1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Gender and Development

Innovations in Care Policies

  • Project from: 2015


Care is Crucial for Sustainable Development


Care is essential for the well-being of individuals, communities and societies. It has long been considered the "natural" responsibility of women, so across all societies women and girls, particularly poor women and girls, provide the bulk of care. Unpaid care and domestic 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. Care work can also be for pay: it is the work of nurses, teachers and domestic workers, most of whom are women. The unequal distribution of care work, both paid and unpaid, is a crucial dimension of gender and class inequality. Because of the time and energy women and girls put into caring for others, they are deprived of their rights to education, paid employment, leisure and recreation, and are confined to the low-end segments of the labour market. Providing unpaid care and domestic work can make them time-poor, and impoverishes them further as a result.

The explicit inclusion of unpaid care and domestic work in Goal 5, target 5.4, of the Sustainable Development Goals marks an unprecedented advance in the care agenda in terms of the visibility of care as a central dimension of sustainable development. The target’s call to "recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies" helps make care policies more important in governments’ agendas, and represents an opportunity for women’s movements and other social actors to support, shape and hold governments accountable for their implementation. This is a call to recognize, reduce and redistribute unpaid care and domestic work. Work on Goal 8, target 8.8, "protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments for all workers, including migrant workers, in particular women migrants, and those in precarious employment", will also contribute to improving the working conditions of paid care workers.

UNRISD’s Pioneering Research on Care


The UNRISD Gender and Development programme conceptualized and carried out pioneering research on the care economy with path-breaking contributions under the research project, Political and Social Economy of Care (2006-2009). The project explored the multiple institutions of care, such as households and families, states, markets as well as the not-for-profit sector. Using a comparative approach across different countries, it analysed the gender composition and dynamics of these institutions, and their implications for poverty and social rights of citizenship. In this context, the "care diamond" was developed as an innovative descriptive tool for the analysis of the care economy. It helps examine the distribution of care responsibilities across families, the state, the market and the community, and from the perspective of both care receivers and care givers.



The UNRISD research on Political and Social Economy of Care contributed to a better understanding of the gender inequalities and power dynamics embedded within these four different institutions, in particular in developing countries which had previously been understudied, and to capture the implications for caregivers. The research pointed to the necessity for policies that 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.

Explaining Care Policies


Care policies are public policies that assign resources to care in the form of money or income, services and/or time. They range from payments to caregivers or to people who need care; care services' direct provision, subsidy and/or regulation; and transportation, water and sanitation provision. They also include labour regulations, such as maternity/paternity leave and the regulation of paid working times, which assign time to care. Care policies therefore encompass policies developed by different sectors, such as health and education, labour and social policies. Because of this, they usually serve a range of different objectives. At national levels, states need to respond to this dimension of inequality and provide universal care services. These have the potential to alleviate women’s unpaid care and domestic work burdens, if they cater both for the needs of care givers and dependents and generate decent employment conditions for care workers. Concrete policy options are country and context specific. A number of policy priorities can be identified:
  • Investment in infrastructure and basic social services;
  • Ensuring adequate and reliable source of income;
  • Creating synergies between social transfers and social services;
  • Building on existing programmes to cover care needs;
  • Recognizing care workers and guaranteeing their rights;
  • Making care more visible in statistics and public debates.

A Transformative Approach to Care


Beyond the analytical questions that arise from conceptual frameworks—who provides care, for whom, at what cost, and why this is the case in different contexts—lies the important political question of what a transformative care agenda is.

This is a prerequisite for gender equality and the full realization of women’s rights to become reality, and to determine which institutions, economic structures, gender norms and public policies are conducive to such an outcome.

A transformative approach to care means changing care provision—and possibly, the accrual of care benefits—by recognizing, reducing and redistributing care (the Triple R Framework). The "economic", "social" and "political" realms of life, and their relationship to each other, would also radically change as a consequence.

New Research at UNRISD


UNRISD is continuing and expanding its work on care, and at the same time is responding to a variety of demands from policy makers, practitioners and academia.

Innovations in Care: New Concepts, New Actors, New Policies


UNRISD was commissioned by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) to carry out a background review premised on exploring care policies in the Global South. It aims at identifying the interlinkages between new conceptualizations of care, new actors in the field and the implementation of new care policies. The fact that SDG 5.4 relates care visibility with "the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies" might make care policies more prominent on governments' agendas, while at the same time posing a challenge to social protection systems, which are typically focused on poverty alleviation and inequality reduction.

By reviewing national social policies and drawing on the most up-to-date research, this review will provide policy makers, development practitioners, women’s movements and other stakeholders concrete examples of care policies that can be replicated and scaled up in order to realize a transformative care agenda. Click here for more information.

This background review will inform the UNRISD 2016 Flagship Report chapter on care.

Events with UNRISD contributions on care

  • Worlds Apart? Sharing Perspectives on Social Reproduction and Care, Warwick University, Birmingham, 16 March 2015
  • Substantive Equality for Women: Connecting Human Rights and Public Policy, workshop jointly organized by UNRISD, UN Women and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Geneva, 15 June 2015
  • Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Roundtable Discussion: Caring Economy, Berlin, 15 July 2015
  • Annual Conference of the International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE), Berlin, 16-18 July 2015
  • International Association for Time Use Research (IATUR), 4-6 August 2015
  • "El tiempo: la dimension invisible de la pobreza", TEDx talk by Valeria Esquivel, Cordoba, Argentina, 3 December 2015
  • Care Economy and Public Policy, international seminar organized by FES, San José de Costa Rica, 25-28 November 2015.

Resources