Care: A Human Right

Lack of recognition of care work, usually done by women, is an obstacle for full enjoyment of social and economic rights
© ActionAid

Recognising care as a human right is the key to “unleashing” the economic potential of women, but also the battlefield of a radical change in society. The majority of care work such as cleaning, cooking, and caring for children or elderly, is performed by women and girls.  A report in all 5 UN official languages on extreme poverty and human rights by the Special Rapporteur, Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona, has positioned the care economy as a matter of utmost importance to human rights, in particular care work that is carried out for free or unpaid by family members. As early as 1869 John Stuart Mill indicated that the subjugation of women came from the tasks assigned to them and that in order for a woman to maintain her dignity, the ability to earn their own money was essential.

However, the fact that one of the basic building blocks of society, the care work that women do, is unpaid, has not always been recognized nor taken into consideration in making economic planning, forecasting or budgeting. Unpaid care work is invisible in situations of post conflict and during conflicts where women bear the brunt of keeping their families and communities together They are seldom included in peace talks and decision making in reconstruction and restitution efforts in spite of being left to deal with painful situations of unwanted pregnancies due to systematic rape or unable to reclaim land or other resources due to unjust legislation or cultural norms.

The report on extreme poverty also claims that public policies should place the issue of care as a social and collective responsibility and recognize the rights of both the caregivers and the persons to whom they give care. Oxfam has been advocating for some time about tax justice, and in particular gender equitable fiscal policy, highlighting the consequences of tax dodging on essential services that unsurprisingly increase the burden on carers.Needless to say that the recent international investigation into billions of dollars of tax evasion (the Panama Papers scandal) has had a direct impact on care work as it has reduced the ability of governments to spend on services that could decrease the amount of unpaid work that women do (kindergartens, elderly care, care for disabled and sick persons). On the one hand, all humans have the right to be taken care of, but at the same time,  carers have rights too, and they are usually overlooked.

In spite of calls, initiatives and solid policies in some countries to encourage the sharing of this unpaid work with men, most recently increasing activism for shared parental leaves, often face opposition from employers and governments that mainly cite economic arguments against it. Development of shared responsibility in the care of dependent persons (children and adults), while recognized in some countries as a right that governments must finance, also faces stiff budgetary balance discourses.

To counter these conservative economic arguments, feminist economists and women’s rights activists have spent many years building up the evidence that shows that women’s assigned roles and tasks regarding care for others in society reduces economic growth and productivity and increases poverty through women’s reduced participation in the economy. In addition, the unrecognised and unaccounted for contribution of unpaid work has been calculated to run into billions of dollars annually. From grandmothers caring for those affected by HIV/AIDS in Africa to soccer moms in the US and professional women facing the glass ceiling in developed and emerging economies, women worldwide see not only their economic rights reduced and violated, but also their voice and participation diminished in all decision making bodies (private and public) due to the stereotypes and direct discrimination stemming from their assigned role as carers.

Last but not least are the rights of millions of women, mostly migrant women (internal and external), that take up paid care work under ghastly working conditions that include very low or no pay and in some instances infrahuman treatment. Rights of carers not only include unpaid family carers, but also domestic workers without whom more educated women could not possibly balance work and family life. In Latin America alone, it is estimated that domestic workers make up the largest occupational group among women (14 out of 100 working women on average). This fact reveals the great public demand for care that cannot continue to be individually covered by women themselves or households. The victory of domestic workers that lobbied and succeeded in the adoption of the international convention by the ILO recognising their rights to fair pay and conditions, and inclusion in social protection systems is slowly reverting the situation.

In spite of efforts by governments since 1995 to make gender equality a reality for humanity through the adoption of the the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, little progress has been made at the level of policy formulation and implementation in the area of full recognition of both paid and unpaid care work mostly done by women. The Special Rapporteur’s report cannot be more explicit of the consequences for millions of women across the globe:

“poverty is their reward for a lifetime spent caring, and unpaid care provision by women and girls is still treated as an infinite, cost-free resource that fills the gaps when public services are not available or accessible”.

Read more about making care visible here

GenderHuman RightsTopics
Elizabeth Villagómez

Elizabeth Villagomez, independent researcher and consultant, has been the Adviser for Economic Empowerment of Women UN Regional Office for the Americas and the Caribbean and was the first economic adviser at the institution in 2001 as part of UNIFEM. She holds a PhD in Economics. Her professional activity has developed in teaching and applied research in economics with a focus on gender issues. She has worked in Eastern and South East Europe, Middle East, Central Asia, South-east Asia, and the Pacific Islands for various UN agencies and other European and international organizations.
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