“Everyone is doing it in our daily lives, we just may not realize it,” chuckles Myrah Nerine Butt, a Policy Engagement Advisor at Oxfam International, when asked to define care work.
Care work ranges from domestic tasks such as taking care of children, older persons, sick family members and pets in the household, to activities like collecting firewood and water in rural areas. It accounts for half of total global work time; with women in the Asia-Pacific region dedicating an average of 11 hours per day to care work – four times more than men.
The superwoman myth
The persistent gender disparity and weight of care work responsibilities have become more evident during recent crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. Societal norms surrounding care work remain a significant challenge. “For example, just because women can give birth, there is a perception that she is naturally more capable of taking care of children. These norms can shift, and it is shifting around ageing populations and other kinds of care, but I do feel that the notion around childcare is still being perpetuated quite a bit in this region,” shares Myrah.
While some progress is being made in urban areas, women and girls in rural communities still face significant gender divides. Myrah highlights, “We see a generational cycle of burden as responsibilities shift between the women in the household. Younger girls often have to leave school prematurely in order to shoulder care work responsibilities, which in turn affects their employability and life chances in the longer term; further entrapping them in precarious situations.”
What doesn’t get measured, doesn’t get seen
Care work makes significant contributions to the well-being of families and communities, as well as economies in the region. Yet, it is often overlooked due to the lack of data. Gathering accurate information about how time is spent on care-related tasks remains a challenging, expensive exercise. Without such data, policies cannot effectively address the diverse paid and unpaid care needs in different areas.
The unpaid care work undertaken by women in Asia and the Pacific could add some $3.8 trillion to the economy if added into GDP measurements, according to conservative estimates by McKinsey. However, Myrah shares that “The problem with measuring and incorporating care into, let's say GDP calculations, is that care tasks on their own are very undervalued. For example, even if there is a cost associated with cooking that we might enumerate domestic workers with, that in itself is undervalued compared to another desk job.”
Valuing and investing in the care economy
Promoting a shift in norms and conversations is also key, underscores Myrah. By challenging stereotypes and acknowledging the diversity of care responsibilities, individuals can help bring about a more balanced care economy.
Myrah speaks at the Regional Forum on Care in ASEAN countries. (Photo credit: Oxfam/Vanida Souvannavong)
Myrah advocates for a comprehensive approach to address care imbalances, involving employers, governments and communities. She recognizes the importance of these shifts being facilitated at a higher level for a more significant impact.
In recent years, many countries in Asia and the Pacific have begun to take positive steps forward in addressing the issue of unpaid care work. Cambodia’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs has been formulating a comprehensive national action plan on care, integrating the care economy into national policy frameworks. The Philippines Commission on Women, in collaboration with ESCAP and other partners, organized a national care consultation to formulate practical actions as well as worked on developing policies on the care economy. Meanwhile, the ASEAN Committee on Women has also convened several high-level discussions and forums dedicated to care work.
Challenging stereotypes and societal norms related to both unpaid and paid care work may be an uphill task, but it is a necessary one to ensure a more inclusive, equitable and sustainable future ahead.