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From Burden to Boon: Accounting for Care and its Links to Women’s Economic Empowerment

by on May 21, 2017  |  posted in Women's Economic Empowerment  |  0 Comments

This blog is published as part of the 2017 WEE Global Learning Forum Blog Series.

Join IDRC and others at the 2017 WEE Forum for the Industry Initiative Session, Care Work and Women’s Economic Empowerment: Strategies from Burden to Boon


Unleashing women’s economic potential calls for changes in how care work is valued and distributed within households and workplaces, as well as shared between men and women. The 2017 WEE Global Learning Forum aims to bring visibility to care work through an Oxford-style debate and two Peer Learning Sessions organized by the Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW) Program

What’s at Stake?

Providing care for the young, the old and the sick is a vital part of the global economy. Yet, UNDP estimates that women perform three more times the unpaid care duties than men. This uneven distribution is often misconstrued as a ‘women’s issue’ or even seen as an efficient allocation of work time in the household.

Care work is rarely seen as a valuable activity that actually contributes to growth and whose burden for women has repercussions for their development, which in turn has implications for societies. Evidence sustains that women’s economic empowerment has benefits for overall economic growth. Therefore, accounting for care work is not only the right thing to do, but also the smart thing.

Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) includes a target for recognizing and valuing unpaid care and domestic work. The care economy is also a priority theme for the UN High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment. Progress on advancing policies and practice that put this issue front and center, requires a greater understanding of how to relieve the domestic burden on women, promote an equitable participation of both men and women, and put an economic value to care.

What We Know?

  • Unequal care responsibilities lead to time poverty, particularly for poor women, as well as limited mobility.
  • The burden of care restricts women’s choices, capabilities and opportunities,including securing training, and seeking access to better paid, high-skilled, formal, and more productive jobs.
  • Safe and affordable services, including childcare, can improve children’s nutritional outcomes, as well as mothers’ health.A GrOW-supported project in Kenya provided vouchers to mothers enabling them to access quality childcare. Preliminary data shows that children who attended childcare got sick less often than kids who didn’t benefit from the voucher. As a result, women could focus on work instead of taking time off to care for their sick children. A similar intervention in Rajasthan, working with Seva Mandir, explores the mental health implications of access to childcare for women. This aspect is often overlooked by research and practice but is critical to a holistic understanding of women’s empowerment.
  • Degrees of control over resources: Women may have limited bargaining power within a household, and thus limited control over how their own resources and assets, including loans and earned income, are invested.
  • Investing in care is smart economics.Using data from seven OECD countries, the Women’s Budget Group compared the return of government investments in social infrastructure, including childcare, with returns on physical infrastructure investment. Childcare investments created twice the number of jobs as investments in construction. In fact, investing 2 per cent of GDP in the care industry would increase women’s employment rates by somewhere between 3.3 and 8.2 per cent.
  • National accounts do not adequately capture the value of care work.With support from IDRC, Counting Women’s Work (CWW), uses time use data to estimate hours spent producing or consuming unpaid care and housework, and assigns the time a replacement wage. This data from 29 countries shows the value of unpaid care and housework ranging from 12 to 40 per cent of GDP.

What is Needed?

  • Valuing care work begins with measuring it. Work like the one done by CWW needs to be scaled up to provide decision-makers with improved data on the value of care work and who is doing it.
  • An understanding of how women’s employment affects the social organization of care in the household is critical to achieve true empowerment. For example, when a mother finds work, older siblings might be taken out of school to care for the young. GrOW supported researchers’ work in Nepal, Rwanda, India, and Tanzania to analyze unpaid care arrangements in poor households and how women’s empowerment policies and programs affect these arrangements. Understanding this reorganization is critical to the development of successful policies that break, rather than perpetuate cycles of inequality.
  • Enhanced provision of essential public services, including safe and affordable childcare and safe transport.
  • Increased investment in equipment and infrastructure save on women’s time and labor to make way for employment and leisure activities, including participation in community-based activities and politics.
  • Improved provision of decent work for women and men, which provides social protection and access to critical services including access to quality childcare.
  • Investment in advocacy campaigns and initiatives across sectors, which is key to shift gendered norms and roles about care.
  • Engagement with varied allies, including the private sector to develop and implement decent working conditions. In Nicaragua, Body Shop International teamed up with a Nicaraguan cooperative to reflect the value of unpaid care in the pricing of goods produced. The company pays an additional premium to cover the unpaid work of women in supply chains. Making the business case for care provision is critical to ensure that employers adopt practices that better respond to the care needs of both male and female employees.
  • Continued efforts to sensitize policymakers and practitioners to evidence on the care crisis, and the WEE Learning Forum presents an opportunity to reach a wide audience. On the advocacy side, Oxfam has had a series of successes in Colombia, Nepal and the Philippines in changing minds around care as central activity to social reproduction, and one deserving of the same benefits as market work.

Don’t miss the chance to register for the Forum and partake in both a plenary debate on care, as well as two Peer Learning Sessions with partners from the GrOW program, including the Institute of Development Studies, Institute for Financial Management and Research, Institute of Social Studies Trust, Counting Women’s Work, and Oxfam:

  1. Accounting for Care: WEE Policies and Programs Under the Spotlight | May 24, 11:45 AM – 1:15 PM
  2. Oxford Style Debate: Market Programming for Economic Growth Should Address Women’s Unpaid Care Work | May 24, 2:30 PM – 4:00 PM
  3. Care Work and Women’s Economic Empowerment: Strategies from Burden to Boon | May 25, 11:00 AM – 12:30 PM

Alejandra Vargas Garcia, is the Program Officer for the Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women Program at Canada’s International Development Research Centre. In her role, she supports 14 research projects in 50 countries to identify and overcome barriers to women’s economic empowerment in key areas like the care economy, skills training and employment. Alejandra has over eight years of experience working on women’s empowerment for the United Nations, the United States Agency for International Development, and Mexican public service, working on a federal program on violence against women. She holds a Masters in Public Policy from Harvard University and a BA from the Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico.

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