Why ‘care’ about development?

Belen Sobrino Gender, Her Series, Women's Economic Empowerment

In this second instalment of our Her Series, Belén Sobrino from Oxfam Intermon sets the case to keeping unpaid care work high on the SDG agenda, and reminds us of the importance in ensuring we reduce the the burden of care, not just the work itself.

Women around the world invest 2.5 times more time than men in unpaid care and domestic work, with large disparities in time spent in cooking, caring for others, or cleaning. Disparities in the amount of unpaid care and domestic work occur not only because of gender, but also because of their age, location, income status, and number of children in the household. This disproportionate burden of unpaid care work allocated to women and girls results into ¨time poverty¨, and limits their capacity to access to paid jobs, attend school, participate in decision making, leisure and self-care activities, and take adequate care of their health situation. Despite this serious barrier for gender equality, women´s unpaid care work has been continuously neglected in the development debate and it is not properly considered and included in the design of development programmes. What´s behind the neglect of this topic? Feminists in development argue that it is related to strategic ignorance, system bias, and lack of evidence based data on the problematic caused by unpaid care in developing countries. In addition to this, there is resistance to acknowledge the unpaid care as work. It has being broadly labelled with no “value”, as it does not produce material wealth, and is therefore identified as a “burden”,”drudgery”, and a “problem” because it demands time and energy.

The focus of development on economic growth, promoted a narrow understanding of how the economy operates, only taking into consideration paid and visible forms of women economic activities as a means to achieve gender equality.

Transformation is however on the way as the last UN Development Report: Rethinking Work for Human Development, outlines that care is work and produces well-being to the individual and the society at large. We should not forget that we all will need care at least once in our lifetime.

The SDGs agenda also confirms the relevance of care for development, by including a specific target under the Gender Equality and Empowerment Goal, to recognise and value unpaid care and domestic work. This target is revolutionary in the sense that it allows for us to rethink the role and relevance of other types of work which are fundamental to the sustainability of life and development, and that must be considered in order to Leave no-one Behind.

Transforming the care-less development agenda

Women´s rights activists advocated strongly during the Post 2015 Development discussions to include a target to address unpaid care within the new development agenda that would address its main challenges reflected in the triple Rs framework: Recognise, Reduce, and Redistribute. This framework offers a comprehensive model for tackling women´s unpaid care work by recognizing care as work and the need to reduce the burden of unpaid care on women and girls by introducing a more re-distributive agenda across several stake-holders (the household, the state, community and the private sector). However, the final definition of Target 5.4 only included the recognition of the value of unpaid work, and the share of responsibilities within the households and left out the need to reduce the workload and involve other important stakeholders in the redistribution of unpaid care. Nevertheless, as highlighted by Valeria Esquivel, UNRISD Research Coordinator, the current definition of the target still does leave room for addressing reduction and redistribution beyond the household through its component of the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies.

It is important to ensure that the idea of reducing women´s unpaid care work focuses on reducing the burden, not necessarily reducing care work

Despite the great progress that it means to have one SDG Target dedicated for unpaid work, it is important to ensure that the idea of reducing women´s unpaid care work focuses on reducing the burden, not necessarily reducing care work, as most probably care work of necessity would need to be increased not reduced. Equally important, it is not to address women´s unpaid care from the perspective of the limitation that it might mean for women to access to paid work, but from the more holistic understanding that care offers means for society.

On the other hand, the bound of the Target 5.4 to what it is nationally appropriate, can limit the scope of the impact of this target, in contexts where national structures and legislation could restrict the work that mandated national institutions in the protection and promotion of universal human rights standards.

The 2030 Agenda opens up opportunities for taking a closer look at the interconnections between care and inequalities for women´s and girls’. This puts an end to the invisibility given to this topic, which has been overlooked when analyzing the structural changes needed to be done to implement transformative measures to achieve real equality for women and girls worldwide. But Care is now on track and much expectation is put in the new SDGs agenda to make real changes for all women and girls in the world.


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