A timely report on fatherhood and caregiving

‘Caregiving is not a male thing or a female thing. It is a human thing’, said Gary Barker at the launch of the first ever State of the World’s Fathers report in New York earlier this week. It was 1:30am in New Delhi on Wednesday 17 June and I was livestreaming the NYC launch from my phone. Extremely jetlagged, having just arrived earlier that day, sleep was the last thing on my mind as I listened on and felt hopeful about the positive signs for change being signalled by the launch of this timely report.

The State of the World’s Fathers report is said to be the first of its kind, presenting ‘what is known – and what we still need to know – about men’s caregiving and fatherhood.’ At a time when unpaid care work is increasingly gaining visibility in development policy and planning a specific goal, 5.4, on unpaid care work being proposed in the Sustainable Development Goals – as well as by some governments and even amongst employers, this report advocates for involving men and boys in caregiving as part of the solution to achieving gender equality and positive outcomes in the lives of women, children, and men themselves.

I first found out about the State of the World’s Fathers report in March this year when I was invited to join the expert review panel for the report. As part of this panel, I reviewed a chapter on caregiving, time-use, and policies related to parental leave. This was where I got the first taste of this new report that highlights data, policies, programmes and research related to men’s participation in caregiving and fatherhood. The chapter, ‘Walking the Talk: Fathers and Unpaid Care Work in the Home’, recognised that while in some settings, men’s involvement in caregiving is increasing in some parts of the world, there is still no country in the world where men and women share unpaid care work equally. It states that women – most of them mothers – now make up 40 per cent of the global formal workforce, yet they also continue to perform two to 10 times more caregiving and domestic work than men do.

A Timely Report

Since 2012, the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) has been exploring the political economy conditions under which policy actors recognise or ignore the significance of unpaid care work – where, why, when and how unpaid care concerns become more visible on national and international policy agendas. We wanted to understand why, in spite of the large and robust body of evidence, particularly from feminist economists, about the extent of unpaid care work that women and girls do, and its contributions to both the economy and human development outcomes, there is still a reluctance to engage with care issues, and specifically to use the evidence to inform public policy. We argued that making care visible in public policy would include: recognising care, reducing the drudgery and time burden associated with this; and redistributing it from women to men, and from families to the state.

One of the very first outputs of the programme was a thematic literature review we conducted, identifying cases of successful policies around social protection and early childhood development in 144 low and middle income countries. The main findings of the research point to significant invisibility of unpaid care concerns in public policy in the two sectors examined, with a very small proportion of policies – 23 out of 107 social protection and 41 out of 270 ECD policies – expressing an intent to address unpaid care concerns; and among those that did recognise care, the main focus was on redistributing care responsibilities from the family to the state (to allow women to enter into paid work). 

MenCare logoToo few efforts have been made to redistribute care more equally between men and women, and our research was also able to identify a small number of policies (16) in the ECD sector that acknowledge men’s role as fathers and caregivers by encouraging greater participation by men in family life and redistributing unpaid care work from women to men. For example, the community nurseries in Chile’s Crece Contigo and Ecuador’s Creciendo con Nuestros Hijos both have an 'active fatherhood' component, aiming to achieve better conditions for children’s development.

A more proactive policy involving men and fathers is the Basic Services Programme for the Andean Sub-region (PROANDES) – targeting the poorest areas of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela – which includes participation of men in parenting classes, where they are also sensitised about the rights of women and children. The most progressive of these policies was in Ukraine, where ‘Papa-Schools’ focused on capacity development and increased roles of fathers in early child development, with an overall objective of changing stereotyped gender roles and helping men to achieve greater co-operation (in the private and professional spheres) with women. In the social protection sector we found no intent to redistribute unpaid care work from women to men (within families).

With one of our policy asks having always been the redistribution of care work from women to men, this report helps us to begin a conversation – from the perspective of engaging men and boys – on the ways in which policy makers can, and should, recognise the need for effective public policy that is supportive of men’s involvement in unpaid care work in order to achieve greater gender equality. The report enables this by reviewing the international research and data on men’s participation in caregiving; discussing the importance of men’s equal participation in care (care of children, of family members with special needs, of elderly or ill family members) and domestic work in their households; and reviewing policies to promote men’s and boys’ engagement in caregiving and involved fatherhood.

But achieving gender equality is not only about men and boys participating equally in unpaid care work in the home, as the report highlights – ‘unless governments, employers, and families expect and support this involvement, gender equality will not be achieved.’ The important role of the State in redistributing care from poor families to the State has also been one of the key policy asks of IDS’ unpaid care work programme, so it is great that the report also highlights the significance of changing policies – employment and livelihood policies; childcare, tax, and benefits systems; and health, education, and social services – that are substantial barriers to equitable sharing of care.

Father and childHaving said all that, the report still takes on, in some cases, an instrumental approach towards women’s economic empowerment as revealed in one of their key points that ‘men’s greater involvement in care work also brings economic benefits. It argues that if more women participated in the labour market at the same rates as men do, the gross domestic product (GDP) could increase ‘in the United States by 5 percent, in Japan by 9 percent, in the United Arab Emirates by 12 percent, and in Egypt by 34 percent.’ It also provides increasing evidence that providing paid family leave is good for business – improving employee retention and reducing turnover, increasing productivity and morale, and reducing absenteeism and training costs.

This does not change the fact that this report begins to provide a roadmap as to how men can take a more active role in caregiving and how the State and employers can help towards that. While there is still a long way to go to achieve gender equality in terms of care and domestic work, with the London launch of the State of the World’s Fathers Report also taking place on 18 June, this week in June will be remembered as a significant period for anyone interested in fatherhood, in unpaid care work, in women’s economic empowerment and in gender justice.