportionately on women and girls.
“In the Philippines, Oxfam’s assessment shows that women [were] twice as much more likely to carry the burden of household tasks, even before the pandemic,” said Leah Payud, Oxfam Pilipinas resilience portfolio manager.
Unpaid care work has prevented many women and children from pursuing education and career opportunities, trapping them in a cycle of poverty.
Juggling chores, caregiving, and work kept Amy from attending to her own needs. She wanted to work as a masseuse but could not find the time to enroll in a short course.
Last year, on the first night of the government-imposed lockdown, Amy’s husband was locked in jail after stabbing her while she prepared dinner. As her toxic relationship with her husband ended, Amy faced a new ordeal.
She now has to raise three sons by herself in a small tent in Smokey Mountain, a former dumpsite in Tondo, Manila.
Amy was also among the millions of Filipinos who lost their jobs during the pandemic.
She lined up for food donations and walked to nearby wet markets to convince vendors to hire her, but no one would.
After learning about her situation, Amy’s pastor raised the idea of sending her children to the church’s foster care program accredited by the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD). The pastor assured her that she could reunite with her children once she found a job.
“It was a tough decision to make,” Amy admitted. “I wanted to be with my sons but I couldn’t afford the life that they deserve.”
Amid the pandemic, time spent on household work for both men and women increased, according to COVID-19 Rapid Gender Assessment (RGA) conducted by several NGOs and civil society groups led by Oxfam, as well as the United Nations. However, women still shouldered the bulk of the housework.
“The pandemic exacerbates the care work burdens carried by solo parents, women from indigenous groups, and those enrolled in the government’s social protection program,” Payud said.
“Care work should be everyone’s responsibility. Men contributing more to household chores and care tasks should be sustained as we create a ‘better normal’ within a just society,” she added.
Like Amy, Lucila Buladaco depended on government financial assistance and food rations during the strict lockdowns. She and her husband lost their jobs during the first few months of the pandemic.
Due to her heart condition, Lucila was advised by the doctor to refrain from strenuous activities. Her husband, son, nephew, and nieces took turns in doing housework.
Lucila realized a long time ago that she could not simply rely on one “breadwinner.” She was in fifth grade when her father passed away. Her mother, who was a housewife throughout her married life, struggled to find a job.
“I had to drop out of school and work as a house helper so I could send money to my family,” Lucila said.
She wanted to go back to school but never got the chance when her mother died a few years later.
Breaking the cycle
As the government began to ease the lockdowns last year, Lucila and her neighbor pooled in their resources to put up a food stall.
“We try to save money so we can survive the months where we can’t open our food stall because of the lockdown,” Lucila says.
Lucila also sets aside some money so her son, nephew, and nieces can go back to school when the pandemic is over.
“I want them to be able to stand on their own,” Lucila said.
Amy agreed to send her children to foster care.
“The church provides my children with food, clothes, and education,” she said. “I’m happy that my sons can finally read, write, and speak in English. They even talk to me in English when we speak through video calls.”
Still, Amy misses her sons every single day.
Amy (not her real name) sobs as she recalls the day she bid goodbye to her sons at their home in Smokey Mountain on March 28, 2021. Her pastor offered to help her sons through a foster care program accredited by the Department of Social Welfare and Development.
In this photograph taken on May 14, 2020, Amy shows the wounds left by her ex-partner, who stabbed her on March 15 when the lockdown began in Metro Manila. Despite her ex-partner's abusive behavior, breaking up was not an easy decision to make. Amy was worried that no one would take care of her children when she went to work.
Amy shows a card that one of her sons made at a foster home in Cainta, Rizal. Her three sons are now able to speak English, write, and read. The foster care was able to give her sons the life that Amy couldn't afford.
Amy shows a photo of two of her sons on her church's brochure on April 9, 2021. It’s the only picture of her sons that she was able to keep at her Smokey Mountain home. When her pastor visits her, he sets up a video call so she can talk to her sons.
Amy bonds with her neighbors' children at Smokey Mountain in Manila on April 9, 2021. She admits that she misses her sons whenever she sees children playing outside.
Amy makes her way to her home at Smokey Mountain, a former dumpsite in Manila, on April 9, 2021. When her sons left for foster care, Amy's neighbor offered her a room where she could live for free, in exchange for helping with household chores.
Due to her heart condition, Lucila Buladaco uses a portable oxygen cylinder at her home in Smokey Mountain, Manila on March 27, 2021. Her doctor discouraged her from performing strenuous activities. At home, her family, nephew, and nieces do most of the chores.
Lucila's nieces Jessilyn and Trixxie clean the house before they open their food stall at Smokey Mountain in Manila on March 17, 2021. Lucila says her husband, son, nephew, and nieces help keep the house clean. They also take turns manning the food stall
Lucila, her nieces, and neighbors attend to their food stall at Smokey Mountain in Manila on March 17, 2021. They pooled their resources to set up the small food stall so they could earn money during the pandemic.
Lucila and her family prepare for lunch on a Sunday afternoon, March 28, 2021. Due to her heart condition, she was advised by her doctor to refrain from strenuous activities. Her son, husband, nieces, and nephew help her do the chores.
Trixxie tells her Aunt Lucila that she aced a test at the learning center on March 17, 2021. When the lockdown eased, Trixxie attended a short course on reading and writing in a learning center run by volunteers. Lucila is supportive of Trixxie. She wants to make sure that her son, nieces, and nephew finish their education.
Lucila Buladaco visits her nieces at their food stall in Smokey Mountain on March 27, 2021. Last year, her employer decided to close the salon where she worked – for good – because of the pandemic. When the lockdown eased, she and her neighbors put up a roadside food stall where they sold snacks to earn money.