Inadequate public services: an invisible injustice against women

  • Date: 23/06/2020
  • Author: Siobhan McGee
Photo caption: Nurse giving injection in Uganda. Esther Mbabazi/ActionAid

Today – 23rd June – marks United Nations Public Service Day. Siobhán McGee, ActionAid Ireland Chief Executive, explores the links between unpaid care/domestic work, Covid-19 and public services.

Care work:

Globally, women are more likely to live in poverty than men and are less likely to be in paid employment than men. A crucial factor in perpetuating this injustice is that women perform over three quarters of unpaid care and domestic work worldwide.  

The United Nations International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines unpaid care work as “non-remunerated work carried out to sustain the well-being, health and maintenance of other individuals in a household or the community”. The UN General Assembly report by Sepulveda in 2013 used a definition of unpaid care work that includes “domestic work (meal preparation, cleaning, washing clothes, water and fuel collection) and direct care of persons (including children, older persons and persons with disabilities, as well as able-bodied adults) carried out in homes and communities”.  

On average women spend four hours and 25 minutes daily doing unpaid care work, in comparison to men’s average of just one hour and 23 minutes. This both reflects and reinforces patriarchal norms, constraining the time that women have to secure decent work, claim their rights or pursue their interests.  

Time-use surveys have helped to estimate that, globally, women perform 76.2% of total hours of unpaid care work, more than three times as much as men, and in Asia and the Pacific this rises to 80%. Over a lifetime this means women are working an average of four years more than men. This is changing very slowly – by less than a minute per year in the past 15 years.  

In 2019, the ILO estimated that continuing present trends, it will take 209 years to close the gender gap in time spent on unpaid care work. This could be resolved much more rapidly through the comprehensive provision of adequately funded public services but this requires a transformation in what we value in an economy and in the forces that influence the financing for public services. 

Basic services:

Of course, quality education, health, access to clean water, and sanitation are fundamental rights in themselves; universal provision of these public services is essentially a justice issue which should require no further justification. But despite compelling human rights frameworks, such as the Covenant on Economic and Social Rights and political commitments such as the SDGs, many core public services have been and remain chronically underfunded, especially in countries in the global South.

Looking at these essential services through the lens of the connection to unpaid care can add renewed momentum to the case for substantial new investment. It can also help to make the case that the recurrent costs of these basic services should be protected even at times of austerity.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a dramatic impact on public financing and public services around the world. Public health systems that have been underfunded for a generation have been overwhelmed. The pandemic has shown us that the dominant economic model has left most public services and public health systems chronically underfunded, leading to an increased burden of care falling mostly on women.

Wake up call:

When we do not invest in our public services, women and their contribution to society is largely invisible and ignores much of the foundation of human survival. 

COVID-19 has exposed the links between public services and the unpaid care and domestic work and its impact on women. Schools and childcare centres have been closed, leaving children to be cared for 24 hours a day at home – and this work is falling mostly on women.

Hospital and health centres have been unable to cope with sudden surges in demand, so many of those who fall sick are expected to stay in isolation at home, to be cared for mostly by women. The simple need for safe water for washing hands reminds us all that many in the world cannot take this for granted and that the hard labour of collecting water falls mostly to women and girls.  

High quality public provision of education, childcare, health and water transforms the lives of all those who are fortunate enough to have them. These basic rights to public services cannot be ignored in a post-pandemic world.  

COVID-19 must be the moment for the world to wake up to our invisible injustices against women. We must re-imagine traditional political and economic worldview and take this opportunity to create a fairer and more equal society. 

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