Eighty percent. This is the share of unpaid caregiving done by women in Asia and the Pacific. This is not just unequal, it’s the most unequal in the world.
Women in Asia and the Pacific have historically worked the world’s longest hours, and more than half that time is spent providing unpaid care. School closures and lockdowns during the pandemic increased the demand for unpaid care of children, elderly parents, and persons with disabilities, forcing many women to leave the paid workforce or significantly reduce their hours. The result: worsening educational, health, and community outcomes.
Girls who have been pulled from school to provide care often never return. Excessive care work can be unhealthy for caregivers, many of whom lack the time to seek adequate healthcare for themselves. A spike in gender-based violence has had a pernicious and wide-ranging impact on women’s physical and mental health, employment, and family and community well-being. We are now seeing a reversal of decades of hard-won progress toward gender equality.
Countries across Asia and the Pacific are confronting a crisis in childcare and a growing demand for eldereldercare and disability care. Yet paid care workers earn persistently lower wages and enjoy fewer benefits than other workers. Most have little bargaining power to secure their rights. Gender norms that treat care work as the domain of women perpetuate inequalities and undermine gender equality in work, society, and the home. Care-related labor migration is accelerating as women from disadvantaged backgrounds are drawn into precarious and poorly paid employment in the sector.
Yet, the care economy is a cornerstone of economic and social life. It must be transformed to create a paid workforce in which fair wages for decent work and equal access to social protections and fundamental rights are provided to all workers, including migrant workers, private-sector care workers, and those in the informal sector.
In mid-November, on the eve of the G20 Summit, 70 government leaders, policymakers, researchers, private-sector representatives, and civil society activists will gather in Bali, Indonesia, for the Bali Care Economy Dialogue. This dialogue is intended to galvanize attention and develop a regional agenda to meet the critical need for a resilient care-work ecosystem in Asia and the Pacific. The Asia Foundation and its core partners, the Center for Global Development, Oxfam Canada, the WeProsper Coalition, UN Women, the Global Alliance for Care, and the International Development Research Centre, have crafted a dynamic agenda for this invitation-only event. Key partners in the Asia-Pacific are helping to lead this effort, including the Self-Employed Women’s Association, Mobile Creches, the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement, the Gender Lab, and the Pacific Disability Forum.
To help inform the discussion, The Asia Foundation is conducting a study of the care economy in Asia and the Pacific, particularly focusing on the care workforce. This research will provide the basis for a forthcoming white paper, Toward a Resilient Ecosystem in Asia and the Pacific: Promising Practices, Lessons Learned, and Pathways for Action for Decent Care Work. The research is looking at paid versus unpaid care, care workers in both formal and informal employment, challenges and opportunities related to care-related financing and infrastructure, and the implications of climate change, migration, conflict, and gender-based violence for the care workforce.
The study will assess the effectiveness of different care-related policy interventions across Asia and the Pacific, highlighting the role of technology, labor standards, private-sector investment, women’s associations, community-based models, and flexible work policies. It seeks to better understand how governments should finance and coordinate care work, and how they can collaborate with families and households, civil society, and the private sector to meet society’s care needs and ensure decent work for care providers.
The research also explores how technology can be a game-changer in the care economy. In Vietnam, for instance, The Asia Foundation and its partners are working with blockchain technology to support the needs of maids and other domestic workers. The technology gives workers a digital identity that includes their employment records, allowing them to obtain travel visas, bank accounts, health and education services, and greater bargaining power in the labor marketplace. So far, over 1,400 workers have been trained to use this technology in Vietnam.
Another example of care technology is the Japanese government’s use of robots for eldercare. These robots are designed to augment the role of care workers by reducing their workload and creating better working conditions. These robots can provide services like mimicking therapy animals to reduce feelings of loneliness and disconnection among those needing care.
Here it is crucial to understand that the people giving and receiving care are not homogeneous, a point underscored in the study. Policy solutions must be sensitive to people’s identities. Changing the normative environment of the care economy will also be necessary for lasting change. The pervasive influence of gender norms on caregiving, the outsized influence of filial piety in the region, and the resurgence of traditional roles during the pandemic have contributed to the growing inequity in the care economy.
Governments must play a leadership role to redress the customary delegation of care responsibilities to households and families, where women typically bear the burden. Governments should also work with communities and the private sector to encourage care entrepreneurship. In Ahmedabad, India, for example, the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) launched the Sangini Child Care Workers’ Cooperative in 1986. Today, the cooperative runs 11 childcare centers for 350–400 children age six and under.
Equally important is to interrogate patterns of investment in the care economy. For instance, in Asia and the Pacific, there has been much support for childcare, growing support for eldercare, but limited support or investment in disability care.
Countries emerging from the pandemic in Asia and the Pacific have reached an inflection point where they must address the critical gaps in care and the needs of care workers to build a human-centered care economy. Strong care ecosystems are prerequisites for inclusive economic growth. New agendas, advocacy, and policy changes are needed at the regional and national level to build political will and achieve durable reforms.
As governments have begun to respond, many valuable lessons have already been learned, including the need for coordination across sectors and investment in research to build the evidence base for effective policymaking and programs. This is especially needed in the Pacific. Also vital are skills training for care workers, engaging men and boys to transform harmful gender norms, a focus on care in social protection services, and funding for community-led innovations.
The Bali Care Economy Dialogue is a starting point for more collaboration and action across the region. The momentum is building for commitments to build a robust care ecosystem in Asia and the Pacific.
Jane Sloane is senior director of The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality Program (WEP). Ankita Panda is a program advisor and Kate Francis and Eileen Pennington are both senior gender advisors with WEP. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, and email@example.com, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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