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Unpaid carers of the world, unite!

Posted by Naomi Hossain Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies

14th Nov 2013

Women carers from Pakistan who participated in the Raising Her Voice programme. Credit: Irina Werning/Oxfam

Unpaid care work is the major human rights issue that has too often gone unnoticed on the development agenda. Naomi Hossain, guest blogger from IDS, explains what needs to change.


Reality TV sometimes has a better grasp on the realities of social inequality than development. In 2012, The Week the Women Went followed a South Carolina community for a week. The premise: that women do most of the day-to-day work that keeps people alive, so sending them away would be televisual, at the least. 

The Week the Women Went Facebook page

Last week, an online discussion set out to do something similar for development: to figure out what it would be like - not if the women left, but if development recognised the unpaid work that is mainly done by women.

What did we learn? 

That development, in all its posh, male, economistic glory, continues to ignore care, untroubled by the evidence of its direct relevance to good development policy. But what a difference recognising care could make! Here are the key lessons:

Policymakers need 'sexy' or 'smart' reasons to focus on women's rights: violence and trafficking push out boring old housework as a matter for concern.

1. Care remains invisible to policy

Even though (or perhaps, because) we do it, see it and have it done to us every day of our lives, we fail to see how such a basic, private matter could be a matter for policy. Assumptions of an endless free supply of emotional and physical labour persist, despite the real costs such neglect involves. We heard how home-based care has been idealised as the solution for people with HIV/AIDS in Africa; meanwhile  25% of Nepalese women reportedly have prolapsed uteruses, from too-rapid returns to work, paid and unpaid, after pregnancy.

One  review of public policies you would think automatically took unpaid care work into account (social protection and early childhood development) found that barely a quarter recognised it as an issue, fewer took action to redistribute it, and virtually none sought to reduce its drudgery. One issue is the cross-sectoral, multi-levelled, universal significance of care: care is invisible partly because it is the oxygen that keeps the development machine breathing. Another is that policymakers need 'sexy' or 'smart' reasons to focus on women's rights: violence, trafficking etc push out boring old housework as a matter for concern. Now that unpaid care work has been recognised as a  human rights issue, this might change.

2. Economic models (of the non-feminist kind) block recognition of care
One aid official was cited as having said irrigation programmes were fine, because they were productive. But water for domestic consumption? That was not a productive investment. It is partly because of the rise of the domestic workers' rights movements, i.e. paid carers, that debates about care are on the agenda at all. Policies fail to recognise the public good nature of care, if they notice it at all, and treat it as a purely private good. Tired thinking means opportunities at macro and meso-levels to support - or not squeeze - care through better budgeting and care-sensitive macro-policies are lost, and with them chances of scaling up gender equality action. The limited success in getting time-use data and other statistics collected has proved that stats are necessary - but far from sufficient - to drive the policy agenda.

3. There are reasons for optimism about men
Men in developing countries might be encouraged to play a more substantial caring role, so care work can be redistributed. Fast changing economic rolestelenovela-type influences on norms, successful NGO/pilot initiatives and fresh approaches to evidence and analysis are all playing a role here. Lots to learn from.

4. Class is an issue
Class means that women who are in a good position to advocate for gender equality tend to have paid carers at home, which is one reason they may be reluctant to focus either on unpaid but even more on paid care. Meanwhile, the rich and privileged men of the development elite enjoy both class and patriarchal privileges partly because of the particularities of their roles.  

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Blog post written by Naomi Hossain

Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies

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