CSW: Arguments for reducing the intense time burden of women's unpaid care work

Unpaid care work is one of the major barriers to women's rights, economic empowerment and poverty reduction. Will the work of the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty, and the frantic efforts of women's rights advocates at the CSW in New York this week, get unpaid care work on to the post-2015 agenda ?

Kate Donald
17 March 2014

At the Commission on the Status of Women this year, the sense of urgency in the air is palpable. With plans for the global development agenda to succeed the Millennium Development Goals in the last phase of discussion, there is a strong feeling that 2014 could be a real opportunity to change the paradigm. The new ‘sustainable development goals’ (SDGs) will, for better or worse, suck up the majority of the development attention, effort and resources over the next 15 years. Any issues left out of the goals will be automatic non-priorities for governments and large international donors. Women’s rights advocates are particularly exercised about this, because they witnessed first-hand the impact of the MDGs’ lack of ambition on gender.

MDG3 was the gender equality goal, and it was laughably narrow, focused only on achieving parity in education, ignoring the myriad other economic, social and political barriers to women’s real equality. Women’s groups said all along that the target was manifestly insufficient; recently it seems that States have accepted this reality, perhaps spurred by the increasing evidence that gender inequality holds back economic growth and development in general. The support for a broader, more meaningful gender equality goal in the SDGs is strong and widespread. Now, there is a frantic effort from women’s rights advocates to define and construct this goal and its accompanying targets in the most ambitious and effective way possible, recognizing and tackling the multiple and structural determinants of gender inequality. Meaningfully empowering women will necessitate focusing energy and attention on diverse areas such as access to land, violence against women, sexual and reproductive rights and political participation.

The events I participated I during the first week of CSW were focused on an additional key determinant of gender inequality: unpaid care work. These meetings involved and gathered an unlikely array of actors, from the World Bank to grassroots groups to feminist academics, all in support of the notion that heavy and intense burdens of unpaid care work prevent women from realizing their rights and lifting themselves and their families out of poverty. There were nods of recognition from around the packed rooms when Magdalena Sepulveda Carmona, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, described the gendered distribution of unpaid care work as a major barrier to women’s rights, economic empowerment, and poverty reduction in general. Representatives from trade unions in North America, from anti-poverty organizations in Europe, and alliances of caregivers in Africa, all stood up to share their experiences and underline the urgency of valuing, supporting and redistributing women’s unpaid care work.

Now, although it barely appeared possible in September 2012 when I gathered with a group of other researchers and advocates at a workshop on unpaid care organized by ActionAid, there seems to be a decent chance that unpaid care work will be included in the SDGs in some way. How have we got to this point? Hard work and lobbying from a number of quarters is necessary in any such process – all inspired and boosted by realities witnessed and experienced on the ground. Dedicated champions within some UN agencies, government ministries, and development agencies; strong and persistent advocacy from some major NGOs; researchers consolidating the evidence base; a prominent report from the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty presented to the UN General Assembly last year: these have all played their part. However, it remains to be seen whether States are really listening. At CSW, while the activists and advocates from around the world flood the corridors and the dingy meeting rooms in the UN complex, State representatives in suits and ties convene behind other doors in grander rooms to take the real decisions. We can only harangue and lobby, and hope they hear us.

As always, geopolitics plays its part. The biggest obstacle to getting care on the agenda could in fact be the representatives of the least developed countries, some of whom see this as a familiar Western interference in their ‘culture’ (although of course, women’s overwhelming responsibility for unpaid care work is one of the few phenomena common across all cultures). Misconceptions abound that the end goal sought is wages for housework, or the State somehow forcing men to provide care. It may be that, in the terms of this specific effort, it may be strategic to place the emphasis on supporting and recognizing the value of unpaid care work, rather than ‘redistributing’ half of it to men (although ultimately this is also a necessary goal). The urgency now, especially for the poorest women in the world, is for the State to step up and provide decent services and infrastructure that provide, support and reduce the intense time burden of their care work. Water pumps, electricity, affordable pre-school childcare – these would all make a profound difference to the daily lives and opportunities of these women, giving them more time for income-earning, education, political participation and leisure. The SDGs could play a vital role in prioritizing such efforts.

The CSW Agreed Conclusions, issued at the end of this week, will be a crucial barometer of whether unpaid care will make it into the sustainable development goals ?  The zero draft issued before the session was promising, with multiple references to unpaid care work - but much could change (the spectre of two years ago, when no conclusions could be agreed at all, still hangs over the conference). The lobbying continues, and the negotiations behind closed doors. There are real issues – women’s rights, livelihoods, wellbeing – at stake here. Another 15-year wait would be a severe setback.

See also CSW weather vane: fault lines and prospects for women's human rights


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