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Up and Down the Political Agenda: Pathways to Transformative Care Policies

2 Aug 2016

Up and Down the Political Agenda: Pathways to Transformative Care Policies
This blog is published as part of The Transformation Conversation: Blogs on the UNRISD Flagship Report 2016 and Agenda 2030. The series explores what it takes to design and implement innovative eco-social policies that will lead to transformative change and fulfil the potential of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Together with the evidence, analysis and case studies in the UNRISD 2016 Flagship Report they are part of the global conversation on implementing of the SDGs.

What do preschool childcare, safe water and paternity leave have in common? All of them can contribute to achieving Target 5.4 in the SDGs: “Recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies”. These can be collectively referred to as care policies: they may not be explicitly formulated that way, but in practice they reduce the amount of time and money women have to dedicate to care and they redistribute care provision between households and the “public” sphere.

At the same time, Agenda 2030’s overall vision goes one step further and foresees transformative change. For care policies to be transformative, they must simultaneously guarantee the care receivers’ and caregivers’ rights, agency, autonomy and well-being, and therefore contribute to gender equality.

To achieve Target 5.4, policy makers do not have to start from scratch. Recent UNRISD research shows that in all regions around the world, there are care policies that are or have the potential to be transformative. Evidence from Uruguay to India and from Turkey to South Africa shows that viewing public policies through a care lens strengthens them in terms of gender equality, policy complementarity and sectoral coordination. It also improves the situation of care workers and contributes positively to the (macro)economy.

As policy makers begin to align the SDGs and national development plans, they can use this evidence and knowledge not only in policy design, but also to facilitate the type of political processes needed to craft transformative care policies: ones with ample participation and intersectoral dialogue.

In terms of care policies, ongoing UNRISD research finds that the greatest strides have been made in Latin America, for example in Costa Rica and Uruguay where care is high on the political agenda. Care policies in the countries of Asia and the Pacific are highly heterogeneous: Viet Nam for example has quite comprehensive gender-egalitarian care policies, whereas Papua New Guinea has very few in place. And in countries across sub-Saharan Africa, when care policies exist, they are often framed as part of the response to high rates of multidimensional poverty. Within each context, much can be achieved by applying the care lens to the diverse policies that contribute to achieving Target 5.4.

  • Infrastructure: Absence of adequate infrastructure—water, sanitation, electricity, roads and transportation—increase women’s unpaid care and domestic workloads and make it harder to access care services. Water, sanitation and hygiene are also closely interrelated in their impacts on health, especially for young children. Fetching water can be a particularly heavy burden: In Tanzania, for example, the time women and girls spend fetching water amounts to the equivalent of over 640,000 full-time jobs. Policies to expand infrastructure for safe water and basic sanitation save women’s time and reduce water-related illnesses.
  • Early child education and care (ECEC) policies are designed for preschool children with a focus on child development, and can contribute to their health, nutrition, education and care. At the same time, they have great potential to redistribute care from the household to public or private sectors, which allows women to take up paid employment. In sub-Saharan Africa, Ghana’s ECEC policies have achieved some success, reaching universal pre-primary gross enrolment due to a provision for free basic education which includes two years of kindergarten. The Ghanaian policy has also been praised for its integrated and coordinated services for children from birth to 8 years of age.
  • Labour policies and care: Many countries have seen progress in formal labour policies related to care, including maternity protection and parental leave, although coverage varies. Many Asian countries have labour policies that enable women to combine paid employment with having a family.

But applying a care lens to public policy is not automatically associated with transformative change. Two major obstacles frequently prevent transformative policies from achieving their full potential. One is funding: policies to foster gender equality—including policies to reduce and redistribute women’s unpaid care and domestic work—are often underfunded. And accordingly institutions, actors and processes lack capacity, seriously hampering implementation on the ground.

Second, women’s political participation is needed if care policies are to realize their transformative potential, for example via adequate channels for social dialogue, allowing women’s and social movements—but also trade unions and organizations of persons with care needs—to make their voices heard.

Sometimes even this is not enough. What conditions are need to open up the pathway to transformative care policies is the topic of the chapter on care policies in the UNRISD 2016 Flagship Report, now available!

At the time of writing, Andrea Kaufmann was Gender Expert and Valeria Esquivel was Research Coordinator at UNRISD.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.