Care – from motherhood and apple pie to human rights

Care work is a social good, but one that is all too often undervalued, unequal and under resourced. Here, Gender & Development editor Caroline Sweetman introduces the Care issue.

It’s a little-remarked-on fact that Margaret Thatcher, the first woman Prime Minister in the UK, was the mother of twins.  When I had my own twins, I used to muse that the twin mother thing was maybe a factor in her rise to power that hadn’t had enough attention from the (mainly male) political analysts. Only one maternity leave for two babies?  Smart move. Care work absorbs time and energies and limits women from playing other roles in economic, social and political life. As a well-known feminist joke has it, ‘I wanted to go out and change the world, but I
couldn’t find a babysitter’. 

The new issue of Gender & Development focuses on Care as an issue of both development and women’s rights. Currently care – the work of looking after people, often in the family – is under the spotlight. Previously largely ignored, its new visibility owes much to changing demographics in many countries including an increasing ageing population, as well as health crises including the HIV pandemic. When care loads become unsustainable, states are forced to see
them as a concern to be addressed by policy. How can feminists ensure the issue of care is taken up in a way which supports gender equality and women’s rights?

Hasmik Josephyan at home with her children (Credit: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Panos)The articles in this issue come from a range of development workers and feminist activists involved in an eighteen-month learning project led by Gender & Development, with Oxfam, the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), and ActionAid.  The new issue reflects the
zeitgeist – care is a key economic  issue,  and a profoundly political concern because of the impact of care work on women’s human rights. In her article, Magdalena Sepulveda, until recently the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, frames care work as an issue of human rights.  In 2013 she called on governments to recognise women’s obligation to care as a human rights violation. Worst off are women living in
poverty in the global South. If you care for a family with no running water, no electricity, you can’t afford medicines and there’s no state provision for health or social care, care responsibilities almost inevitably consign you to drudgery.

In 2014, family life depends on the earnings of women as well as men, and governments are keen to get more women into work to boost national accounts.  The existing ‘careless’ economy is untenable and unsustainable. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to take the view that governments and development donors profit from turning a blind eye to how women cope with care work when they’re required to be elsewhere earning money. 

The existing ‘careless’ economy is untenable and unsustainable

Changes are needed to attitudes and beliefs at all levels of society. At the level of the state, Deepta Chopra, Patience Ekeoba, Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed, Rachel Moussie and Mona Sherpa focus on policy advocacy in Nepal and Nigeria, influencing policymakers to understand the importance of providing services to support women – and men – providing care. Marzia Fontana and Diane Elson take the examples of water provision in Tanzania and early education and child-care in Mexico and Chile to show the impact of strategies which reduce the household care burden on wider development.

Within the family, a shift needs to take place so children seek out their fathers for care, and men are present and happy to give it. Men can, and do, make wonderful carers. In their article, Kate Doyle, Jane Kato-Wallace, Shamsi Kazimbaya and Gary Barker discuss Promundo and Rwanda Men’s Resource Center (RWAMREC)’s programmatic experiences in Rwanda of implementing MenCare+ with 600 fathers aged between 15 and 35. The programme aimed to get men to care for their new babies and recognise their female partners’ sexual and reproductive health and rights.  What’s needed is recognition that women are not workhorses who can go on forever; that care is a social good which deserves and requires support from the state; and men’s involvement in an area which has previously been both
undervalued and unresourced.

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Author: Caroline Sweetman
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.