Care work is not just women’s business

LETTER FROM AUSTRALIA - HK Yu, PSM - The Philippine Star

Dear friends,

Happy National Women’s Month! As we celebrate the achievements and highlight challenges facing women across the globe this March, I would like to shine a light on a topic that is often overlooked but underpins our entire economy and society. This is an issue that is personal to me – as a gender equality advocate, as an ambassador, as a mother to four sons. Now is the time to care about care work.

Care work includes looking after children, the elderly or family members with disability, as well as daily domestic work like cooking, cleaning and washing. Care work is ubiquitous, yet it continues to go unrecognized. In my view, there are good reasons why this issue merits greater attention.

First, women and girls bear the brunt of care work across the world. This work has been largely unpaid and statistically invisible. Today, unpaid care work is excluded from Gross Domestic Product (GDP) calculations. To put this in perspective, women perform 75 percent of all unpaid care work, conservatively valued at 13 percent of global GDP. In the Philippines, the values are more staggering. Prior to the pandemic, a 2019 Philippine Institute for Development Studies report estimated that women’s unpaid care work accounted for nearly P2 trillion, or 20 percent of the country’s GDP.

Consequently, unpaid care work exacerbates women’s time poverty. The 2021 National Household Care Survey revealed that Filipino women spend up to 13 hours a day on unpaid care work, compared to only eight hours for men. As you can imagine, this leaves women and girls with little time to study, take part in productive employment or simply have the time for self-care or personal development.

Most importantly, unpaid care work strips women and girls of equal opportunities to thrive. While Filipino girls have historically fared better than boys in completing basic education, there is evidence that the reverse might be happening in some provinces in the country. A 2022 study from Australia’s Education Pathways to Peace in Mindanao program found that boys outnumber girls by at least 60 percent in 111 public elementary schools in Basilan, Tawi-Tawi and Sulu. Interviews revealed that there is an expectation for girls to stay at home and raise families.

Australia is also grappling with this issue, with care work disproportionately falling to women. Public consultations are underway for Australia’s forthcoming National Strategy for the Care and Support Economy. Sharing lessons of what works and what doesn’t will be valuable for both our countries.

The business case is clear: addressing unpaid care work is a pre-requisite to achieving gender equality. Unlocking women’s full potential in the economy and society is only possible if they are freed from the unequal burden of unpaid care work.

Moving the needle on unpaid care work means we need to debunk gender stereotypes which automatically ascribe care work as women’s “natural” responsibility. There are promising entry points. The 2022 Social Norms, Attitudes and Practices Survey (SNAPS) supported by Australia’s Investing in Women program found that 80 percent of Filipino men and 90 percent of women aged 18 to 40 prefer equal childcaring responsibilities. In addition, 80 percent of women and 60 percent of men aim to share the responsibility of earning the family income. These positive findings indicate a shift in norms around breadwinning and care work.

Greater provision of childcare facilities and services can also facilitate more equitable division of labor. A 2023 landscape study on the care economy in Southeast Asia from the Australian National University found that the Philippines has a solid legal framework for better access to childcare services and flexible working arrangements, but more support for practical implementation is needed. Through our Investing in Women program, Australia is working with local private sector partners to explore alternative models for childcare and workplace policies that redistribute care responsibilities to support women’s equal economic participation.

In addition to enabling a conducive policy environment for care reforms, Australia is empowering women to thrive in the workplace and as entrepreneurs. By unloading women with the heavy responsibility of unpaid care at home, we give them an equal shot at work. For example, our Investing in Women program support the Philippine Business Coalition for Women Empowerment (PBCWE) in influencing big businesses to improve gender equality in their own workplaces. PBCWE has 30 member-companies across the nation, representing over 338,000 employees.

Our Accelerate Women PH program in partnership with The Asia Foundation also provided market access to 270 women craft entrepreneurs from Sulu province, raising their monthly income ten-fold. Moreover, our Resilient Livelihoods Development program, in partnership with the UNFPA and FAO, trained and engaged 1,475 internally displaced women and youth in Maguindanao del Norte and del Sur on food processing and agri-based livelihood.

Australia’s development programs also leverage the power of social media in breaking gender biases. We have partnered with Oxfam Pilipinas for the #FlexYourHouseband campaign, which empowered men to talk about their experiences as husbands and as fathers sharing in care work at home during the pandemic. The campaign had a social media reach of 8.6 million individuals.

These are just some of the important steps that Australia is taking in partnership with the Philippines to recognize, reduce and redistribute unpaid care work. But we cannot do this alone. Building a caring society is everyone’s responsibility. I call on our readers to challenge gender stereotypes and equalize care responsibilities, beginning from the comfort of our own homes.

Care to share?

*      *      *

HK Yu is the Australian Ambassador to the Philippines. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) @AusAmbPH.

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