Let’s put a new deal for care at the heart of Lebanon’s recovery plan

Marwan Issa Fragile contexts, Gender, Women's Economic Empowerment

Women are paying the price as the nation’s deep, economic crisis drives a surge in care work, says Marwan Issa

Working for change: Jessica Houkayem, founder of the eco-friendly Al Zourou3 social enterprise, which grows produce in containers made of recycled plastic. The enterprise is supported by Oxfam’s Social Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Change Project, with funding from the European Union. (picture: Jean Hatem/Oxfam in Lebanon)

Lebanon is in the fifth year of an unprecedented and multi-faceted crisis that has pushed most of the population into poverty and devastated access to food and basic services, especially healthcare.  

In this blog, we focus on a crucial aspect of the crisis that is having a huge impact on Lebanese women’s lives, yet is too often ignored by both policymakers and society: the surge in care work, including unpaid care, and the effects on women’s employment, wellbeing and freedom.

How crises and population change are driving up demand for care

Largely performed by women and girls, care responsibilities have soared as a result of back-to-back crises, accentuating already-vast gender inequalities.

The ongoing crises have decimated public services and care institutions and have also driven declining public health – exacerbated by the shortage of essential medicines – pushing up demand for domestic and unpaid care work to an all-time high.

Add to that the future demand for care from an ageing population. Like many other countries, Lebanon is aging. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that the number of people aged 60+ is expected to more than double between 2020 and 2050. That is bound to create more care responsibilities as already seen in European countries.

As of 2023, Lebanon is ranked 132 out of 146 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index 2023 rankings. In such an unequal society, it is expected that the bulk of future extra unpaid care tasks, both paid and unpaid, will be done by women. The extra labour pushed on to women by these current shocks mirrors the experience of the pandemic, where, for example, women picked up the extra care responsibilities created by school closures.

And the care gap is growing as migrant domestic workers quit Lebanon

Another pressure on care work in Lebanon has been the departure of tens of thousands of migrant domestic workers (MDWs).

Historically the country relied on these MDWs, who faced exploitation, human rights abuses and poor working conditions. Yet, despite being subject to rights violations such as passport confiscation, delay or non-payment of salaries, 24-hour workdays, and more, MDWs continued to shoulder much of Lebanon’s care work for decades.

But now, almost half MDWs have left Lebanon since the onset of the crisis, leaving only around 135,000 who continue to operate with minimal protection. They have left a huge care provision gap in the face of rising demand.

Women struggling with surging care responsibilities can’t get jobs

As the lack of private and public service care provision has driven up care tasks for women, this has further hindered their pursuit of paid employment.

Despite Lebanon having signed international conventions such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and several International Labour Organization initiatives, women are still discriminated against on the level of labor laws in specific.

In 2022, women’s labour force participation rate was a scant 28.7% compared to men’s 67%, despite rising education rates for girls. Even when Lebanese women do access labour opportunities, they earn an average of 16%-19% less than Lebanese men and get fewer training opportunities.

The lack of labour regulations and implementation of equality measures leave women exposed inside and outside the workplace. For instance, Lebanon’s labour code does not offer employees with children flexible working.

Those women who do try to work are too often forced into “double work”, whereby they simultaneously perform both paid work and take unpaid care and domestic responsibilities at the expense of their rest time and their mental and physical wellbeing.

The surge in informal work creates extra challenges

Across the globe, informal work traps women in poverty, with low pay, long hours, no sick or maternity pay, unsafe workplaces and, crucially, no support for carers. Yet it is exactly this type of work that dominates employment structures today in crisis-hit Lebanon.

By 2022, informal employment in Lebanon had reached a whopping 62.4%. There, working conditions are characterised by the absence of benefits and protection mechanisms, particularly harming employees who look after children.

Social barriers and policy neglect

Throughout its history, the country’s political leadership and society has systematically failed to recognize care work as real work.

Social stereotypes and stigma around care work where it is not recognized as “real work” persist, and care is often looked down upon or underappreciated.

The value of care work is similarly ignored by policy makers. For instance, the country’s successive governments have still not put in place any adequate monitoring or data collection tools to monitor care work. This lack of quantification mirrors the cultural and more general absence of recognition and appreciation of care work.

Added to these challenges are the damages to carers’ lives caused by ongoing conflict and forced displacement. The country continues to face recurrent Israeli violations, including targeting of healthcare facilities, educational institutions and farms and the use of the internationally prohibited white phosphorus, burning large swathes of South Lebanon’s agricultural land. All of this has a direct impact on women’s wellbeing, livelihoods and care responsibilities. Research on Lebanon has shown that female refugees and MDWs face extra barriers to accessing sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) services and gender-sensitive shelter accommodations.

Let’s put care at the centre of Lebanon’s path to recovery

As the country looks for a way out of its deepening crisis, centring care work will be crucial to real socioeconomic rejuvenation. Indeed, unpaid care and domestic work alone has been estimated to make up as much as 9 percent of global GDP.

To deliver a new deal for care workers, the political system must do more to include the women who do most of the work. That means tackling women’s lack of political representation, as the country’s parliament only hosts eight women out of 128 members. Despite this being the largest number of women ever elected in a parliamentary election, much more is needed – be it in parliament or in other public bodies such as municipal councils and syndicates – to give women a voice, especially in policies around care work. This formal role would complement yet another largely unrecognised role played by women: that of community organisers and supporters.

In the short term, there are a few low-hanging fruits: policy shifts that could drive a transition in care dynamics. These include:

  • Providing flexible working arrangements for parents;
  • Addressing the lack of policy, support and public awareness of sexual and reproductive health and rights;
  • Ensuring adequate social protection; and
  • Monitoring and collecting proper data about care work and workers

It’s time to centre care work in policymaking circles, and it’s time for Lebanon to recognize its immense value in shouldering the impacts of recurrent crises and protecting and providing for millions of people today and for future generations. Let’s put a new deal for care and carers at the heart of Lebanon’s socioeconomic rejuvenation strategies and the country’s path out of crisis. 

Author

Marwan Issa

Marwan Issa is the Research and Policy Advisor at Oxfam in Lebanon