African Care

June 20, 2013


Women, Social Reproduction and the Approaching Precipice

The concept of social reproduction – that is, the process that makes it possible for individuals, families, and society itself to continue – provides the framework for this article, which is premised on the existence of a silent and hidden crisis affecting the invisible and undervalued realm of the care economy. A crucial dimension of the process of social reproduction, the care economy relies on the unpaid care work performed mainly by women in order to sustain families, households and societies on a daily and generational basis.

While care work is located in many different areas of the economy – ranging from the family to paid employment – and is performed on behalf of a wide range of care recipients, this article focuses on unpaid care work that is not classified as ‘work’ within the System of National Accounts (SNA.) This includes, but is not limited to, housework (collection of fuel and water, meal preparation, cleaning, etc.) and care of persons (children and/or the elderly, the sick and the disabled) carried out in homes and communities. Such work is a key component of social investment and is critical to well-being. It also fuels economic growth through the formation of human capital and reproduction of a labour force that is healthy, productive and possessing basic human capabilities. The monetary value of such work, according to UN researcher Debbie Budlender, would constitute between 10 and 39 per cent of a country’s gross domestic product (GDP.)

In this article, ‘social reproduction’ is defined as a multi-faceted concept that can pertain to a variety of subjects, including the labour force, the social fabric or capital. Of note is the social reproduction of primitive capitalist accumulation, which has taken the contemporary forms of land grabbing, and use of migrant labour by some transnational corporations to address the difficulties – resulting from the crisis of the social reproduction of the labor force – in the availability of a local labour force in the extractive sectors of mineral-rich countries like South Africa. In contrast to this type of social reproduction, very little thought and investment has been given by policy makers to addressing the crisis of the care economy, which mainly affects women.

This is the reason why the crisis of social reproduction on which I want to focus is the one that has affected African women for decades, and mirrors structural inequalities at both global and local levels. It is about the systemic crisis that started with the famines in the 1970s, and was later compounded by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Kofi Annan described this crisis like so: ‘A combination of famine and AIDS is threatening the backbone of Africa – the women who keep African societies going and whose work makes up the economic foundation of rural communities.’

It appears that one of the root causes of the neglect of this enduring crisis by the powers-that-be is that the primary subjects of the reproduction process are women, who are not paid for their work, although this work is directly productive of value. As Mariarosa Dalla Costa put it, ‘since housework has largely been unwaged and the value of workers’ activities is measured by their wage, then, women, of necessity, have been seen as marginal to the process of social production.’

A political economy approach is required for a sound analysis of the current crisis of social reproduction in all its dimensions, in order to identify its root causes and to provide adequate responses. There is a need to address the limitations of the current human rights paradigm in recognising and responding to the dual crises of social reproduction and care. In particular, a political economy approach allows us to understand the link between these crises and relations of power and domination at local and global levels. Such an analysis avoids both disconnecting the problem from its underlying causes and consequences, and obscuring the share of responsibilities and obligations between states and other actors.

In contrast to conventional economics, a political economy approach highlights the interlinkages between the economic, social and political realms. It specifically considers how power operates through the structured relations of production and reproduction that govern the distribution and use of resources and entitlements within households, communities and society. This approach allows us to debunk the myth of the unitary household model, and to make visible the hitherto hidden linkages at different levels with power relations that underpin the global economic order and macroeconomic policies, as well as intersections with issues of class, race and other variables. The political economy analysis points to three key elements that affect both the depth and prevalence of the crises of care and social reproduction.

First is the sexual division of labour within the public and private spheres, which is underpinned by gender norms and ideologies that hold women primarily responsible for unpaid care work, thus creating inequalities in bargaining power in the household between men and women. Caring professions in the public sphere and labour market that are similar to the ‘feminine’ unpaid care work are also undervalued, while the detachment of unpaid care work within the human rights movement from the broader struggle for social and economic equality has led to it being perceived as a “women’s only” problem.

The second element is the current global macroeconomic environment. Neoliberal policies and the quest for cheap sources of labour and maximum profit have disrupted local economies and dramatically changed labour markets through deregulation, flexibilisation and casualisation of work. Women from developing societies have entered into waged employment on an unprecedented scale, whilst the neoliberal policy environment has led to their increased workload both in the market and at home, and to the feminisation of poverty –  especially unskilled and marginalised poor women.

The third key element highlighted by the political economy approach to care is related to the gendered impacts of globalisation. This has often involved the privatisation of public services and infrastructure, thereby regressing women’s rights and placing greater burden on their labour in the household, as well as the establishment of political and legal systems with limited participation by women.

Time use surveys conducted in Africa during the last decade provide a strong basis for quantifying unpaid care work, and for providing estimates of its overall magnitude and distribution between men and women. In spite of the recent progress in terms of data collection, the paucity of information about the care economy in Africa and other regions reflects the policy gap in relation to unpaid care work as well as the absence of a coherent theory of the relationship between the family, the market, and the state.

This is partly due to the fact that most economists and scholars have overlooked the two-way connection between the local and the global, which is based on the assumption that global economic processes shape the structure and economic functions of households at a given time. They have specifically underlined the increased importance of households to processes of social reproduction in times of global economic crisis.

In line with the prevailing trend in developing countries, the results of surveys conducted in a range of African countries, from Guinea, South Africa, Benin, Madagascar, to Mauritius and Ghana, show that adult women and girls work longer hours overall than adult men and boys.

Women’s central contribution to agricultural production, especially for subsistence consumption, accounts for a large part of this pattern in Burkina Faso, Kenya, Nigeria, and Zambia. Women spend substantially more minutes per day than men in agricultural production, yet it’s women’s domestic responsibilities that seem to hamper their ability to earn income.

Since 2003, researchers have called attention to a growing crisis of social reproduction, most severe among the poorest segments of populations in developing countries, due to the fiscal crisis of the state and cutbacks in public provisions of social services. The dual processes of privatisation of state functions and reprivatisation of key institutions of social reproduction (education, health and social services) are part of these ongoing neoliberal reforms.

These reforms also involve a new framework for resource allocation of social and individual welfare shared between the state, the family, the market and the voluntary and informal sectors. In this new framework, social life is marketised via the commodification of spheres of society that were previously shielded, with citizens now becoming responsible for helping themselves.

This marketisation of citizenship has resulted in crises and transformations in social reproduction, and has led to heightened insecurity with worsening struggles for survival among the poorest. In addition to the neoliberal policies aimed at the free movement of capital, these circumstances have required a return to community-based survival strategies that rely primarily on women’s initiatives and labour.

The internationalisation of reproductive work has been part of the transnational response to the crisis of care, whereby women from developing countries migrate to provide care services for families in wealthier countries. As a growing number of women and girls – predominantly from the rural areas – are pushed into domestic and care work by the pressing need to supplement family income in the context of the multiple global crises, the availability of their relatively cheap labour enables middle and upper class families, including those in rich countries of the North and Middle-East, to provide market solutions to their care problems.

These care and domestic service workers, who cannot afford to pay for care services in the market, rely on unpaid family members to care for their dependents left behind, leading to the formation of transnational families who have to solve their own care needs. In many instances, it is girls who are removed from school to care for younger children and do domestic chores, at the expense of long-term education and employment opportunities.

The dominant development policies have failed to acknowledge that gender roles are continually challenged by social and economic changes as well as by political and legal reforms, and that women’s reproductive labour capacity is not infinitely elastic. In particular, policy makers have failed to acknowledge the crisis of care in Africa due to the heightened demand for and burden of women’s reproductive work resulting from the cumulative effects of hunger, HIV/AIDS, cutbacks in government expenditures, economic downturn/crises, and fiscal austerity measures, just to name a few.

Current trends in family structures and gender division of labour, whereby women continue to provide most of the unpaid care work, are exacerbating inequalities in well-being between women and men, as well as the impact of wealth and income inequalities between and among the different categories of women.

As caregiving is essential for human survival, the burden of care work has been shifted back onto families, with women and girls often acting as the ultimate safety net. There are, however, serious limits to how far burdens can be offloaded onto the unpaid care economy without damaging the social fabric. The housewives living in the urban areas of several African countries who participated in the 2008 food riots have called attention to such limits: indeed, they went in the streets not only to protest against higher food prices, but also to warn about the fact that they were tired and unable to withstand the drain on their capacity to act as stabilisers in the face of the impacts of the economic crisis on their households.

And yet, this is a crisis that continues to be ignored, and one which the world continues to dismiss, even as its magnitude requires a global response. The new conditions of reproductive work, along with the changes in family structures and in the global macroeconomic environment require urgent social mobilisation and policy actions to overcome the crisis of reproduction. The prerequisites for achieving this goal include: the recognition of the value of unpaid care work, its reduction, and more equitable redistribution between men and women as well as between states, communities and families; a rethinking of the sites of social reproduction, away from the privatised sphere of the family and towards a socialised care system; the conscious decision to refuse to have women and vulnerable social groups – including children, the elderly, immigrant workers – pay the price for social reproduction; and, the engagement with the development of an alternative economic paradigm that fully integrates unpaid care work and that can ensure adequate social reproduction.

Zo Randriamaro is a human rights and feminist activist from Madagascar, currently acting Executive Director of Fahamu Africa. This article was presented for the first United Nations African Institute for Economic Development and Planning (IDEP) Monthly Seminar on 5 March 2013. The full version of this essay was first published on the Pambazuka News blog. | @FahamuAfrica


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