From burden to benefit: Reframing the conversation on care

Amber Parkes Gender, Inequality, Women's Economic Empowerment

If I said you could either invest in something that is essential or something that is a burden, which would you choose? I’m guessing most people would choose the former.

How we frame things matters. From political slogans to hashtags to social justice campaigns, anyone who has tried to compel others into action knows that the words we choose are important. Words can mean the difference between winning and losing an election, having one hundred or one million retweets, or getting legislation passed.

And so it is with advocacy on unpaid care work. Over the years I’ve worked in this sector I’ve noticed the frequent use of the term ‘care burden’. I’ve heard it while on panel discussions and I’ve read it in research reports and news articles.

If anything, its use has increased now that the pandemic has lifted the curtain to reveal the extraordinary amounts of invisible, free labour that women around the world provide to keep families and communities nurtured, healthy and clean. It is encouraging – and long overdue – that more people are now speaking about care work and making the links between women’s unpaid care responsibilities and gender inequality.

However, in Oxfam’s WE-Care program we have learnt from feminist economists to avoid using the term ‘burden’ as a default when advocating on care. Why? Because ‘burden’ implies that something needs to be reduced and minimized. Do we really want less education, less nourishment, less care?

More or less?

Several things come to mind when I think of the burdens in our society that do need to be reduced. One is the ‘global burden of disease’, which is a term that public health professionals use to describe the impact of a health problem based on its financial cost, mortality and morbidity. I think we can all agree that disease – particularly in the form of a pandemic – is definitely something we want to minimise. 

But unlike disease, care is a social good, one with immense value that underpins the very functioning of our society and economy. When it comes to care, we actually want more and better care for our children, elderly parents, communities and planet. What we want to reduce is the most arduous tasks like carrying water and washing clothes by hand. The responsibility for providing care, however, must be more equally shared between women and men, and between households, government and businesses. For these three things to happen we must help policy makers see that care is valuable. To reflect that value, we must choose our words wisely. 

In her headline-grabbing book, Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth speaks about the power of verbal framing in shaping political and economic debate. She refers to the example of taxation, and how the use of the term ‘tax relief’ by conservative politicians frames tax as a societal burden and an imposition to be relieved (usually by said conservatives). In contrast, the alternative framing of ‘tax justice’ does a better job of conjuring ideas of fairness and accountability, helping us to see tax as a means of reducing inequality and supporting community needs. 

Reframing care

Similarly, referring to unpaid care work as a ‘social good’, rather than a ‘burden’, can help people to see that care is critical to our social and economic wellbeing. In the UK alone, unpaid carers (the majority of which are women), ‘save’ the economy a massive £132 billion per year. Our advocacy needs to make clear that the 12.5 billion hours of unpaid care and domestic work that women and girls provide on a daily basis is valuable.

This means recognising the skills and labour that unpaid care and domestic work requires, recognising it as ‘work’, and governments investing in services and infrastructure that more equally share the responsibility, time and costs of providing care. 

But of course, there is a distinction between advocacy and individual experience. For many women, the daily mental and physical labour to provide care for their families and communities is gruelling and draining, and this must be acknowledged. We of course do want a reduction in the difficulty of domestic tasks and the isolation experienced by many carers who have insufficient resources and support. This is especially true for women living in high levels of poverty who are least able to afford childcare and healthcare, or own time-saving technology like washing machines and gas or electric stoves. Research by Oxfam and others has shown how unpaid care and domestic work has increased significantly during Covid-19 lockdowns and, around the world, has been shouldered disproportionately by women of colour, single mothers, and women living in rural areas or urban informal settlements.

Yet as a political statement and as an advocacy tactic, the use of ‘burden’ is counterproductive to our calls for valuing care and for more and better care. As such, this is a call to fellow care advocates, development practitioners and feminist campaigners to reconsider ways of framing the care debate when advocating for change at the policy level.

Reframing care as a social good, offers us a powerful tool in the struggle to get unpaid care work valued by politicians, donors, business owners and male allies alike. Let’s make our words count.


Amber Parkes