1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Gender and Development (2000 - 2009)

Conference News: The Political and Social Economy of Care



The parameters of caregiving have changed tremendously over the past two to three decades, as women’s entry into the workforce has intensified across diverse regional contexts, family structures have been transformed (with the higher incidence, in some regions, of households with children that are maintained primarily by women), and demographic, epidemiological and sociocultural changes have created new demands for care as well as a new understanding of what “good care” should entail.

Care is commonly thought of as the activities that take place within homes and neighbourhoods, and structured by relationships of kinship and community: caring for children and adults whether able-bodied, ill or frail. But unpaid care work involves many additional tasks, such as meal preparation, and cleaning of homes, clothes and utensils, which are particularly time-consuming in many poorer countries where access to appropriate infrastructure and labour-saving technology is limited. Care has also increasingly shifted outside the home toward market, state and non-profit provision.

The way in which the provision of care is organized and divided across household, market, state and non-profit institutions has important implications for who accesses adequate care and who bears the burden. Feminist scholars and activists have repeatedly pointed out that current divisions of care labour are far from even. Instead there exists what economists would call a “free-rider” problem, with some individuals and social groups (mostly women and girls, especially those in low-income households) doing the bulk of the work and the rest of society benefiting from the outputs of this work. That most care work is done on an unpaid basis does not mean that it comes without costs. Because women and girls take on the lion’s share of unpaid care, they have less time for paid employment, self-care, rest, leisure, organizing and political participation. The political and social economy of care is therefore central to gender equality.

While care issues have increasingly been incorporated into the research and policy agendas of advanced industrialized countries, this is not a global trend. Over the past quarter-century, feminist research on institutionalized welfare states has generated a rich literature that challenges many of the premises and limitations of the mainstream social policy literature. Care has been central to these debates. However, this research has been remarkably local. Many of the trends it has documented are not universal and not all of the policy options it discusses are transferable. This is especially true in a development context, where formal social provisioning is less institutionalized. Care arrangements in developing countries have not received the same level of academic scrutiny as institutional welfare states. Indeed, little is known about the conditions under which caregiving takes place in developing countries.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 15 Oct 2009
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8054
    From: UNRISD