Why caregiving needs to be 'de-feminised'

How the caregiver role disproportionately burdens women

Anil Patil

Entrenched stereotypes insist that men are breadwinners whilst women are homemakers and caregivers. According to the OECD, these stereotypes are present today in reality, with women across the world spending up to ten times more time on unpaid care work than men. If a member of a family becomes ill or has a disability, the commonly adopted attitude is that the main caregiver should be a female member of the family. Our research shows that, in India and Nepal, 84% of family caregivers are female. As our work expands, we expect that number to rise to as much as 90%.

The role of caregiver, predominately assumed by women, contributes to inequalities between the genders, with women having fewer opportunities to attain their basic level of human rights in comparison to their male counterparts. Women from poorer societies are affected more than those from developed areas as they tend to have higher hours of unpaid caregiving. The effect caregiving has on women accessing their rights can be seen in the following examples: 

Education

Having responsibilities within the household, including the duty of caregiving, means girls may have less time to study, network, and socialise with peers during their younger years. Whilst boys of the same age can devote more of their attention to their education, girls often find that juggling an education with duties at home means their academic progress is hindered. In the most extreme circumstances, young women who are required to perform round-the-clock caregiving duties have no choice but to leave the education system altogether.

Employment and Financial Security

Caregiving for a family member is an unpaid role. Women who cannot work as a result of their caregiving duties face financial hardships, and often depend on male family members to earn an income that can support the household. This situation contributes to the opinion that women are “second-class citizens” and widens the gap in gender inequality as women are unable to be independent. For the women who are able to find income-earning opportunities that fit around their caregiving responsibilities, the United Nations General Assembly states that such roles are more likely to be in “low-waged, precarious, unprotected employment, in hazardous or unhealthy conditions with high risk to health and well-being.”

Participation in social sphere

Excessive home responsibilities and caregiving duties means women are less likely to have time to participate in the public sphere than men. The lack of female representation in public policy-making means the needs of women are less likely to be taken into account when decisions are being made. According to the United Nations General Assembly, unpaid care work is intensified in communities that have access to limited or low quality public services. It can be assumed that as the women performing unpaid care work cannot be active within the social sphere, there is no demand for spending to be increased in public services; as a result, women have to continue to perform their role without their needs being accounted for.  

To reduce the gender inequality caused by caregiving and household responsibilities, it is necessary for states to acknowledge that caregiving is an integral requirement for a healthy society. States must take measures that enable caregivers to be financially independent and participate in the public sphere.  Besides these measures, the caregiver role must be “de-feminised:” men and women must be encouraged to divide caregiving responsibilities, therefore bridging the inequality experienced between the genders.

Dr Anil Patil is the founder and executive director of Carers Worldwide. Carers Worldwide highlights and tackles issues faced by unpaid family caregivers. Established in 2012 and registered in the UK, it works exclusively with caregivers in developing countries. Dr Patil co-authors this column with Ruth Patil, who volunteers with Carers Worldwide.For more information you can log on to Carers Worldwide.You can write to the authors at columns@whiteswanfoundation.org.