What have we learned about the care economy from 7 years’ work in 25 countries?

November 20, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

Oxfam has just published an interesting overview of its work on unpaid care and domestic work (UCDW) in over 25 countries since 2013, which I recommend as a good intro to an increasingly important topic in the aid and development biz.

Firstly, the history:

‘Conversations on UCDW have evolved over the decades from the ‘domestic labour debate’ of the 1970s—then considered radical—to addressing care increasingly being seen today as a precondition for women’s political, economic and social empowerment.

The decades in between saw ongoing resistance to addressing care, with detractors arguing that unpaid care is a minor issue, only a concern for Northern women, too ‘personal’, ‘cultural’ or ‘divisive’, and that norms change takes too long to be addressed in development programmes.

Meanwhile, a range of ground-breaking initiatives paved the way for greater commitment, leadership and programming on care. These included the 1981 International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 156, which recognised workers’ family responsibilities; the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, which made women’s care work visible using data and evidence; Shahra Razavi’s ‘Care Diamond’ and Diane Elson’s ‘Recognize-Reduce-Redistribute’ framework5 in 2007 and 2008, respectively; the 2013 Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, which recognised heavy and unequal UCDW as a violation of human rights; the ILO Resolution I in 2013, which mandated that full-time unpaid carers be recognized as part of the workforce; and the inclusion of UCDW in the Sustainable Development Goals in 2016.’

Next, some lessons learned:

Combining infrastructure and social norms interventions frees up women’s time. Our research has shown that without continuous work on social norms (e.g. regular training and awareness-raising sessions aimed at increasing men’s engagement), public infrastructure and time- and labour-saving equipment aiming to reduce women’s time on unpaid care tasks could in fact lead to women spending more time on UCDW (e.g. cooking three meals a day instead of two if they have a more efficient stove), and to housework being redistributed to other women or girls in the household.

Men and boys’ involvement is critical. In our experience, men are often very positive about sharing unpaid care work, particularly if they see others doing it. Working with male ‘care champions’ and cultural or religious leaders has helped to cascade messages and provide positive examples, challenging existing perceptions of masculinity. Creating spaces for discussion has enabled men and boys to reflect on unpaid care roles and to commit to small and easy actions for change in their own lives.

Media can help strengthen public discourse. Traditional and social media have a strong role to play in bringing UCDW (normally considered a private issue) into the public domain. Continuous investment in a wide range of media is important to expand the reach of—and continually reinforce—positive messages on UCDW, so that dialogue that begins with social norms activities in homes and communities can continue in public spaces.

Communities should be involved in creating their own solutions. UCDW is a contentious issue that goes to the heart of deeply ingrained gender roles and norms. Involving communities in planning and designing their own care-related interventions fosters ownership and accountability, minimises risks of conflicts and contributes to sustainability. It can also help to spark dialogue and debate.

Working at sub-national level with local government is key to success and sustainability. It is often easier to get tangible budget commitments and policy change at sub-national level—where there are devolved governments with budget and policy responsibility—than at national level. Working closely with champions in government has encouraged them to take ownership of the UCDW agenda within their own departments and has been critical to success.

Social norms change doesn’t happen overnight—but behaviour change can. Participation in social norms activities can help to incentivize change in behaviours, e.g. men doing more care work, in a relatively short space of time. To achieve long-term shifts in social norms, there needs to be investment in awareness-raising initiatives that can be scaled up alongside infrastructure and policy change to reach large numbers of people within different target groups, including religious leaders, cultural leaders and politicians, among others.’

Finally 3 findings that jumped out for me:

Urban poverty is associated with higher care workloads than rural poverty. Women living in low-income urban areas spent on average 49 minutes more on any care work than women in rural areas. While women in low-income urban areas spent less time collecting water and fuel, they spent more time washing clothes and cleaning; i.e. although they have better access to infrastructure, their care load might be increased by social expectations around appearances.

In shifting behaviours around care work, findings from Zimbabwe, Uganda and the Philippines suggest that what matters most is what people think other community members believe, rather than what they think other community members do. Women and men were most likely to say that men would do care work in situations where the community considered it acceptable.

Norms related to gender-based violence are linked to those that reinforce gendered divisions of care. Community sanctions, including harsh criticism for women for ‘failing’ to care and shaming men for doing care work, can be powerful in maintaining social norms and the gendered division of care work. Findings from Zimbabwe and Uganda show that generally, if gender-based violence was accepted in the community, men tended to do less care work and women to do more. Significantly, about a third of respondents accepted mocking men for performing care tasks or beating/criticising women for inadequate provision of care.’

Much more detail and lots of great case studies in the full 13 page document

And here’s a really sweet video (4m) from Zimbabwe that brings it all home

November 20, 2020
Duncan Green