Unpaid Care and Domestic Work: the Silent Backbone of Asia and the Pacific


She lives on the periphery of a bustling city, dreaming of one day moving to a place close to the public transportation grid. Let’s call her Mai, a young mother with an unwavering smile and a heart full of love. Her day begins before the sun has even thought about rising. As her family sleeps peacefully, she quietly tiptoes around her home, preparing breakfast and laying out the clothes. She wakes up the children, packs their lunches and sends her husband off to work. Her children soon follow, backpacks in hand.

But for Mai, the day has only just begun. With a sigh, she clears the dishes, and starts the laundry. Washing each piece by hand, she loses herself in a daydream, imagining one day owning her own small business. Midday arrives and with the sun at its peak Mai sets out, armed with buckets for water and bags for firewood. The journey is long, and she often wonders how many steps she takes in a day. But the strength of her love for her family keeps her moving forward and standing up straight, despite the weight on her shoulders. Evening comes and her family returns. They are tired, so is she. But for Mai work is not yet done. She prepares dinner, tidies the home and cares for her parents-in-law. When Mai finally crawls into bed, her body aches, hardly ready for yet another push at the repeat button for a day full of chores.

Mai’s story is not hers alone; it is a reflection of countless mothers, wives and daughters across the Asia-Pacific region who, on average, spend up to 11 hours a day on paid and unpaid care work – more than 4 times more than men. Their love and dedication, only visible and valued within the confines of the family walls, are critical to human life and societal well-being. However, the unequal distribution of care work has far-reaching consequences for women. This stark inequality restricts women and girls’ access to education, economic opportunities and participation in public life. Acknowledging this impact, SDG 5, target 5.4 calls to ‘recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies.’ Despite this clear goal, progress has been regrettably slow, and we are nowhere near what’s required for achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The path to valuing and investing in the care economy involves a multi-pronged approach. It begins with recognizing the importance of valuing and supporting caregivers, of rendering their invisible work visible. Investments in affordable and accessible public infrastructure that supports care, such as energy, transport, water and sanitation, are crucial, especially in rural and remote areas. Gender-equitable care leave policies that accommodate various care responsibilities, including childcare and care of older persons, should be encouraged in both the public and private sectors. Comprehensive data collection and analysis on unpaid care work, encompassing factors like gender, age, socioeconomic status, and geographic location, must be undertaken to craft effective policies.

And there is hope on the horizon, with many countries in Asia and the Pacific taking steps to address the issue of unpaid care work. Cambodia, for instance, has been a regional leader in this regard. When Chair of the ASEAN Committee on Women, Cambodia convened high-level discussions and forums dedicated to care work. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MoWA) has also been formulating a comprehensive national action plan on care, integrating the care economy into national policy frameworks. It has taken a ”whole-of-government” approach, engaging other line ministries in the pursuit of advancing a national care – and caring – economy, including through a large-scale national consultation earlier this month. This coordinated effort underscores Cambodia’s dedication to addressing the multifaceted challenges related to caregiving and women’s economic empowerment.

Cambodia is now collaborating with ESCAP, a leader in research and normative policy development on the care economy. ESCAP has used its convening powers to forge partnerships and new collaborations with countries in the region and various stakeholders to address the challenges surrounding unpaid care and domestic work. MoWA also works with Oxfam who serves as a vital link, connecting governments and regional organizations with local grassroots movements, amplifying the voices of care workers and influencing policy development.

The key to unlocking this challenge is partnership. There is a need to recognize the complexity and interdependence of care-related challenges and adopt a “whole-of-government” approach entailing inter-ministerial and coordinated national strategies to address care needs at both national and local levels, in collaboration with all relevant actors.

That is why the very first United Nations International Day of Care and Support is so important, and why we celebrate it today. It might be our turn to do the dishes, now.

Source : ESCAP