So much of the work that millions of Asian women do is invisible: here’s how to change that and value unpaid care

Myrah Nerine Butt Gender, Research, Women's Economic Empowerment

The huge economic contribution of women carers in Asia and the Pacific remains invisible, undervalued and unsupported by governments. Changing that means better research, investment in public services, and including carers in policy making, say Myrah Nerine Butt and Saleha Shah

Sabana, a hardworking mother of three, is actively involved in Oxfam’s What She Makes campaign, which strives for fair wages for women driving the garment industry. Despite toiling for 56 hours a week at a factory, she continues to shoulder unpaid care responsibilities at home. (Picture Fabeha Monir/Oxfam)

In Asia and the Pacific, care work is largely seen as women’s work, with over 80% of care work still done by women. From taking care of children and elderly family members to fetching water and fuel, the labour of millions of women is too often invisible and taken for granted.

Social norms ensure that care remains women’s work, with the idea that paid work is primarily for men, further reinforcing traditional gender roles. As a result, women in Asia and the Pacific do four times more unpaid care work than men, while South Asian women do nine times more.

Those norms also perpetuate the notion that women are “delicate” and unsuited for physically demanding labour. However, it is important to acknowledge that care work requires time and intense physical effort.  Our research from 2020, Caregivers at the frontline of addressing the climate crisis, showed that women can walk up to three hours daily just to collect water. Imagine carrying up to five litres of water on the way back!

As part of our summer series following International Workers’ Day, in this blog we set out four clear ways governments and societies can start to truly see, value and support women doing care work across the Asia and Pacific region.

1. Measure care – and count it in national statistics such as GDP

To address the issue of invisible labour, we must first understand it. That means collecting the data about the region’s care economy that can inform policy solutions. Governments must prioritise and invest in research, time-use surveys, and advisory services to build the knowledge and evidence base to drive decision making on care (see this blog on the issue of measuring care and other informal work). Additionally, unpaid work must be included in national accounts.

Our experience of doing a Household Care Survey in the Philippines has been powerful. Citing the data collected, the Philippines Commission on Women has pushed for a care-responsive policy ecosystem. This shows how better data can help to inform policy solutions that address the needs of caregivers and care recipients.

A vital area where we need progress is in national accounts that measure economic activity and provide policymakers with information on the health of the economy. GDP does not measure unpaid care! It excludes unpaid care work, which can result in undervaluing the economic contribution of caregivers. By including unpaid work in the system of national accounts, policymakers can better understand the economic contribution of caregivers and develop policies that reflect the true value of care work.

2. Include carers in policy making

The voices of women’s groups, care workers, and care workers’ associations are important! They must have a role in policy making and investment planning, to ensure that the voices of those who provide care are heard.

Crucially unpaid caregivers must co-create the policies and programmes that affect them and those they care for. This includes healthcare, social services, and economic policies that may impact the availability of care resources and support.

Many carers care for people who require assistance due to illness, disability, or other conditions. However, they and other carers often face significant challenges and barriers, including limited access to resources, financial support, and social recognition. Involving them will ensure these problems are made visible and made a higher priority when policy decisions are made.

Inclusion is crucial at all levels of governance, from local to national. At the national level, policy input from carers will help policymakers to recognize the importance of unpaid care work and the significant contributions that carers make to society.

3. Invest in care-sensitive public services and infrastructure

Based on the evidence generated and through active consultations with caregivers and groups, governments should start to ramp up investment in care-sensitive public services, including access to quality healthcare, education, and care services for all.

The key point is that these services should be free or state-provisioned, accessible and of quality. We will need to look what the evidence tells us the problems and challenges are for carers, and design new solutions for healthcare, childcare, care for older persons, people living with a disability or an illness/disease, early childhood, and primary education. Currently the Lao Women Union, which is the gender ministry of Lao PDR, is trying to expand the coverage of its community-based and national health insurance scheme to address the needs of caregivers.

Governments will also need to invest in the public infrastructure that supports carers. That means universal provision of piped water, domestic energy, sanitation, transport, communications infrastructure, health, and education.

The implementation of time-saving technologies and basic infrastructure can cut the burden of care responsibilities. By prioritising these investments, governments can enhance the quality of life of their citizens and promote a more caring and equitable society.

4. Adopt and improve social protection systems

Data and consultations can help the design of gender-transformative social protection programmes that address the issue of invisible labour. To promote fair and equal distribution of caregiving responsibilities, governments should continue to invest in schemes such as cash transfer programmes, social security, access to healthcare, pensions, and maternal protection. They will also need to develop non-contributory public pension schemes and unconditional cash transfer programmes.

The Ministry of Women Affairs (MOWA)  Cambodia is currently developing a national action plan on care that is heavily focused on social protection for caregivers. Efforts like this can be transformative in Asia.

We must all play our part in valuing, supporting and sharing care work

It is vital for governments to take concrete steps to recognise and address the issue of invisible labour in Asia. By implementing the above changes, we can make significant progress in making the invisible labour of women visible and giving it the recognition and support it deserves.

But recognising the value of care work is much more than just a task for governments and policymakers. It demands a broader transformation of societal attitudes and values, so that every one of us starts to see care work as an indispensable component of our economy and communities. This means challenging ingrained gender stereotypes and standing up for the belief that the responsibility of caring for others should be shared equitably within households, and with the community, the market and the state.

We need to bring care work out of the shadows by giving it visibility in policy spaces. Only by doing this will we build a future where care work is valued, recognised, and shared by all, creating a more equitable and compassionate society for generations to come.

Author

Myrah Nerine Butt

Myrah Nerine Butt is Gender Justice Advocacy Manager Asia, Oxfam in Asia

Author

Saleha Shah

Saleha Shah is Regional Gender Coordinator at Oxfam Asia

This is the second in a summer series of blogs on labour rights that started on International Workers’ Daysubscribe to our newsletter to get the latest posts and follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn. Check out the first blog here: “Governments know shockingly little about the millions of informal and unpaid women workers – and, in a world that undervalues their labour, that’s no accident”

Find out more: You can find out about Oxfam’s work in this area on our Valuing Women’s Work website. Thanks to the players of the People’s Postcode Lottery for their support with thisDo also check out this blog by Leena Patel on informal work:  “Informal work traps millions of women in poverty: let’s back the labour movements that can fight for decent jobs.”