What Does ‘Care’ Have to Do with Sustainable Development?

Tara Cookson is a Gates Scholar and doctoral student at the University of Cambridge, where she researches the gendered impacts of current social policy initiatives in Latin America. She has worked for non-governmental organizations focusing on women’s rights and improvement of living conditions in both Latin America and Canada.

Flipping through the newspaper pages—whether Canada’s Globe and Mail, Mexico’s La Jornada, or The Times of India—my attention is invariably piqued by stories of struggle: struggle to maintain a household, to care for children, to cover medical costs. Unemployment is at a high and the gap between rich and poor is widening. In the name of austerity, governments continue to make cuts in education, healthcare, women’s centers and foreign aid—all part and parcel of helping the economy get back on track. These stories are not specific to ‘developing’ countries—they take place in Europe, Canada and the USA. People throughout the world are finding it increasingly difficult to meet their basic needs as household poverty becomes ever more widespread and tangible, even among the middle classes.

Solutions to poverty, economic crisis and development tend to be discussed in terms of individual or household responsibility, analyzed and acted upon in strictly economic terms. These approaches and ways of thinking all have serious material and social consequences—particularly for women, whose contributions to economic development and strategies for survival via care work generally go unremarked. Reading the news, it is tempting to let my eyes glaze over, succumbing to frustration with the manner in which these stories are told and the ways in which they make (gendered) exclusions.

Instead of plodding along the same well-worn path, or tossing the paper away in exasperation, I suggest thinking about what could come of taking a fresh—and more inclusive—perspective. What if the lens through which we viewed these stories and thought about solutions focused on gender and prompted questions about women?

UN Women Executive Director and former President of Chile Michele Bachelet recently spoke at an event titled “Rural Women and Sustainable Development” during the 56th session of the Commission on the Status of Women. She pointed out the vital role that rural women play in managing natural resources (for example, by preventing soil erosion and water supply degradation) in the face of all the implications of climate change—with the care of their families and the sustenance of their communities in mind.

In other words, by caring for the environment in order to care for those around them, rural women play a crucial role in ensuring community survival.

Bachelet doesn’t stop there, however. She also points out the many gendered social and material barriers that women face in their daily lives, including unequal access to education, healthcare, and technology. In this context of limited opportunity and support, the fulfillment of care work is made much more difficult. Bachelet rightly posits that gender-based discrimination not only impacts women’s own livelihoods, but also the prospects for the communities in which they live.

Bachelet is certainly not the first to make the connection between gender and sustainable development—indeed, this is an area to which academics, policy makers, development organization workers and activists have contributed a substantial body of work. Like Bachelet, they have focused on the importance of addressing persistent gender inequality as part and parcel of a move towards sustainable development: women and girls must have access to the same rights and opportunities as men and boys. I wonder, however, how we might invigorate this discussion of women’s role in sustainable development, and indeed extend it—in light of the current economic climate, and to regions of the world we consider ‘developed.’

What if we looked at poverty, and our responses to it, in terms of care?

Care work (known by political economists as social reproduction), is the basic and essential work of reproducing and maintaining the human species. Among other tasks, it involves growing food, cooking, cleaning, collecting water, gathering firewood, grocery shopping, feeding babies, providing emotional support, sewing clothes, educating children, nursing the sick and caring for the elderly. Care work may look different according to region and the resources available to fulfill it, but one thing is certain: it is crucial work not only to social well-being but also to the economy—the reproduction of a healthy, active labor force is dependent upon it.

Throughout the world, care work is overwhelmingly done by women, generally taking place in the household or community and volunteer centers. In the majority of cases, it is unpaid—a major point for consideration. According to the United Nations (UN), in most countries women work approximately twice the unpaid time men do. In fact, the value of women’s unpaid housework and community work has been estimated to be between 10-35 per cent of GDP worldwide, amounting to $11 trillion a year. The point here is not to suggest that all women work harder than all men, but rather to highlight that the under-valued nature of this highly feminized work has implications for women’s security and well-being.

When funding to public services such as hospitals, daycares and schools is cut, and when this is matched by high unemployment, the private services we depend on become increasingly inaccessible for the lowest income sectors of society. In such times of austerity—for example, during the period of economic crisis and structural adjustment in Latin America during the 80s—women have ‘picked up the slack’ and worked overtime, providing care for those who would otherwise slip through the cracks. This increased burden runs the risk of translating into female time poverty (less time for personal development and leisure) and increased mental and physical stress. In the current climate of economic austerity in Europe, the US and Canada, the same gendered patterns are beginning to emerge. In light of this understanding, what do economic and development policies that rely on unpaid care work say about how we value women?

Opportunities to engage in discussions about women and their roles in sustainable development, such as that with Michele Bachelet, are not hard to come by. The challenge lies in bringing fresh perspectives to a conversation that takes place within the context of a grim economic climate and increasing fiscal austerity. How can we think about poverty and development in a way that supports those members of society that do the overwhelming majority of caring labor? How do women—and the work that they do—fit into a framework of sustainable development that benefits all people equally? These considerations must be taken seriously if we are to work towards a model of development based on social inclusion and well-being across all lines of race, gender, class and geographical location. This is not a conversation to be limited to rural settings or to the Global South—care matters to all people, everywhere.