I’m (still) hungry, mum: the return of Care

Naomi Hossain

Is it just me or have we come full circle on care* in development? Back in 1994, armed with a box-fresh copy of Naila Kabeer’s Reversed Realities, I got my first job in development, in Bangladesh. There I was first set to study whether non-traditional jobs empowered women, and then to analyse rural women’s time-use diaries. My eyes were opened to the perennial contradiction of women’s empowerment: earning money is lovely and really important if you want autonomy and control. But someone still has to wipe the dirty bums.

What happened in the last 20 or so years that took our (my) eye off the care-ball? We started to glamorize women’s empowerment as always and necessarily positive-sum.** Gender equity got a makeover as ‘smart economics’; development meant high return investments in future mothers, clever low-cost micro-credit, and win-win global export industries employing poor young women to make fast fashion for rich young women. At its glossiest, gender equity was uber-modern, future-looking and positive-sum. Celebrities got in on the act (I was once in a workshop breakout session with Renee Zellweger – yes, Bridget Jones – on girls’ education). Rarely a dirty bottom in sight. And certainly no expectation that for women to do these great new jobs would mean men might have to do their share of bum-wiping.

So what has changed? As far as I can tell, the focus on care has sharpened with the financial crash and food crisis. How did all these people manage to cope, particularly with export sector jobs and micro-credit looking so shaky, we wondered? By letting unpaid care work absorb the shocks, it turned out. People, particularly women, have been working longer and harder, figuring how to stretch resources to ‘make do and mend’. A research project I’m involved with tracking the impacts of food price rises on care finds the pressures mothers feel to feed children are particularly powerful: ‘I’m hungry, Mum’ is a familiar sound for many women in developing (and indeed, developed) countries. The cumulative pressures mean more women in hard, low-paid jobs, as street vendors or sweepers, laundrywomen etc. This is all shifting what Annie Whitehead once called the ‘conjugal contract’: more hardworking and frustrated men feel they are failing as providers, even while more over-stretched and exhausted women feel they are failing as mothers and housekeepers. We find older people, particularly older women, picking up their adult daughters’ care responsibilities, in a sometimes reluctant renegotiation of the generational contract. And we also see a small but definite growth in institutional care: low-cost crèches and school meals schemes are popular and effective – and quick and easy processed foods (like the ubiquitous instant noodle).  

The smallness of these mundane concerns is out of sync with development fashion, with its high-tech evidence-based solutions to everything. It’s about the fact that a vital source of social protection is being eroded by development policies that valorise that which can be paid for over that which cannot. Talking about care is the reverse of the ‘everyone’s a winner’ glitz of the empowerment industry.

Care has done a lot of the heavy lifting in people’s ‘resilience’ to the ups and downs of the past five years, but it is still often ignored in development policy. As Rosalind Eyben points out in her blog on care today, this is a matter of power. Real gender equity means recognising care, reducing its drudgery and redistributing it to men and the state. On International Women’s Day let us bravely face the filthy facts: progress towards real gender equity is unlikely to be positive-sum; there will be losers, and they will have to wipe their share of dirty bums.

This blog draws on a forthcoming IDS working paper on care and crisis, by Naomi Hossain, Alex Kelbert and Arran MacMahon.

*There are lots of good definitions out there: try Action Aid’s new report for starters. What we now commonly call care is short for unpaid care work, and was once upon a time called social reproduction among other things.

** Google ‘women’s empowerment’ today and you have at No. 3, a fashion show, and at No. 12, a Facebook game.

Annie Whitehead’s ‘I’m hungry, mum’: the politics of domestic budgeting’ was a chapter in the 1984 feminist development classic ‘Of Marriage and the Market’ (Kate Young et al, London: Methuen).

More info about the project tracking food price impacts on care can be found at Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility. The first year research results will be published in May 2013.

The Recognise, Reduce & Redistribute Care formula is Diane Elson’s.

Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

Read other recent blog posts by Naomi Hossain:

(function(g){g.__ATA.initAd({sectionId:26942, width:300, height:250});})(window);

Post navigation

Date published: