Care work: An affront to men’s dignity?
It is a striking fact that women continue to provide a larger amount of care than men across all societies. Providing care can be a source of great fulfilment, but it can also be a terrible burden. For women and girls in particular, their socially prescribed role as carers can undermine their rights and limit their opportunities, capabilities and choices - posing a fundamental obstacle to gender equality and well-being. How can we move towards a more equal sharing of care responsibilities between women and men?
Exceptions to the rules
There are exceptions, however: some men and boys already reject rigid gender divisions and are actively involved in providing care, showing that resistance to prevailing gender norms is possible. The issue then is not whether men can change, but rather which policies and programmes best catalyse and support men to take on a more engaged - and equal - role in providing care. This question provoked a passionate discussion at a recent BRIDGE-hosted session on Gender and Care at the Association for Women’s Rights in Development forum (AWID) in South Africa.
Caring ‘behind closed doors’
Dean Peacock, co-founder of the Sonke Gender Justice Network in South Africa, made a compelling case for questioning the deep pessimism that persists around men’s ability to change, as well as the racism inherent in the ways in which men from the global South are often described in work on gender and HIV. Focus group discussions conducted by Sonke revealed that while there are men who conform to gender stereotypes - regarding care work as ‘beneath their dignity’ - others admitted they didn’t know how to provide care and were concerned about looking stupid. Other men were absolutely involved in providing care for their families, though often behind ‘closed doors’ for fear of being ostracised for doing ‘women’s work’.
Part of what is therefore needed is to shed light on the men who are already living more gender-equitable lives than they are willing to show. To this end, Sonke supports women and men to create their own digital stories - stories which challenge misconceptions about men and masculinity and offer examples of the positive roles that both women and men are playing in confronting gender inequality.
Dean’s comments echoed the arguments made in the new BRIDGE Gender and Care Overview Report which calls for gender and development policies to recognise and affirm the care work that men carry out, and to engage men - but in ways that break down gender stereotyping (men being branded as lazy, uncaring, irresponsible).
Don’t forget about the men in positions of power
A sole focus on engaging ‘poor’ men and boys through workshops and trainings - reaching perhaps 10 men here, 30 men there, 50 men there - is not in itself enough. What is also needed, Dean argued, is a stronger engagement with the male-dominated institutions responsible for determining public policies and allocating resources. His message was thus twofold: we need to challenge our own perceptions about what men are doing on the ground; we also need to reorient our engagement to include the men who exercise huge amounts of power and yet enjoy tremendous invisibility on the issue of the care economy.
What about women’s resistance to men providing care?
The thorny issue of women’s resistance to men’s involvement in care work was also broached. One participant argued that some women ‘don’t want to let go’, a concern which resonated with an account of the work of the Nicaraguan NGO, CANTERA - featured in the BRIDGE report. CANTERA runs a course on Masculinity and Popular Education which includes reflections on fatherhood and responsibility for domestic work. One challenge they have encountered is women’s resistance to sudden attempts by men to take on greater responsibility vis-à-vis domestic work. Many men, when they do try to implement small changes, often do so from a position of power - suddenly helping in the kitchen with no previous communication or consultation. Women often experience a sense of their space being invaded and of disempowerment, of losing control over an area of life that has been their domain and source of identity and usefulness. To try to avoid these tensions, CANTERA works in alliance with women’s organisations which are engaged in processes to bring about women’s empowerment. This enables greater dialogue to take place and reduces the risk of men imposing changes (even when well meant) from their position of power.
Towards a more equal sharing of care responsibilities
As this example illuminates, challenging assumptions that care work is the domain of women and not men is a tricky business. But if we are really serious about moving towards a more equal sharing of care responsibilities - a prerequisite for the achievement of gender equality - it is vital we begin by acknowledging the role that men can, and sometimes do, play in care provision. In itself, this can be an important strategy in encouraging other men to reject the gender norms which deter their involvement in care work. It also draws attention to the fact that men are not shaped irrevocably by gender norms but can choose to act differently.
Emily Esplen is a Research and Communications Officer for BRIDGE, the gender and development research and information programme that is one of a family of knowledge services based at IDS. BRIDGE is funded by DFID, Irish Aid, SDC and Sida.
Photo: Poster reproduced by kind persmission of the Sonke Gender Justice Network
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