Who cares about care?

How can women fulfil their potential economically, socially, and politically if the majority of their time is tied up in unpaid household care duties? As part of our International Women’s Day series, Liz Cooke explains how the world of development is waking up to this key gender equality issue.


When 30 feminists gathered in London last month to discuss approaches to care, there was a palpable feeling that this is a subject whose time may finally have come.

For those working in gender and development, and in feminist economics, unpaid care work has been at the top of the agenda from the very beginning.The gathering was a two-day workshop, part of the journal Gender & Development’s current learning project on care. It was hosted by ActionAid UK at their office in London and included participants from the global North and South who gathered to share experiences and learning, and to try to envision a feminist,
transformative approach to care work. 

Of course, for those working in gender and development, and in feminist economics, unpaid care work has been at the top of the agenda from the very beginning. Recognising the gendered division of labour both in the home and more widely, is fundamental to a feminist understanding of the world. 

But in the wider development world, more and more attention is now being paid to care as a development issue, one of the most recent examples being the 2013 report of the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, in which unpaid care work is viewed as a major human rights concern.

Delegates’ experiences were derived from a wide range of contexts: care in conflict situations, making unpaid care work visible in development programmes, advocacy around care work in Bangladesh, union organising of care workers, mainstreaming care work into private sector approaches, working with men and boys, and community care networks, amongst others. From the start, there was agreement that, by its very nature, not all care can be conceptualised simply as ‘work’ as we generally understand the term. 

Participants in the care learning event. Credit: Liz Cooke/OxfamWhile many of us would be happy to ‘outsource’ chores such as cleaning and cooking (a problematic area in itself, and one which, perhaps surprisingly, was little touched on during the event, with ‘global care chains’, for example, not being discussed) caring for children, the sick and elderly relatives in our own families is somewhat different.
‘Affective ties’, or to put it more simply, love, means that there will always be an aspect of caring to which ideas of labour and remuneration do not apply. 

This, however, does not mean that care shouldn’t be, in Professor Diane Elson’s conception, recognised, reduced, and redistributed.  As was pointed out in one of the lively discussions during the event, just as during the structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s, which saw in many Southern countries reduced state provision of health and care services, and women having to pick up where the
state had withdrawn, austerity programmes introduced by governments in the global North mean that women, in their ‘natural’ role as carers, are having to take on additional care for family members. Such cuts damage the prospect of seeing care as a social good, and a collective responsibility. 

For a real reduction and redistribution of care to take place though, it is not only the state that needs to be engaged. Expectations around who cares at home, and more widely, must change and traditional ideas about masculinity (and femininity) must be challenged. At the event, we learned about the work of the organisation, Promundo, which promotes, ‘caring, non-violent and equitable masculinities’

Expectations around who cares at home, and more widely, must change and traditional ideas … must be challengedAs is often the case when the subject of working with men and boys arises in the context of discussions on women’s rights, opinions were divided. Some felt that work with men on gender equality poses too great a danger in terms of diverting resources and attention away from desperately needed work with women themselves. Others thought that working directly with men and boys needs to be done now, to help bring about a change in
male attitudes to what it actually means to be a man
. Promundo has been working with young men who are new fathers as an entry point, and has achieved some success at encouraging these new fathers to undertake more childcare. However, efforts to persuade them to do more housework (less emotionally rewarding than interacting with one’s own child) have been much less successful. Clearly, there is a long way to go.

So, as evidenced at our learning event, there is a wealth of research and practice currently being undertaken on care. We will be presenting some of it in our November 2014 special issue on the subject. At a time when so many women around the world are under pressure not only to undertake the reproductive labour in their societies, (unrecognised and unvalued in terms of GDP), but also to engage in productive labour which has a monetary value (so boosting ‘development’) it has never been more necessary to address this ‘double burden’, and to consider how
it should be lifted.

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Author: Liz Cooke
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.