• Opinion
  • October 9, 2018
  • 10 minutes
  • 1

More countries want to invest in caring. Here’s how they should do it

Opinion: If care work was monetised, it would account for up to 39% of GDP

This opinion piece was written by Sarah Degnan-Kambou, President of the International Center for Research on Women, a global research institute that focuses on realising women’s empowerment and gender equality to alleviate poverty worldwide.


At long last, my husband and I are empty-nesters. We have always worked in high-pressure jobs, and while the children were young, I put in plenty of non-work hours to care for them and for the household. My husband was unfailingly helpful, but now that our children are grown, I’m ready to renegotiate our “to do” list.

While it’s true that our chore burden is lighter now, I’m nudging my husband to expand his routine beyond taking out the trash, changing lightbulbs and washing the dinner dishes. Happily, he agrees that for us to enjoy our twilight years, we should recognise all the work it takes to run our little household, reduce chores wherever and however we can, and fairly redistribute the remaining work. I have time to indulge in some hobbies, and there’s “us” time on the horizon.

Worldwide, the responsibility for unpaid care work — caring for children, cooking, gathering wood or water — falls disproportionately on women and girls, and the economic impact is substantial. Some estimates indicate that unpaid care work, if monetised, would account for up to 10–39% of GDP.

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In the United States, this figure is estimated to be around 20%. In Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, women perform three times as much unpaid care work as men; in Asia, that figure rises to four. It is problematic that unpaid care work is not valued and measured as an economic asset in national accounts, because as is true across the world, time is money.

Time devoted to unpaid care work literally reduces the amount of time women can devote to earning money

In this instance, time devoted to unpaid care work literally reduces the amount of time women can devote to earning money, be it formal or informal work.  Beyond income-earning potential, given the burden of unpaid care work, women have less time for education, civic engagement and political participation, and yes, leisure.

The burden on women

We’ve taken a look at the care economy in my household. Let’s now travel to a far less privileged household in a modest fishing village on the shores of the Gulf of Fonseca in El Salvador. Juana is a mother of three young children. One day, she awakes and realises that her husband has left her, taking the outboard motor and leaving her with the old boat and tattered nets.

She needs to feed herself and the children, and begins to fish with the nets close to shore, often taking her children with her as they are too young to leave at home. The fish in the estuary are small, her catch meagre and she earns little money. Gradually she learns to be more adept at fishing and convinces the other fishermen to tow her boat out to deeper waters where she catches much larger fish.

Fishing is a dangerous profession, and when the seas are rough, the boat capsized on several occasions, once with the children on board. Juana and her little family survive the ordeal, and she is eventually able to save enough to buy a second-hand motor, hire someone to fish for her, and buy a drying rack so she can sell dried and fresh fish on the local market.

What can we learn from Juana’s household?

First, out of adversity, Juana discovered a coping strategy that works well for her in her community. She is truly entrepreneurial. We also recognise that the lack of access to some form of affordable childcare in her community meant that Juana had to combine her caring work with her market work, occasionally placing her children at risk. Given her children were still young and could not be left alone at home, Juana had to limit her time fishing which further limited her ability to earn income. She succeeded — but while carrying a dual burden.

We all need care

Care is essential for the young, the sick and the elderly. We all have a right to care and be cared for. At some time in our lives, we all need care. However, countries need to develop health, education and social protection systems that support caring without penalty — for those who provide care services, those who receive care services and those who need to access care services so they can work.

Countries need to develop health, education and social protection systems that support caring without penalty

Who will look out for the Juanas of this world? Will this be the year that the G20 gets serious on removing obstacles to women’s economic equality?

Last week THINK 20, a gathering of experts from 150 thinktanks representing 60 countries, wrapped up its meeting in Buenos Aires well in advance of the G20 Summit which will be hosted by the Government of Argentina at the end of November. It is the latest gathering of world experts to recommend that member nations address the issue of unpaid care work.

THINK 20 calls for G20 nations to address unpaid care work by focusing on the three Rs, that is to recognise, reduce and redistribute unpaid care work.  Readers who would like details on promising strategies from across the global on addressing unpaid care work should scan this technical brief, prepared by a team of experts led by Dr Sarah Gammage, a world authority on unpaid care work.

Recognise unpaid care work so that the work performed, primarily in the household, is both “seen” and acknowledged as being “work.” Recognition can take several forms, including provision of compensation for the work, recognising care work when determining other benefits such as pension payments or social transfers, or at the very least measuring unpaid care work in national statistics.

Reduce unpaid care work so that the burden of caring is reduced for care-givers and for society more generally. This can happen when the service is provided directly or in a different way, such as through accessible and affordable child care services.

A study in Turkey found that employment opportunities that could be created by boosting expenditures on early childhood care centres and pre-schools in comparison to physical infrastructure and public housing would generate 2.5 times as many jobs.

Redistribute unpaid care work so that it is more fairly shared among men and women, the market and the state. For example, male household members can take on a greater share of housework and childcare. Additionally, governments can elect to provide after-school care or elder care.

In Denmark, women’s labour force participation is about 74% and all children under three in need of child care have access to childcare through subsidised, high-quality state provision. Policies to promote parental leave and ensure a father’s right to care help shift gender roles and responsibilities.

It is an investment that benefits everyone

Investing in the expansion of quality care services will increase women´s labour force participation, generate employment, stimulate tax revenue, increase fiscal space and, as a result, sustainably reduce poverty and inequality.

It is an investment that benefits everyone. Juana, her children and the fishing village on the Gulf of Fonseca. My husband, me and ageing boomers everywhere. And you. Are you in? — Sarah Degnan-Kambou

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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