Transforming Care

Published on 20 May 2016

The call to ‘recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work’ as a target within Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 on achieving gender equality and women and girls’ empowerment offers a significant opportunity to change the shape of the care economy. This is an opportunity not to be missed.

Double burden

Care provision is an essential, but under-recognised and under-valued sector of the economy. Its undervaluing stems, at least in part, from an inherent gender inequality.

As UNDP reported earlier this year, women do three times as much unpaid care work as men. For women in low income households, the double burden of paid and unpaid work is prevalent. Social norms dictate that women are responsible for care and yet for the poor, economic necessity means they also need to earn. This double workload not only severely constrains women’s time, but ultimately affects their health. Time constraints also mean these women are left with no leisure time or time to engage in community activity. Lack of community engagement means their voices are missing within public debate.

As women’s time is stretched to breaking point it is the elderly and young who suffer, both as care providers and as recipients of care. When women are engaged in the labour market without addressing their care responsibilities, the excess responsibility of care is shifted on to elder women and adolescent girls. For girls this often means losing out on schooling.

The care crisis

Cuts to public services due to reductions in public spending (related in some respects to unfair tax policies) and a rolling back of state responsibility narrow the options for alternative care provision. But women and girls’ time is not an inexhaustible resource. With increasing care demands due to an ageing population, climate change, processes such as urbanisation and increasing constraints on resources especially land and water, we are heading towards a care crisis.

A new report by the McKinsey Global Institute launched at the Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen this week indicates that USD 12 trillion could be added to global GDP if gender equality were to be attained. Achieving sustainable women’s economic empowerment that lasts beyond one generation of women, however, will not be possible without addressing the issue of unpaid care. It is important to understand and recognise the vital role that the care economy plays in sustaining and reproducing the market economy. Care is critical for economic initiatives to be both socially and commercially sustainable. A focus on increasing women’s participation in the labour force without addressing the issue of care is unsustainable.

Moving forward with the SDGs

The SDG target on unpaid care calls for recognising the importance of care through ‘the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility’. Women’s economic empowerment initiatives need to respond to this target with a focus on having more choice in paid work opportunities and making care work less arduous, safer and more productive, without compromising on the quality of care provision. Transforming the care economy means:

  • Provision of accessible essential public services, including care services (e.g. crèches, piped water, access roads)
  • Investing in time-saving and labour-saving equipment and infrastructure services (such as clean cooking stoves and access roads to markets)
  • Investing in initiatives to shift perceptions and norms about gender roles within care
  • Provision of decent work for women and men.

High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment

The UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel (HLP) on Women’s Economic Empowerment, initiated in response to the SDGs, first met in March this year: it is a crucial first step in focusing on change in the global approach to care. Addressing the care economy is one of six major issue areas for the HLP.

The HLP is currently undertaking a series of regional consultations prior to delivering its first report to the UN Secretary-General in September.

In recognition of the unique opportunity the HLP affords to highlight the issue of care, IDS, IDRC and Oxfam are coordinating in producing a joint statement that draws on evidence from programmes and initiatives to show what works in addressing challenges with regard to the care economy.

The joint statement will be informed by evidence gathered through a questionnaire that is currently being undertaken and online consultative sessions which will be carried out in early June. The finalised joint statement will be presented to Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International and member of the High Level Panel, as part of her consultation exercise prior to the next HLP meeting in July.

IDS, IDRC and Oxfam invite you to be part of this evidence gathering process to galvanise discussion around transforming the dynamics in the care economy. Please see our Interactions on Women and Girls website for more details.

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