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

Why Care Matters for Social Development (Research and Policy Brief)


Care work, both paid and unpaid, contributes to well-being, social development and economic growth. But the costs of providing care are unequally borne across gender and class. Families in all their diverse forms remain the key institution in meeting care needs. The challenge is to forge policies that support them and are grounded in certain key principles: recognize and guarantee the rights of care-givers and care-receivers; distribute the costs more evenly across society; and support professional, decently paid and compassionate forms of care.

Unpaid care work includes housework (meal preparation, cleaning) and care of persons (bathing a child, watching over a frail elderly person) carried out in homes and communities. Such work contributes to well-being and feeds into economic growth through the reproduction of a labour force that is fit, productive and capable of learning and creativity. Women perform the bulk of unpaid care work across all economies and cultures. Furthermore, it is estimated that if such work were assigned a monetary value it would constitute between 10 per cent and 39 per cent of GDP.

Despite its economic value, unpaid care work is not included in labour force surveys. Nor is it brought into the calculation of GDP. It is therefore invisible in representations of the economy that inform policy making. Similarly, despite its importance for meeting many of the Millennium Development Goals (reducing child mortality, achieving universal primary education, combating HIV/AIDS, reducing maternal mortality), the MDGs themselves do not mention unpaid care work.

Paid care services such as childcare, elder care, nursing and teaching also constitute a growing part of the economy and of employment in many countries. In the United States, for example, professional and domestic care services have grown from employing 13.3 per cent of the workforce in 1900 to 22.6 per cent in 1998 (almost as many workers as the manufacturing sector). In India, there has been a significant increase in the numbers of domestic workers over the last decade of economic liberalization. When care work is decently paid and protected, it can meet the interests of both workers and users of services. But this is not often the case.

Why should development policy be concerned about care? Some would emphasize its importance to processes of economic growth, whether in terms of its contribution to “human capital” formation or as a component of “social investment”. Others see care more broadly, as part of the fabric of society and integral to social development. How societies address care also has far-reaching implications for gender relations and inequalities.

The need to address care through public policy is now more urgent than ever. Women’s massive entry into the paid work force—a near-global trend—has squeezed the time hitherto allocated to the care of family and friends on an unpaid basis. At the same time, population ageing in some countries, and major health crises (especially HIV and AIDS) in others, have intensified the need for care services. In many developing countries where public health systems have been severely weakened during the decades of market-oriented reform, much of the care burden has fallen back on women and girls.

Care underpins social and economic development, yet arrangements for its provision in developing countries have been little studied. UNRISD research has begun to fill this gap.
Contrary to modernist predictions that religion would retreat into a private zone of worship and practice, recent decades have seen religion become increasingly salient on the political stage worldwide. Does this matter? From the point of view of women’s rights and gender equality, much is at stake. UNRISD research shows that politicized religion impinges on women’s rights in problematic ways. The challenge to gender equality comes not just from fundamentalist agendas, but also from those who instrumentalize women’s rights for political ends.

This Research and Policy Brief explores how religion, as a political force, shapes and deflects the struggle for gender equality in contexts marked by different (i) histories of nationbuilding and challenges of ethnic/religious diversity; (ii) state-society relations (from the more authoritarian to the more democratic); and (iii) relations between state power and religion.
It is now widely recognized that the agrarian reforms implemented from the 1950s through the 1970s were gender blind. These reforms were often based on the assumption that assets allocated to the head of household - typically male - would benefit all household members equitably. Not only did these reforms ignore the well-being of women and their dependents in the event of household dissolution (upon separation, divorce or widowhood), they were also blind to the ways in which gender-based inequalities in access to land exacerbated married women’s (unpaid) workloads, economic insecurity, and bargaining power within households.

These reforms took place at a time when gender equality was marginal to the policy agenda and when women’s organizations lacked their current visibility. In the 1990s the reform of land tenure institutions once again emerged as a prominent issue for international development agencies. But was this new wave of reforms any more gender sensitive than those of the past?

A main focus of the more recent reforms was land titling, designed to promote security of tenure and stimulate land markets. The reforms were often driven by domestic and external neoliberal coalitions, with funding from global and regional organizations subscribing to the position that private property rights are essential for a dynamic agricultural sector. Yet it would be too simplistic to view the diverse national experiences of land tenure reform as top-down neoliberal undertakings. Democratic transitions, though often fragile, have opened up new possibilities for agrarian reform, placing inequalities in land distribution back on national agendas. The involvement of social movements, including women’s movements, and their domestic and international allies has been the other hallmark of recent policy debates on land. The extent to which women’s interests are reflected in the new generation of reforms is the key question examined in this Research and Policy Brief.

UNRISD Research and Policy Briefs aim to improve the quality of development dialogue. They situate the Institute’s research within wider social development debates, synthesize its findings and draw out issues for consideration in decision-making processes. They provide this information in a concise format that should be of use to policy makers, scholars, activists, journalists and others.

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  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 15 Feb 2010
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1811-0142
    From: UNRISD