Make care work count

Date: January 1, 1970
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As the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) take centre-stage, there is a danger of the decades of efforts to empower women and ensure gender equality falling back behind the curtains.

As the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) take centre-stage, there is a danger of the decades of efforts to empower women and ensure gender equality falling back behind the curtains.

The danger lies in the MDGs’ apparent focus on development targets outside of their political commitment to human rights and good governance, as set out in the Millennium Declaration. The global targets will not be achieved if substantive action is not taken to address the nexus between gender equality, poverty and HIV/AIDS. Achieving the minimum global targets by 2015 must be informed by the realities of women’s experiences. So far, the faces of women reflected in the MDGs are those of the girl child, pregnant women, mothers and leaders. The face of the caregiver is virtually invisible.

This decade must start by valuing women’s unpaid care work; by recognising that it is on women’s shoulders that community and home based care for HIV/AIDS is based. Care givers include girls who drop out of school to assist in the home-based care of sick family members living with AIDS who may be a mother, father, sibling or grandparent.

Her vulnerability to HIV/AIDS will increase as she develops low self-esteem while trying to deal with the impending deaths. She will not be able to access free education as her whole family structure and household may be destroyed.

She may be forced to marry early in order to have shelter and food as her rights to property are not guaranteed. She will become pregnant early. As she has acquired limited skills in negotiating safe sex or asking her spouse to be tested and disclose his status, she may become infected, lose the child or if ill, get sent back to her home or become displaced in an urban slum.

If she goes back home she may be cared for by her grandmother who has no income, no skills and has taken in other vulnerable and ailing children and is thus too busy to participate in community processes.

She is invisible to the policy makers and not able to use the political space. Quota systems will pass her by and she will not have the potential to hold the system accountable.

It is the same women who are marginalised, excluded from access to, and ownership of basic resources including land income; women who have no access to affordable health and education care services and are prejudiced by culture and traditions. The caregivers are also the few grandfathers and other men who sometime take responsibility, not necessarily as a matter of choice. Other men simply remarry or look for a female relative to share in the burden of care.

By and large, women are subsiding the state in absorbing the costs for care. African women will continue to give the best of themselves in sharing love and neighbourliness and reaching deep into the meager resources within the family and the community, to support family and friends the best they can.

African women, and especially women caregivers, are contributing immensely to the economic sector of the nations, by carrying the biggest share of the disease burden in poor households and communities. They are subsidising the financial costs, which may otherwise have been in the annual budgets for health, education, and agriculture, social service sectors.

Women’s care work must be valued. Substantive resources must be prioritised for the social sector, for people’s access to health care services, education for the children and easy access to clean water.  Women’s voices must be at the table where decisions are made and policies formulated. Their efforts must be made visible, recognised and rewarded.

Contrary to the prevailing myth among policy makers, care work is not an elastic band that they can keep stretching. It is the hands and feet of women whose goodwill has for too long been taken for granted. If there is one good thing to come out of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, let it be that the unwaged work of women gets counted; and that all of us here ensure that it does.

Nyaradzai Gumbonzvanda is a Human Rights Lawyers, active in HIV & AIDS Care work and is the current Regional Programme Director for UNIFEM in East Africa. Contact email:

This article is part of the GEM Opinion and Commentary Service that provides views and perspectives on current events. for more information.


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