Unsupported and unshared care work perpetuates women’s poverty, political marginalization and social subordination. The distribution of care is not natural or inevitable, but rather socially constructed and in our power to change, says Kate Donald
“Women’s rights are human rights”, declared Hillary Clinton in Beijing nearly 20 years ago. This simple yet revolutionary statement has evolved into a mantra of the international human rights movement. However, one of the major obstacles to women enjoying their rights equally with men has been rarely recognised or even spoken of by human rights advocates. Something that happens every day, in every household, village and city around the world: the cooking, cleaning, and caring that families, communities and societies depend upon and simultaneously take for granted.
All of us receive care at some point in our lives. Almost all of us will also give care, to children, to elderly parents, to partners. To speak of ‘care’ as a human rights issue risks dissonance. Isn’t care a good thing? Don’t we need more of it, not less? Indeed: it is not unpaid care per se that threatens human rights – being a foundational, unavoidable and very human activity that underpins all societies and cultures– but rather, the way it is distributed, and the lack of recognition and support it receives.
Of course, from The Feminine Mystique to the Wages for Housework Campaign to The Second Shift, feminists have pilloried the discriminatory distribution of unpaid care. In general however, human rights and women’s rights advocates have been slow to adopt it as a cause. Granted, in a field like women’s rights there are a myriad of heart-rending issues fighting for attention; but surely something that so fundamentally shapes women’s time, lives and opportunities should by all reasonable measures be a rallying point?
One obstacle is that care has unfairly been perceived as an elite concern. Many of the public debates around care focus on the struggles of privileged professional women – the Sheryl Sandbergs of this world – to juggle motherhood and work. Poor women supposedly have more serious, life-or-death concerns. On the contrary: unpaid care work is intimately bound up with survival, with eking out an existence on subsistence crops and little income. It is the work of putting food on the table, insisting your children attend school so the next generation can have hopes of life away from the breadline, keeping everyone in the household clean and healthy so wages are not lost and unaffordable health costs are not incurred.
In all countries, women provide the vast majority of unpaid care – and when unpaid care is taken into account, women work longer hours overall than men. It is also absolutely clear that the struggle is intensified for women living in poverty, because they can’t afford to pay for outside help or time-saving technologies (be it a washing machine or grain-grinder), and because they are more likely to live in areas where public services are inadequate or absent. Rural women in many developing countries have the added burden of collecting water and fuel for domestic use – often walking hours each day to do so. In sub-Saharan Africa women and girls spend 40 billion hours each year collecting water – equivalent to a year’s labour by the entire French workforce.
The amount of time women spend on unpaid care is fundamental to defining their time, energy, finances and social and political capital. It is also definitively a human rights issue. Under international human rights law, including the International Covenants and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, if women are unable to enjoy a right to the same extent as men, this is automatically a human rights violation that requires remedy. States are explicitly required to take concrete measures to ensure that women are able to enjoy their rights equally, and to tackle any obstacles to them doing so. The gendered distribution of unpaid care work is unquestionably a major obstacle in this regard, preventing the equal enjoyment by women of a whole range of human rights.
Most obviously, their rights to work and to equal rights at work are threatened. Even privileged women have to contend with the gender pay gap, lack of family leave rights, and maternity discrimination. For many poorer women with intensive care responsibilities, although they would dearly love the income, paid work is an impossibility. Others are forced to accept whatever badly paid flexible work they can find – often without labour rights or social security – and still perform the same ‘second shift’ when they get home, sacrificing their health and leisure.
Girls’ right to education is also put in jeopardy, whether they are withdrawn from school entirely or simply have less time and energy to devote to schoolwork or extra-curricular activities than boys due to their domestic duties. This has devastating knock-on consequences for their future opportunities and income. Compounding this, later in life women have less time for training or adult education opportunities because of their heavy domestic workload.
Women are also less able to participate actively in politics and public life – another fundamental right – because of their unfair share of unpaid care. Practical considerations such as time and lack of childcare provision prevent many women from participating in public forums ranging from national parliaments to community groups. Hence, many decisions crucial to their lives and livelihoods are taken without them in the room.
Undoubtedly, moving towards a fairer distribution of unpaid care will require profound socio-cultural change. However, governments have a crucial role to play in moving towards the more equal sharing of care, for example through education and awareness-raising campaigns, but also in a more immediate sense by more effectively supporting and providing care. Ensuring quality, accessible public services and care services, especially in poorer areas, can help to liberate women from unsustainably large burdens of care provision, as can improving infrastructure (piped water, decent roads) and subsidizing affordable time-saving technology such as fuel-efficient stoves.
Unfortunately, there are striking examples of governments around the world doing exactly the opposite. As Fawcett Society and the Women’s Budget Group have shown, austerity measures in the UK are having a disproportionate impact on women; but the vandalism of austerity is not confined to Britain or even Europe. Recent research has shown that developing countries (many of them barely recovered from the similarly destructive effects of structural adjustment) are slashing public budgets with as much – or more – alacrity as their European counterparts. It goes without saying that their populations can even less afford to lose the services and benefits being cut.
Wherever public services are cut, legislators and policy-makers are acting on the implicit assumption that women will take up the slack. In countries afflicted by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, ‘home-based care’ for people suffering from AIDS has been celebrated as a policy innovation. Really, it represents only an intensive scaling up of the norm – handing the burden back to poor women, away from overwhelmed and under-resourced health services. Women and girls provide 70-90% of HIV/AIDS care, while the virus also affects women in greater numbers than men. The finances, equipment, drugs and training that these caregivers need to perform their work without jeopardizing their own health and livelihoods remain largely unrealized. 80 per cent of family caregivers in South Africa have reported reduced income levels.
The evidence is clear that countries with greater gender equality in employment and education report higher rates of human development and economic growth. Thus, for reasons from principled to pragmatic, we should be devoting every possible effort to correcting the obscenely skewed distribution of unpaid care. Currently, ‘women’s empowerment’ is one of the most oft-cited priorities in the halls of the UN and development agencies. However, without a real recognition of unpaid care as a fundamental factor limiting women’s rights and life chances, empowerment is a mirage: akin to promising to end violence against women while ignoring domestic violence. Is a women empowered if she takes a low-paid job in a garment factory with no social security, only to start her second shift of domestic ‘duties’ as soon as she gets home, pausing only for a few hours’ sleep? To truly empower woman would mean respecting care work as valuable and productive, giving it status, encouraging men to do it, and supporting it with resources and services. It would mean freeing women’s time and potential, enabling them and supporting them to go out to work if they are able, ensuring they are given ample opportunity for training and advancement, and access to childcare.
Hopefully, 2014 will be the year when unpaid care work is recognised as a core women’s rights issue. There will be ample opportunities to make the connection between care, poverty, gender inequality and denial of women’s rights – for example at the Commission on the Status of Women and in discussions around the global development agenda to succeed the Millennium Development Goals in 2015. Some organizations that work on poverty and development – most notably ActionAid, Oxfam, and the Institute for Development Studies – which is using animation as part of this work – are now taking this issue seriously. Hopefully human rights organizations will follow suit, including unpaid care work in their women’s rights analyses and priorities, alongside issues such as violence against women, reproductive rights and employment. Hopefully, we will also start to see human rights jurisprudence further recognising the impacts of inadequate State support for unpaid care, and making recommendations for its redistribution.
Care is non-negotiable and fundamental. It has to be done. It can be a huge source of fulfillment and joy; but we also have to acknowledge that it can also entail heavy costs, especially for women living in poverty. The way it is currently distributed between women and men is unjust and unsustainable. In all countries, unsupported and unshared care work perpetuates women’s poverty, political marginalization and social subordination. We cannot hope to achieve gender equality without fully facing up to this injustice. The distribution of care is not natural or inevitable, but rather socially constructed and in our power to change.