Unpaid care and the Sustainable Development Goals

UPDATE: Which of the final global goals are relevant to unpaid care?

All eyes are on 2015 as a pivotal year for the international development community. How are things looking for women’s equality in unpaid care work?

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have shaped the international development agenda since they were officially established in the year 2000, following the Millennium Summit of the United Nations. The eight target Goals cover development issues such as poverty, education and health.

However, there was one topic, not explicitly mentioned in the MDG list which many feminists feel is key for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls: unpaid care work. With this in mind, there has been a coordinated global effort to get unpaid care represented in the universally applicable Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), intended to build on the MDGs when they expire at the end of 2015.

In July 2014, an Open Working Group tasked with preparing a proposal on the SDGs, presented its final report containing a set of 17 Goals and 169 targets. These are due to be finalised in the second half of 2015.

Care work as central to development

Women washing in Bangalore CityUnpaid care work can include domestic activities such as cooking, housework and collecting fuel; direct care of people such as children or older people; and other work inside the household or the wider the community. It is often unrecognised and undervalued in policy and legislation.

According to the World Bank, women are responsible for 60 to 80 per cent of all house and care work and 58 per cent of unpaid work in general.

'Unpaid care work underpins and underlies all of development progress,' says Deepta Chopra, a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS). 'It's disproportionately distributed towards women and girls which then restricts their freedom and participation in social and economic life, affects their health negatively and keeps them in this cycle of low income and high poverty.'

Although unpaid care is a global issue, it has the most impact on those living in poverty – women who are less likely to have access to public services and afford private services or technology to make their lives easier.

The international agenda and the SDGs

Unpaid care has gained a little visibility in international policy over recent years. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which came out of the 1995 World Conference on Women specifically references it and more recently, in 2013, a report from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona helped propel the issue further into the minds of the international development community. The report analysed the relationship between unpaid care and poverty, and that it is a barrier to women’s equal enjoyment of human rights.

IDS, along with ActionAid International, OxfamGB and APWLD, have been exploring the global political, economic and social conditions under which policy actors recognise or ignore the significance of unpaid care, and helping to advocate for unpaid care work to be part of the SDGs. National activities as part of this work have ranged from opening child care centres to working with national governments and making care visible through the media.

In May 2013, researchers from IDS participated in the expert meeting of the UN Special Rapporteur to share learning about what is working to raise the visibility of care on development policy agendas. 

IDS has also co-hosted three international workshops on unpaid care, with the most recent being in Bangkok, Thailand from 22-23 January 2015. The event identified opportunities to link national and global policy agendas in order to recognise, reduce and redistribute care (both paid and unpaid work).

At present, Goal 5 in the proposed SDGs focuses on gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls with one of the targets being on unpaid care.

The participants at the Bangkok Global Advocacy Workshop highlighted the need for more specific language in the SDGs which is explicit about the redistribution on care work from poor families to the State.

Drawings of women in unpaid care roles - Workshop report cover. Image by Mae Watanabe

This language is echoed by the Gender and Development Network (GADN) who have recommend the wording be changed to: 'by 2030, recognize, reduce and redistribute unpaid domestic and care work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection, and the promotion of shared responsibility between men and women.'

The Thailand workshop suggested that creative and progressive indicators could be one way to make these broader targets more specific, as well as bringing more of a rights-based approach into the language of the goal.

Ingrained gender norms are a particular challenge when advocating for shared responsibility and wider recognition of unpaid care. 'It's probably one of the most universal inequalities between men and women therefore it’s harder for people to see that it’s wrong,' says Jessica Woodroffe, Director of GADN.

'If I hear one more man saying “but I wash the dishes”... when you talk to male decision makers about it they relate it back to themselves and somehow therefore it becomes a more trivial issue.'

'There needs to be a balance between women's paid work, women's unpaid work and women's leisure,’ says Chopra. 'Economic empowerment is not just about women's participation in the labour market but participation in a way which takes into account their unpaid care work responsibilities which is decent, well paid and which means flexible working hours and a choice of locations.'

For Woodroffe, choice is also key: 'I think that there are a lot of people who actually want to do their own child care and it's not right that they should be excluded from political processes or economic opportunities.'

Anweshaa Ghosh, Research Associate of the Institute of Social Studies Trust in India explains the issues feminists there have had in getting unpaid work recognised when it comes to domestic workers. 'One knows that it is a highly feminized form of labour and it has a strong link to care work, undervaluation of women’s work, the double burden for the worker. However, labour groups in India, which are male-dominated have only recently began to consider domestic work to be an important form of labour which needs organisation.'

Next Steps

International statements and agreements, such as the SDGs, have the potential to make care visible at both national and international levels.

'For countries such as India which looks at itself as an important member in world affairs, this also becomes an egotistical issue,' says Ghosh. 'The fear of being shamed at international level for poor indicators definitely works as an important push for policy makers and governments.'

Woodroffe thinks that the political recognition is vital: 'I was really pleased and surprised that it was in there [the proposed SDGs] and although it may not be exactly how we would like it to be, I think having it there as a target is one of the ways to start getting that recognition.

'It's really worth advocating over the next six months for it to stay in there and yes, that’s not going to change women's lives on its own but it's a really big piece of the puzzle.'