Care work discussions happening in rural communities?! What next?

Food & livelihoods, Gender, Innovation, Methodology

On the day the UN launches a new report linking unequal care responsibilities to human rights, we are  publishing resources to help practitioners to address care work in local development. Here, Thalia Kidder, Oxfam’s Senior Adviser on Women’s Economic Rights, celebrates the fact that care work is now firmly on the development agenda.

In March, Oxfam staff in northern Sri Lanka supported a milk-production cooperative in a discussion about women’s housework. The motivation was that “most programmes lose women’s participation because of tensions with care activities,” and it concluded: “we need to get more support from the community and better infrastructure from the authorities.”  

A month later in Mindanao, Philippines, an imam invited to a similar conversation remarked that: “Women are really overburdened; something has to be done about this.” In northern Nicaragua women and men from a producer association agreed: “Care tasks shouldn’t only be a women’s issue; sustainability means getting the state to improve conditions for doing care tasks and ensuring tasks are more equally distributed”.

“Women are really overburdened; something has to be done about this.”So it IS possible to get ‘care’ on the agenda of local development initiatives!

In remote and traditional communities, there are ways to question the idea that it is ‘normal,’ ‘natural’ and unproblematic for women to be held responsible for thirty, fifty, sixty hours a week of housework and caring for people. The issue isn’t new. For decades, most development practitioners have been aware of the so-called ‘burden’ of women’s domestic work – the ‘double-triple day’ – as projects aim for women to lead political projects and develop new businesses. 

“I don’t know how to start!”

A myriad of problems get in the way of addressing the issue. I have most often heard: “I don’t know how to start.” Then:  “I’m funded to do something else.” And sometimes: “My manager and the donor aren’t convinced this is a big issue,” “I have very little time or money,” “Focus on a women’s issue in a mixed group?” “It’s a long term, complicated process,” “Care is a culturally sensitive, private issue” and the ultimate: “But how would I show ‘impact’!?”

The organisational barriers have been daunting, but we’ve been highly motivated to overcome them. The ‘sexual division of labour in households,’ as feminist theory describes it, is one of the most persistent, universal and inflexible blocks to women becoming empowered. Women are often literally stuck in the home.

“Change is about  recognising care work, reducing arduous tasks, and redistributing responsibility”So a year ago, a group of us began to develop the ‘Rapid Care Analysis‘ (RCA) exercises. We had to propose something rapid and low-cost in order to get programme teams to give it a try. RCA is four steps, with seven focus group discussions for a group of 12-20 women and
men, taking 1 to 2 days. The intention has been to open the door to get more people and projects interested in care.

As Diane Elson has proposed, change is about three Rs: recognising care work, reducing arduous tasks, and redistributing responsibility for care, from women to men, and from families to the state. 

We add a fourth ‘R’: increasing representation of carers in decision-making. Thus the RCA is also designed to show that care is a significant  and compelling issue, collecting evidence of the problem, relevant to wider development, feasible and practical, so RCA exercises come up with context-specific proposals. 

The discussions cover:

A workshop on Care in Sri Lanka

  • What is care in the community?
  • What are women’s and men’s work activities and an estimate of hours?
  • What are the gendered patterns of care work, changes in care work and most ‘problematic’ activities?
  • And finally, what services and infrastructure could help, and what are the options to reduce and redistribute care work? 

So far, a dozen local programmes supported by Oxfam have implemented Rapid Care Analysis – from Azerbaijan to Tanzania. The initial findings are compelling, both in terms of gender inequality (in Gaibandha, Bangladesh men work 70 hours a week, and women 105)  and in terms of the impact of lack of services (carrying water over 4 km three times a day). 

Local organisations are proposing a range of actions and advocacy to reduce and redistribute responsibility for care. This process might increase the demand from local communities to work on care, which is precisely what nay-sayers have said would be the most difficult aspect of this work.  

Just a first step…

It’s not good enough yet. The RCA was never meant to be more than a first step, to ‘open the door’. Some participants raise legitimate criticisms that the exercises don’t allow time to question why do women have responsibility for care?, nor to address gender relations and power. Others find the time use exercises too complicated, or conversely, the estimation of hours isn’t rigorous enough. Furthermore, once the focus group comes up with proposals to reduce or redistribute care, they need guidance on influencing and advocacy strategies.

Luckily, our colleagues in Action Aid have been working on a complementary ‘Peer-to-Peer Training Methodology‘ that helps groups analyse how economic policies aggravate the unequal distribution of care work. This is part of their programme on unpaid care work in 10 countries across Africa and Asia. The programme supports women to mobilise and seek recognition for their unpaid care work by advocating for a larger share of the government
and more public services to redistribute and reduce their workloads. 

Furthermore, the Institute of Development Studies is leading a research and advocacy programme on unpaid care which explores the political economy conditions under which policy actors recognise or ignore the significance of unpaid care in six countries (Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nepal, Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya.).

On 7 October, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Extreme PovertyMagdalena Sepulveda  launches a new report (available on the UN website) which adds legitimacy to local findings. The report notes that: “Heavy and unequal care responsibilities are a
major barrier… to women’s enjoyment of human rights, and in many cases, condemn women to poverty.”

However far from UN debates, we are interested in other approaches to get care on the local development agenda. If you work in this area, please share your experiences below. Also, what do you think the next steps should be? 

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Author: Thalia Kidder
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.