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The invisibility of unpaid care and why care matters

 Unpaid care forms a vital service and is the bedrock of many societies. The work undertaken sustains both households and the physical and psychological wellbeing of its members, as well as contributing to the functioning of the market economy.

Unpaid care work also cross cuts with many other international development issues including human rights, education, HIV and AIDS, health more broadly, nutrition, social protection, migration and climate change. It is also relevant to almost all aspects of gender equality. In other words, it is an issue so fundamental that it should be considered in all development interventions, across all sectors.

However there is a reluctance to engage with care issues and its adverse impacts on gender equality. For some, care is perceived as secondary to more ‘important’ development issues such as income generation or education, even though it is a major obstacle to both. Others argue that women naturally belong to the realm of family, or that women’s care- giving roles are specific to local culture and are best left alone. Some shy away from meddling in the ‘private realm’ of the family. This ignores the fact that, as many feminists have persuasively argued, and as is explicitly recognised in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) what goes on in the private realm is political.

For governments, particularly in contexts of severely constrained state resources, it may be that the care work provided without charge by family members offers a conveniently low-cost form of welfare provision.

This reluctance to discuss and engage in issues of unpaid care work reinforces care’s invisibility and the way it is undervalued in society. Whilst these are not new concerns, the problems surrounding the provision of care are becoming more pressing in the light of emerging ‘care crises’ in many parts of the world.

At the root of these crises is the decreasing availability and willingness of women and girls to do unpaid care work which is linked to positive trends such as rising female educational achievement and aspirations, and increases in female participation in the labour force. The crisis resulting from the diminishing availability of female caring labour is exacerbated by the reluctance of most men to take up a larger share of unpaid care work, coupled in some cases with the reluctance or inability of states to provide affordable and accessible welfare services.

At the same time, everyone has the right to care and the need for care is escalating in many regions – most notably in low - income countries heavily affected by the HIV pandemic and in high and middle income countries with large ageing populations. The economic crisis has also squeezed public services placing more burden on care providers, many of them women.

(Image credits: stringer_bel / Flickr under Creative Commons License)


Caring for wellbeing
R. Eyben; M. Fontana / Institute of Development Studies, Sussex [ES] 2011
Commissioned by the Bellagio Initiative as part of their Future of Philanthropy and Development in the Pursuit of Human Wellbeing series, this paper by IDS fellows Marzia Fontana and Rosalind Eyben presents an alternative to the devel...
Making Care Visible: Women’s unpaid care work in Nepal, Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya
D. Budlender; R. Moussié / ActionAid International 2013
Collecting data on all women’s work, both paid and unpaid, is critical to improving the design of social policies and the allocation of resources to address poverty and inequality. This report documents Action Aid's multi-country...
Getting unpaid care onto development agendas.
R. Eyben; C. Smithyes (ed) / Institute of Development Studies UK 2013
This IDS Policy Brief from January 2013 focuses on getting unpaid care onto the development agenda. Despite mounting robust literature on the quantity and importance of unpaid care work globally, including a substantial and highly cre...
The hidden crisis: women, social reproduction and the political economy of care in Africa
Zo Randriamaro / Pambazuka 2013
The concept of social reproduction, the process by which individuals, families, and society itself continue to function, provides the framework for this article featured in Pambazuka News, a pan-African publishing platform. The articl...