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What’s the link between human rights and cooking, cleaning and caring and why does it matter?

October 7, 2013
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Thalia Kidder, Oxfam’s Senior Adviser on Women’s Economic Rights, welcomes a new UN report that links unpaid care work, poverty, inequality and women’s rightsThaliaKidder

People working on violations of human rights often find it a stretch to put housework, childcare and fetching water and fuelwood alongside evictions from ancestral lands, rape or unjustly emprisoning and torturing activists.

Likewise, for those of us talking about care work as an obstacle to women benefitting from local development projects, Human Rights Conventions seem rather distant and irrelevant.  A Nigerian colleague commented that it was difficult to talk to women in villages about carrying water as a human rights violation when there’s no school, no decent work, widespread violence, and “women think the government is doing them a favour if they get any services at all”.

So a big welcome for a new UN report by Magdalena Sepulveda, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, which starts with an unequivocal statement. “Unpaid care work [is] a major human rights issue.” On women caregivers living in poverty, she adds “heavy and unequal care responsibilities are a major barrier…to women’s enjoyment of human rights, and in many cases, condemn women to poverty.”  She’s presenting the report at the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly, and today at the Mary Ward House in London.

Sepulveda and her researcher Kate Donald have clearly read a lot in the last four months, and they bring together a mountain of evidence; all that housework is overwhelming and is unequal. Women and girls do 71% of water collection in sub-Saharan Africa, and spend 40 billion hours a year collecting water, equivalent to a year’s worth of France’s workforce (UNDP 2009). In DRC women with traditional stoves worked up to 52 hours more per week (collecting fuel and cooking time) than if they had a fuel efficient stove (André Bourque; Oxfam 2011).

care economyNext, there is a lot of evidence to show how the arduousness of doing all this care work without services and inequality by gender, race, class etc does indeed violate human rights. These violations include rights to education, decent work, social security and health (79% of unpaid carers in Scotland experience mental ill-health as a result of caring – Scottish Human Rights Commission 2012). And perhaps less obviously, the ‘right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress’, the ’right to participation’, and the ‘right to rest and leisure’.

As always, the question arises, ‘so what?’. One of the big pluses of the human rights framework is that states have the obligation to do something about massive violations. Sepulveda lists some of the measures required – physical infrastructure, services,taxes, schools and employment, non-discrimination in laws and policies, and “assessing the impact of economic and social policies on the intensity and distribution of unpaid care work in the household.” (p. 39).

And here is where (for a development staffer) the message went beyond the elite world of human rights lawyers and conventions. As I read on, it became clear that if society recognised  unpaid care work as work – valuable work, significant work, a major occupation – then our policies would be very different. Our government budgets would be different, and our strategies for development would be different.

In case that all sounds a bit vague, the Report fleshes it out with some concrete suggestions: low-cost electricity, solar and water energy for domestic pic30195purposes, extended school day programmes, high-quality childcare, palliative care; tax systems that promote equal sharing of both paid and unpaid care between women and men; facilitating, incentivizing and supporting men’s caring including equal rights to employment leave as parents; equality in labour laws covering the the length of the working day, social security and leave time, including for part-time, atypical and informally employed workers.

Sepulveda criticises processes that often “lack[s] women’s perspective in policy-making on agriculture, water and food management” (p. 29); policy-making is misinformed as those doing intensive caring aren’t present. Actors should “invest in development and distribution of affordable technology to reduce the intensity and duration of women’s work” (p. 27). Oxfam’s Rapid Care Analysis in agriculture has likewise prompted inclusion of childcare services, water, stoves and ‘awareness raising with men’ as part of good enterprise development strategies, as well as for the health and leadership of women.

So the report is worth reading even if you’re not a human rights lawyer, and either way, perhaps it’ll change a few minds about the wider significance of carrying water, cooking and taking care of the kids.

A few links: Over the past two years ActionAid has been implementing a programme on unpaid care work in 10 countries across Africa and Asia.

30222WPics Yemen Abbie Trayler-SmithAs part of its work on women’s economic leadership, Oxfam’s agricultural markets programmes have addressed care work (see this video of Azeri women farmers).  Oxfam’s Rapid Care Analysis, designed to integrate easily into existing tools on livelihoods, food security or vulnerability, shows how care impacts on women’s time, health or mobility, and identifies practical interventions and advocacy to reduce and redistribute care.

IDS is leading a research and advocacy programme on unpaid care that explores the political economy conditions under which policy actors either recognise or ignore the significance of unpaid care in 6 countries (Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nepal, Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya). Having conducted a major review of over 250 social protection and early childhood development policies in 144 countries, IDS has released this 4 minute animation outlining their main messages on the links between policy and the rights of care providers.


  1. This video helps us see the cultural mindset of unpaid women’s work being a cultural norm then shows how it clearly prevents access to better paid jobs and prevents upward mobility. Short, succinct and eye-opening! THANK YOU for raising our awareness!

  2. Thanks for this blog, Thalia and for creating space for this important topic, Duncan. I especially will love to see more thinking and sharing of approaches to “incentivizing and supporting men’s caring including equal rights to employment leave as parents” in the future.

  3. interesting thoughts about policies reflecting an ideology that unpaid work is true work. There’s no doubt that women in Africa work far more arduously than most North American women in collecting water, cleaning, etc. Much to chew on here.

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