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Caregiving services and social and gender equity: recovering the State's capacity for regulation and social protection.

1. The Interaction between Production and Reproduction from a Gender Perspective

Traditionally, the Welfare State has sought to create societies that are integrated by actions intended to influence and regulate the allocation of resources and opportunities dictated by the market. In this effort, the State has looked to the economic realm to ensure access to material resources and greater equity in their distribution, while counting on the social sphere to support social rights, especially those related to the labor market.

In keeping with this perspective, gender equality has been put forth as an issue of public concern, the resolution of which is primarily complicated by the role of women within the home, the private sphere. However, this analysis, which emphasized the restrictions that domestic responsibilities impose upon women's abilities to conquer spaces usually dominated by men, failed to value women's contribution to social life, the economic system, the market and the State. At the same time, women's struggles have focused on the fight for equality in the public sphere, in politics and in the decision-making process. However, not enough emphasis has been placed on the fact that life in society is possible because of the homes in which caregiving goods and services are produced, which are essential for human reproduction and for the functioning of society. Socially and historically, the responsibility for these indispensable activities for human development has rested on women's shoulders (Astelarra, 2007).

The traditional sexual division of labor--according to which the public sphere belongs to men and the private sphere of the home to women--continues in practice to some extent, but above all it persists in people's minds. Over the past several decades, the widespread incorporation of women into the labor market--the result of economic, social, cultural and demographic factors--has not been matched by a corresponding redistribution of domestic work. This imbalance has resulted in the phenomenon known as women's "double workday." The work that women once performed for free within their own homes is now being affected by the time and effort that women have to dedicate to their remunerated work and to public activities, and the organization of social reproduction has definitely been affected.

In this context, the trends we see are still contradictory. On one hand, it seems undeniable that caregiving is still conceived of as "basically women's work" and not as a social responsibility. On the other hand, the efforts of women in the productive arena would seem to have improved their position for negotiating within the family and to have contributed to increasing their personal autonomy and economic standing (Todaro & Guzman, 2003). This new scenario may have encouraged changes in the roles and positions of women and men on the job and in the home to provoke changes in the traditional "order of gender."

Within this contradictory dynamic, the social relationships between the genders are reflected in economic processes as these relationships develop within a constant shifting of tensions, overlapping positions and conflicts between the productive and reproductive spheres. In this regard, these social relationships are key for understanding the inequalities in the distribution of caregiving tasks and considering the characteristics and nature of women and men's participation in society.

From the feminist perspective, the objective of eliminating gender inequalities sets forth a series of challenges for public policies committed to the welfare of the people. It implies, first of all, the design of economic policies that recognize that the system functions thanks to remunerated and unremunerated activities. When they address the matter of redistribution, these policies should not only take into consideration resources, but time and tasks as well. The elimination of gender inequalities also demands that social policies reflect the fact that people's daily welfare implies accessing and enjoying caregiving services as a right.

In order to contribute to this discussion and to generate arguments for the debate and design of proposals, the Latin American branch of the International Gender and Trade Network (IGNT) has prioritized the analysis of the relationship between trade openings, labor markets and the provision of caregiving services, emphasizing that in the interaction among these three issues lies the key to the creation of economic policies that are sensitive to economic growth and equity.

In this effort, IGNT is developing the research project "Trade, Gender and Equity in Latin America" to study the changes that have been recorded in the configuration of the economy of care in six countries in the region (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Uruguay) during the 1990s. (1) This study hopes to uncover whether or not the current system of care contributes to gender equity in a context of changes in family arrangements and in the demands for care. At the same time, this project also hopes to discover the foundation for policies of economic and trade liberalization that promote a better and broader participation in the labor force by women and men, which until now have been based on a structure of incentives that encourages women to take on productive activities without providing the same sort of incentives for men to share in the caregiving responsibilities.

2. The Evolution of Responsibility for Caregiving Services

Feminist economics has defined "the economy of care" as those goods, services, activities, relationships and values related to the most basic and relevant needs for people's existence and reproduction. This conceptualization stresses that caregiving activities produce or contribute to the generation of economic value. Normally, unremunerated domestic work has been linked to reproducing and maintaining the workforce. However, the social reproduction of the biological and material conditions that uphold a social system also require the provision of caregiving goods and services by the market and the State, and this work is remunerated, even though it is similar to the activities that are carried out in the home. This work is also usually performed by women, as are the caregiving services provided by the community and the informal support among households that form part of the remunerated and unremunerated economy (Salvador, 2007).

Nonetheless, unpaid domestic work is the central nucleus of the process of social reproduction. Caregiving activities include cooking, cleaning, the general maintenance of the home and caring for children, the sick and the disabled, as well as transmitting values and a sense of security, support and affection, which are essential for human welfare. The way in which social reproduction is organized is extremely important and a responsibility of society as a whole.

In "family-based" welfare regimes, like those that hold sway in Latin America, an important component of this economy of care is left to families and, basically, to women who historically have been responsible for developing these tasks, free of charge.

In the context of several Latin American economies at the dawn of the 21st century, one of the objectives of IGNT's study has been to evaluate the distribution of the responsibilities of caregiving among the State, the market, the families and the community, as well as to identify the division of domestic responsibilities between women and men. Has women's massive participation in the labor market during the 1990s changed the traditional roles played by these different institutions and each of the actors? To what extent have public policies reflected women's entrance into the world of remunerated work?

Some of the results from this study show that:

* In general, caregiving services have been shifted from the State to the private sector, with the family continuing to be the primary provider of these services. People therefore have differential access to caregiving services according to their income level. When these services cannot be purchased, they are replaced with the unremunerated work of women.

* Despite the significant increase in women's participation in the labor market, the burden of domestic labor continues to be their responsibility. And as the population of Latin American grows older, there will be a parallel increase in the need for caregiving activities.

* With the exception of Chile, no policies explicitly support the incorporation of women into the world of paid labor. Children age three and under have the least public coverage, and the programs that do include them have an anti-poverty emphasis. These programs target women who must meet rigorous standards to participate, generally related to their children's mandatory school attendance and medical check-ups.

* In general, labor laws only address the periods of pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding. Leave for new fathers or for the illness of a child are more recent, not very common and sometimes only guaranteed for civil servants.

* There are practically no services for the elderly or the disabled, and what services there are take for granted the existence of a family providing for the daily needs of this population.

* Services have not been designed to care for people who live alone or who cannot care for themselves autonomously and need some sort of support.

* The offer of services that the State traditionally provides, such as health and education, has tended to increase, and as a result, inequalities in this regard have been reduced. However, in some cases, as in Argentina, the decentralization of these services to the provinces and the municipalities has meant that the poorer regions must care for the needs of the broader population, and quality has deteriorated as a result.

* With regard to health care, in which the public sector provides considerable services for children, the elderly and the disabled, the quality of care tends to be poorer in than in the private sector.

* Unequal access to caregiving services based on one's income level or place of residence is a powerful instrument for social fragmentation. The regulation of the State is required to balance these differences.

The way in which the provision of caregiving is organized in society determines the degree of autonomy of the family and the individual. Clearly, this situation has important consequences for gender equity: it can encourage the greater development of women and men's abilities and options; or it can perpetuate the sexual division of labor that persists to this day. The privatization of state services increases the divisions within societies related to income levels and gender.

In any case, even in households that earn enough to hire domestic help so that the members of the family can work outside the home, women are still responsible for organizing and implementing the caregiving tasks. As a result, policies that promote awareness of caregiving activities and more equitable distribution of responsibilities among women and men are needed.

3. Social Responsibility and the Reconstruction of the State

Deterioration of the public services influences the family strategies of working outside the home and women's participation in the labor market and accentuates gender imbalances.

The analysis of the realm of caregiving linked to the construction of gender, social inequality and poverty sheds light on connections that have not been sufficiently explored and points to the potential for policies on the provision of caregiving services to promote both social and gender equity. It also draws attention to the urgent need for public policies and state intervention.

This undertaking requires a comprehensive perspective in the definition of policies that meet society's demands for care and take into account their relationship with the rest of the system to avoid counterproductive efforts. Economic policies--whether regulating productive, commercial, financial or monetary aspects--that have a negative impact on the system of care have unwanted impacts on the whole of society that are difficult to resolve.

In order to increase human potential, we must invest in the economy of care through the provision of public services with employment that ensures good working conditions. The lack of attention that public policy has paid to the sphere of caregiving has generated a greater burden on the family (with a double or triple workday for women in particular) and continues to limit the possibilities for social progress for women of fewer resources. Public policies on caregiving could network the family, the State and the market from a gender and rights-based perspective and move towards a proposal for social reorganization. In this effort, we must develop a new ethic of caregiving and analyze how to turn this new conceptualization into the foundation of a new generation of civil rights. These rights should set the terms of a public debate that joins the debate on the systems of social protection, healthcare system reform and social service development.

The political context for meeting these challenges is not shaped by social policies alone. Economic policies also have an impact on the economy of care, the welfare of all people and gender equity and therefore must be designed bearing in mind these possible impacts. At the same time, these efforts require a State with regulatory capacity that acts with transparency, guaranteeing that the market does not aggravate the inequalities.

This process involves restituting responsibilities that were abandoned by the State under the neoliberal logic, without returning to outdated models or resorting to one-size-fits-all solutions. The idea is not to copy the institutions of successful countries, nor is it to create new institutions without due political debate and broad social consensus. This consensus must be based on the dynamic of a democratic process of the resolution of social conflict and the contrasting interests of the citizenry, in a context of social and gender equity. In order to guarantee legitimacy and efficiency in the reconstruction of the State and the public institutions, the process is just as important as the results. While the focus of the 1990s pushed for "more market and less State," today there is a drive to re-evaluate and recover a better State and public policies of better quality that work together to confront today's internal and external challenges.

Proof of this new strategy is the recognition of the social and economic value of unremunerated work in the reproductive sphere and caregiving as a "public matter that is the responsibility of the State, local government, organizations, businesses and the family." This has been one of the focal points of the Quito Consensus. (2) In this agreement, the governments of our region committed "to adopt the necessary measures, especially of an economic, social and cultural nature, to ensure that States assume social reproduction, caregiving and the well-being of the population as an objective for the economy and as a public responsibility that cannot be delegated" and also "to formulate and apply State policies conducive to the equitable sharing of responsibilities by women and men in the family."


Astelarra, Judith (2007) "Genero y cohesion social: Una primera aproximacion." Paper presented at the Seminario Iberoamericano sobre Genero y Cohesion Social at the Universidad Autonoma de Barcelona.

Arriagada, Irma (2007) "Diez propuestas para mejorar la institucionalidad publica y las politicas hacia las familias en America Latina." In Gestion y financiamiento de las politicas que afectan a las familias, Irma Arriagada, ed. Santiago, Chile: ECLAC.

Salvador, Soledad (2007) Estudio comparativo de las instituciones pertenecientes al sector del cuidado y la distribucion de las responsabilidades de cuidado en el hogar en Argentina, Brasil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico y Uruguay. IGTN, IDRC, mimeograph.

Todaro, Rosalba and Virginia Guzman (2003) "Apuntes sobre genero en la economia global." Santiago, Chile: Centro de Estudios de la Mujer.


(1.) The research project "Comercio, Genero y Equidad en America Latina: Generando Conocimiento para la Accion Politica" (Trade, Gender and Equity in Latin America: Generating Knowledge for Political Action) is being undertaken by the Latin American branch of the International Gender and Trade Network (IGNT) with the support of the IDRC, under the general coordination of Alma Espino.

(2.) Tenth Regional Conference on Women in Latin America and the Caribbean, ECLAC, August 2007.

The authors--Norma Sanchis, a psychologist from Argentina, and Alma Espino, an economist from Uruguay--are members of the Latin American branch of the International Gender and Trade Network (IGNT).
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Title Annotation:THEORY
Author:Sanchis, Norma; Espino, Alma
Publication:Women's Health Collection
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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