Picking the tab for women in the care economy

June 15, 2009 12:00 am

, NAIROBI, Kenya, Jun 15 – The Minister for Finance, Uhuru Kenyatta read out Kenya’s budget for 2009 last week and I got caught up with something rather personal but of public significance.  I spent three days and some at home helping my baby son through his latest health crisis which included a medically advised circumcision.

According to analysis by Women in Development Europe (WIDE) Network, care work – paid and unpaid – is a practice and a reality for many women around the world.  It is also characterised by huge differences between women and men such that the gendered division of labour and valuation and work are the subject of intense interest for women’s struggles in the past four decades.

The subject is receiving renewed interest in the wake of the ongoing global financial crisis, climate change, growing poverty and HIV/AIDS – especially when governments continue to hand over their obligations to women without the resources nor the support structures to enable a meaningful partnership.

For years, women’s rights activists have argued that there are fundamental flaws in the computation of national economies – specifically because there is no cost pegged to women’s work which stretches to accommodate emergencies and eventualities without so much of an acknowledgement or state support. Simply put, it amounts to unwaged labour and worse still, it is unvalued.

At the global level it took the issue of HIV/AIDS to force a closer look at what was happening within the confines of millions of homes in the global South with the obvious abdication of state obligation to the sick by placing the burden of care squarely on the shoulders of women and girls in the name of home-based care – without the necessary investments and resources to make it meaningful.

Care work exposes the enormous differences between women and men, especially in the division and valuation of labour.  Experts warn that in the context of the global financial crisis, growing poverty, food crises, climate change and HIV/AIDS, a care crisis is inevitable.

The care economy is vast.  It assumes that women are by their very nature dedicated to care.  It takes care of babies and toddlers, the sick, the aged and more recently the casualties and returnees from the waged economy – victims of the global economic meltdown.  When terminally ill patients are sent home from hospital or children are sent home from school with a long shopping list of must haves, women can be trusted to take up the challenge and provide the kind of care and nurture that smoothens out the creases and challenges of living.

Women and the care economy took centre stage at the 53rd United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW) in early March this year where the theme revolved around the sharing of care responsibilities between women and men within families. It will feature prominently in Basel, Switzerland this week at the WIDE Annual Conference 2009 to discuss ‘Care Economy and Care Crisis’ from 18th-20th June.

Amongst several interventions suggested at the UNCSW were official recognition be given to the value of unpaid work in light of its implications for social and economic development; state investments for affordable and quality care of children, the sick, the elderly and persons with disability and family friendly policies and legislation. 

In Kenya last week, suffice it to say that other than allocating more money for free schooling, the promise of employing new teachers and at least 20 new nurses in every parliamentary constituency, Mr Kenyatta’s prescriptions serve to scratch on the surface of a gnawing problem that ignores the vast army of Kenyan women and girls who will continue carry the bulk of the country’s care burden into the new financial year without so much as an acknowledgment.

Back to my earlier story, I have been thinking deeply about all those energetic career and work-minded women (including myself) and all those selfless hard-working women who as a matter of course roll up their sleeves and get the job at hand done with or without community or government support to bring about a sense of sanity and normalcy in a rather chaotic world.

(The writer is the Editorial Director, African Woman and child Feature Services)


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