Who cares?


Joint OP-ED by: Patricia Fernández-Pacheco, and Numan Özcan

Who cares?

About the authors

Photo: UN Women/Catalina Forero

Patricia Fernández-Pacheco is the Country Representative for UN Women Nepal. Photo: UN Women/Catalina Forero

Photo: ILO/Mahesh Pradhan

Numan Özcan is the Director of International Labor Organization (ILO) in Nepal. Photo: ILO/Mahesh Pradhan

Originally published by Kantipur Daily Newspaper in Nepali language.

Building on its commitment to equality and inclusion in its legal and constitutional provisions, Nepal can create decent employment for women and increase their labour market participation with increased public investment in the care sector.

Claudia Goldin recently bagged the Nobel Prize in Economic Science (October 2023) for her ground-breaking research uncovering key gender barriers in the labour market. Her research documents in-depth struggles across generations of women to balance career and family, and the need to make fundamental changes in how caregiving is valued in order to achieve gender equality.

According to the ILO, in Nepal, women carried out 85 per cent of daily unpaid care work, spending a total of 29 million hours a day (cumulatively) compared to 5 million hours spent by men. This is almost six times more than men, same is four times more in the Asia Pacific.. This disproportionate share of unpaid care responsibilities plunges Nepali women into a state of time poverty that curtails their involvement in education, political engagement, social activities and decent employment. Not only is unpaid care work a gendered process, naturalizing women as caregivers due to their reproductive role, but these contributions are invisible and unrecognized in our homes, and unaccounted for in national Gross Domestic Product (GDP). As such, we need to recognize the significance of the care sector in order to level the playing field for gender equality.

Understanding care work as an economic process

Care work encompasses the support provided to children, the elderly and those with disabilities or illnesses, forming the foundation of the ‘care economy’. This economy includes paid and unpaid activities, from direct care tasks like bathing and feeding to indirect responsibilities such as cooking and household management. It extends to paid roles in health care, social services and education, as well as unpaid domestic and community work. Feminist economists have denounced the inequitable distribution of unpaid care work and deemed it a root cause of gender inequalities. They argue that unpaid care and domestic work is as valuable as paid work and that measures of economic progress should include it. The gender-equitable distribution of care work is thus a critical component of economic justice and rights.

Engendering decent care work opportunities

Women with care responsibilities are often self-employed as contributing family workers, concentrated in the informal sector. This leaves them unprotected by labour laws and without access to social protection. Consequently, they’re more exposed to exploitative working conditions and more vulnerable to external crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. These challenges compound existing gender inequalities, both reflecting and perpetuating the intersectional marginalization of women from the economic benefits formal employment can provide.

Nepal’s 2017/18 National Labour Force Survey reveals that 39.7 per cent of inactive women cite “unpaid care work” as their primary reason for not participating in the labour force, versus a mere 4.6 per cent of men. This glaring gap is a major obstacle to Nepal’s ambition of inclusive growth and development and is likely to perpetuate generational gender-based inequalities.

The ILO’s “5R Framework for Decent Care Work” – to Reduce, Recognize, Redistribute unpaid care work and Reward care work, while ensuring the Representation of care workers – seeks to mitigate care-related inequalities, address barriers for women to enter paid work and improve the working conditions of all care workers. Furthermore, they give rights to care workers, in the form of voice and representation in social dialogue and collective bargaining to consider care as a public good. As per the ILO’s 2022 Care at Work report, care policies need to be in line with international labour standards, be country-specific and pursue a life-cycle approach. They can include a combination of time (leave), benefits (income security), rights and services to enable carers to care for those in need. Care policies can also be more impactful when they’re rights-based, universal and based on solidarity, representation and social dialogue.

Investing in the care economy

A Guide to Public Investments in Nepal’s Care Economy, posits that, given the labour intensity of care work, each dollar spent on the care sector can generate 2 to 3 times more jobs than the same dollar spent on other sectors, such as infrastructure and construction. This is because the dividends of investing in care services result in the creation of new employment opportunities in direct care services. Further, enhancing the quality and accessibility of care services can alleviate the time constraints women face in performing unpaid care work at home, thereby augmenting their productivity in the workplace. Directing investments towards the care economy – whether by expanding the workforce of teachers and health-care professionals, constructing more schools and hospitals, or instituting and enforcing comprehensive laws and insurance schemes in the caregiving sphere – will catalyse a robust, equitable, inclusive and sustainable pathway to economic growth. Investing in the care economy creates decent jobs, reduces gender and intersecting inequalities, improves well-being and enhances the development of human capital and capabilities.

Estimating the returns on investments in care

An upcoming collaborative study by UN Women, the ILO and the Institute for Integrated Development Studies, reveals that investing NPR 272 billion to address Nepal’s care coverage deficiencies – in education, to enroll all out-of-school students, including those under the age of 3, and achieve the target student-teacher ratio for all students (SDG 4), and in health care, to meet international targets (SDG 3) – would generate a total of 1.3 million jobs, both directly and indirectly. At least 60 per cent of these positions would be filled by women, a significant step towards narrowing the gender gap in employment. Further analysis of the economic returns reveals positive impacts on GDP and multiplier effects from investment, particularly in terms of job creation. This reinforces the imperative of prioritizing the care economy as a catalyst for gender parity, family well-being, job creation and prosperity in Nepal.

The Government of Nepal, in partnership with UN Women and the ILO, is making strides in the pursuit of decent employment in the care economy. However, this sector’s potential to provide quality care service and drive national economic growth requires more targeted efforts, stakeholder awareness and implementation of the 5R Framework for Decent Care Work. Investments in social infrastructure (including safe drinking water and alternative fuels) and policies tailored to women’s different needs are crucial to reduce time poverty and boost productivity. By prioritizing the care economy, Nepal will not only meet international labour standards but pave the way for transformative shifts towards a more equitable and sustainable future.

Nepal’s Gender Equality Policy (2019)  seeks to promote gender equality and social inclusion in all sectors and at all levels and empower women and girls to reach their full potential and contribute to national development. To achieve this vision, Nepal must recognize the untapped potential of the care sector and seize the opportunity to build the brighter, more caring, and equitable future for all its citizens and set a global example.