The care economy costs women. It’s time to pay up, advocates say at CSW

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Women in Dakar, Senegal. COVID-19 has shown the economy depends on women’s unpaid work. Photo by: Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

A temporary basic income for women shouldn’t be considered radical, according to Raquel Lagunas, director of the United Nations Development Programme’s gender team.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a global economy dependent on women’s unpaid work, and “you need to put on the table quick solutions that raise the bar,” she told Devex.

UNDP’s short-term social protection scheme, unveiled March 4, proposes that low-income countries redirect 0.07% of their gross domestic product each month to a temporary basic income for women experiencing severe socioeconomic stress due to the pandemic. To get money directly into women’s hands, the plan would need to be tied to financial inclusion efforts, offering additional “positive side effects,” Lagunas said.

As pandemic recovery begins, short-term, gender-sensitive responses can be rolled into long-term plans for systemic change, according to Lagunas and other gender experts taking part in the virtual 65th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, or CSW, this week.

The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns exposed who is doing what at home. Cooking, cleaning, caring for children and older adults, and collecting fuel and water are often not considered work at all. But before the global health crisis, women on average spent about three times as many hours on these unpaid tasks as men. As COVID-19 brought economic activity to a halt, women lost or left paid jobs — in which they were already earning less than men — only to bear even more of the burden at home.

“The current economic system only survives because there is a care economy underneath, sustaining [it],” Lagunas told Devex.

Feminist academics have been flagging this issue “from many corners of the planet” for years, she said. When care became relevant for the survival of economies and governments during the pandemic, UNDP and other organizations were able to more successfully advocate for the importance of the care economy. The economic case is already there, she added, considering that the monetary value of women’s unpaid care work globally for those ages 15 and over is estimated at $10.8 trillion annually.

This year, following a pared-down CSW in 2020 due to coronavirus restrictions, the largest U.N. gathering on women’s rights is focused on “women’s full and effective participation and decision-making in public life.” It’s a goal that won’t be met unless unpaid care and domestic work is treated as a key barrier to gender equality, according to Ruth Oloo, women’s rights strategist for Oxfam in Kenya.

An Oxfam initiative known as Women’s Economic Empowerment and Care, or WE-Care, links care work messaging with other crucial elements of gender equality, such as ending violence against women and addressing why many women are unable to engage in paid work.

Recently, WE-Care mobilized 800 women in five informal settlements in Nairobi, Kenya, to successfully advocate for increasing budget expenditure on accessible water points and early childhood development centers. “If we address issues of water, health care, road infrastructure, and early childhood development, we can actually reduce the number of hours that women spend on unpaid care work,” Oloo said.

Changing norms and influencing local budgets are critical actions, said Nancy Kachingwe, a feminist political economist and co-founder of the South Feminist Futures Festival. But she warned against too much focus on behavioral or policy fixes at the local level.

“The question of how the overall care economy is being engineered for the extraction of profits at the end of the day is one of the questions that we’re not really asking ourselves,” she said during a virtual panel at CSW.

Kachingwe urged against “refining the gendered safety net we already have,” which keeps women in the home and out of the workforce. “Are we just getting into systems that make this more palatable? Or are we looking at a complete overhaul of the macroeconomic fundamentals?” she said.

In the short term, COVID-19 fiscal stimulus and relief packages have largely failed to address unpaid work, including child care. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, only four out of 113 gender-sensitive COVID-19 response measures have tackled unpaid care.

The pandemic served to exacerbate what many were already calling a global child care crisis. Recent research from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found that women in most countries with available data are spending 30 hours per week exclusively on child care — almost equivalent to a full-time job.

“When you think about essential infrastructure, where is child care in essential infrastructure? …I think the paradigm shift that's needed is to think about this as an investment in development,” said Anita Zaidi, president of the gender equality division at the Gates Foundation.

“The current economic system only survives because there is a care economy underneath, sustaining [it].”

— Raquel Lagunas, director of the gender team, United Nations Development Programme

Advocates remain optimistic that the realities of COVID-19 have ushered in a new era for funding and policymaking that can better support women’s choices to participate in social, economic, and political life. Even before the pandemic, gender-responsive budgeting was a concrete way to design public spending around the realities of all populations, said Rebecca Rewald, program adviser for gender at Oxfam America.

“Unpaid care is the one issue area that is very much not represented in budgets,” she told Devex.

The United States is in a position to influence how international financial institutions respond to the crisis. The country’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package approved last week — which included a historic $39 billion in direct funding for child care providers — is a positive sign for what that influence could look like, Rewald said.

“I think the issue, though, is that this is a relief bill,” she added. “We need these things to be permanent, and we need them to be long-standing. And I think that’s what the fight will be in the coming months.”

Update, March 18, 2021: This article has been updated to clarify that Raquel Lagunas is the director of UNDP’s gender team.

About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers has worked as an Associate Editor and Southeast Asia Correspondent for Devex, with a particular focus on gender. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has reported from more than 20 countries.