Care: a reflection on carework in the working middle classes


Friday, 10 December 2021


Fundación Alvaralice

By Lina Buchely – director of the Observatory for Women’s Equity

The pedagogical debates that have guided my teaching practice for 15 years suggest that experience is the most fertile scenario for learning. One tends to learn best in an environment that emulates or inserts participants into real situations. However, confinement caused by the pandemic has taught me a different, frightening lesson.

Feminist advocates have emphasized that the carework economy is a critical factor in the changing the world. If careworkers do not achieve more recognition, reduced workloads and wider distribution, women will continue experiencing inequality, especially in urban contexts. Data from the Observatory for Women’s Equity (OEM) showed that in 2020, women in Cali worked three hours a day more than their male peers in unpaid carework activities. Also, women slept two hours less than men, leisure time was almost nonexistent, and the burden of care was a direct cause of the low insertion rate of women into the workforce. Additionally, women participated less in public and political decision-making processes, while stereotypes associated with carework kept management positions out of their reach. Caregiving has a direct and indirect impact on women’s lives.

When mandatory confinement was decreed in March 2020, several cities in Colombia were working on the definition of differential public policies that would take the duty of care out of the home and address it collectively: in Bogotá, the Manzanas del cuidado (care blocks) were identifying the supply and demand of carework to give women a place to leave their children; in Cali, characterizations of the demand and supply of carework were beginning in order to design a district care system; in Medellín, the Mesa de Economía Feminista and the Mesa Intersectorial de Economía del Cuidado (Intersectoral Care Economy Roundtable) were continuing their work to identify the supply and demand of care to give women a place to leave their children;. We were enabling the debate on how to make care a public issue. And in this, the Municipal administrations were taking the lead vis-à-vis the national administration.

After the decree of confinement, I came to think that transformation would begin, that experience would lead to reflection and reflection to change. However, it did not happen. The asymmetrical practices of care continued unchanged. Meanwhile, the DANE’s National Time Use Survey, designed to measure the contribution of women in unpaid care to the national GDP in a satellite account – since the GDP excludes domestic activities as a source of wealth – is carried out every four years claiming that “the structures of care move little”. This indicates that men and women do little to negotiate how much responsibility we will assume and, systematically, this falls on women’s shoulders.

The apocalyptic experience seemed to be transformative. These families locked in their homes would have to negotiate the work of care, and in this negotiation, there would be a necessary revolution in social structures: the experience would show the oppression of cleaning, we would stop cleaning everything for everyone or only having moral bonuses when doing housework. Parallel to this, men would understand that domestic distribution is inequitable and would begin to do the activities that prevent their partners from resting, sleeping or having time for self-care.

None of this happened. The experience showed that the inertia of inequalities is stronger than the hope of transformation. COVID-19, instead of making us less neurotic about cleanliness, increased our hygiene habits relative to biosanitary protocols, and this “new care” also fell disproportionately on women. A survey done by the OEM, at the first peak of the pandemic, indicated that the tasks associated with unpaid care work increased by one hour per day for Cali women. And it is important to talk about this for three reasons:

First, care is central to debates on gender equity and development. It is on the agenda of organizations such as ECLAC and others that evaluate the limits of the current production model, since it is connected to diverse and sustainable forms of production. It is worth noting that the alternative measurement of domestic work in GDP indicates that, if it were included in the orthodox measurement of GDP, it would contribute more than trade and industry.

Second, carework tremendously affects women’s daily lives. The carework deficit enables labor flows where poor women from poor countries take care of children of rich old men from rich countries, freeing up time for other women who pay for care to gain autonomy. It also happens in cities, for as I write this, gardeners give my son pleasure by upkeeping large green areas, while their children are in less comfortable spaces, in less safe neighborhoods, in less green areas. The burden of care reproduces privileges and disadvantages unequally.

Third, the carework structure was not transformed and the pandemic did not rethink the gender patterns that limit our possibilities of existence. It is urgent to mobilize to make this reality visible, we need transversal care policies that improve the lives of women because the pandemic, unfortunately, does not seem to have transformed us.

There is much to be done; state and civil society actions to address the problem are varied: policies that reconcile productive and reproductive work in organizations, incorporating labor flexibility, work at home or care areas at work; pension bonds or conditional cash transfers that give money to women to subcontract care and enter training processes; public provision of specialized care networks in Barcelona, or the introduction of technologies that reduce the intensity of domestic work in Colombia, such as washing machines for women in popular sectors.

It is essential to make visible, recognize and redistribute unpaid carework. For this, I envision three paths: first, to generate non-hegemonic, non-aggressive and caring masculinities, which is important in cities like Cali where men are minimally involved in domestic and carework activities. Second, to build organizations that are sensitive to the burden of carework and understand that such burden is connected to a lower participation of women in the public deliberation, pedagogical or the productive world. For the OEM, where I work, it has been powerful to discover that when we offer support with childcare in training processes, women participate more and drop out less. Third, I consider it useful for civil society organizations to strengthen care networks in the territories where they interact. Interestingly, research on carework in Cali shows how women spontaneously create carework chains: neighbors take care of the children on the block from their windows, community mothers take care of the children in their neighborhood, friends alternate schedules to take care of their children. These organic ways of distributing care have much to teach us in order to achieve what this text proposes. Motherhood cannot be individual or solitary. It is necessary to build non-hegemonic schemes of care distribution, collective schemes of maternity care, and a public awareness that our well-being is everyone’s responsibility.

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