Archbishop Bernardito Auza, Apostolic Nuncio, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, on March 15, 2019, stressed the need to recognize the unpaid work and caregiving provided by women around the world.
His comments came at the Side Event Entitled “Valuing Unpaid Work and Caregiving” at the United Nations, New York.
The Archbishop’s Full Remarks
Your Excellencies, Esteemed Panelists, Dear Ladies, and Gentlemen,
I am very happy to welcome you to this morning’s event on valuing unpaid work and caregiving, which the Holy See is honored to be sponsoring together with the Catholic Women’s Forum of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.
Before we proceed, let us first acknowledge what occurred in Christchurch, New Zealand, and pray for the 49 who have been slaughtered at the two mosques during prayer, for the 48 injured, for the moms and dads, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends and coworkers affected, for New Zealand, for Muslims throughout the world, and for success in rooting out terrorism from human hearts. May those who have died rest in peace!
In the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the international community committed itself, in target 5.4, to “recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure, and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility.”
This was highly fitting because for far too long, unremunerated work in the home has not been given the recognition and value it deserves, either in terms of its importance in the economic development of society or the integral development of family members. Persons, communities, countries and the international community owe an enormous collective thank you to those who have carried out this often hidden and underappreciated service.
In the year’s Commission on the Status of Women, the theme of unpaid work and caregiving is receiving a lot of attention, but there is some question as to how much recognition and value it is being accorded.
The December 2018 Report of the Secretary-General in anticipation of these two weeks, for example, noted that women on average do three times more unpaid care and domestic work than men, lamented this disproportionate responsibility and lauded several countries who have recognized, reduced and redistributed it to men or to social services. Moreover, in the ongoing negotiations toward agreed conclusions for the outcome document of this Commission, we are debating a text in which the Commission would stress the need to recognize and adopt measures to reduce and redistribute the disproportionate share of unpaid care and domestic work done by women.
Other United Nations documents seem to illustrate that the basic idea behind this “3R Strategy” of recognizing, reducing and redistributing unpaid care and domestic work is that such work is a yoke from which women should be freed as much as possible. It may be valued, but the value is small relative to paid work out of the home, which is what women would be able to do more of if their responsibilities for their loved ones at home were reduced and redistributed to men and to social service providers.
For example, the UN Women publication entitled Promoting Women’s Economic Empowerment through Recognizing and Investing, “burden” is the word that it uses throughout to describe women’s care work. It speaks plainly of how women bear the “disproportionate care burden” of care work and about the “care crisis” that requires facilitating “a redistribution of the care burden from women to men in the domestic sphere” (emphasis added).
Behind this perspective of unpaid care work as a “burden” rather than as a valuable good seem to be several presumptions that are useful to bring to the surface and examine briefly, something our panelists — Mary Hasson, Patience Fielding, Catherine Pakaluk, and Andrea Picciotti-Bayer — will be able to do in greater depth.
The first presumption is the idea that a person’s work outside the home is far more valuable than a person’s work inside the home. Last year’s issue paper by UN Women is explicit about what it says is the need to redistribute caregiving so that women can work more outside of the home. “Gender imbalances in the distribution of care work,” it declared, “constitute a root cause of women’s economic and social disempowerment,” and it described how “the time constraints that the unpaid care burden imposes on women’s labor supply results in reduced productivity and growth through women’s lower and less efficient participation in the market economy.”
No one can dispute, of course, that if someone is spending more time caregiving, one will necessarily have less time to participate in the market economy. Likewise, few or no one will argue that there should not be shared responsibilities between women and men within the household, or that there should not be accessible, affordable and quality social services available, including childcare, maternity, paternity or parental leave. There absolutely should be, because such social protections give women and families options under normal circumstances and lifelines under extenuating ones. But it must be asked whether such a prioritization of a person’s work in the labor markets over care work at home flows from woman’s deepest desires or whether it’s an emulation of a flawed, hyper-masculine, way of looking at the world, one in which work, and what work can provide, is treated as the most important value.
There is a popular song from 1998 that is often heard around Father’s Day on the radio. It’s called “Busy Man” by Billy Ray Cyrus. It is about a workaholic dad who was too busy at work to play basketball with his son, buy a glass from his daughter’s lemonade stand, or keep a date night with his wife. His schedule was too crazy and his responsibilities too great, he crooned. But after passing through a cemetery, he queried, “Have you ever seen a headstone with these words: ‘If only I had spent more time at work?’” It led to a change of heart and in the last verse of the song, when his boss asked him to go on an important weekend business trip, he declined, saying he was “too busy” with more important things at home, which had, at last, become his priority. There’s common wisdom here we shouldn’t miss. There are no obituaries, of women or men, that moan, “I wish I had spent less time with my family,” or grave markers bragging, “I was a workaholic.” When we look at things from such a perspective of life as a whole, we often see more clearly what’s truly valuable.
The second presumption is that women have no greater gifts in caring for their loved ones than men do, or even than unrelated caregivers. Talk of redistribution in general means that women can share caregiving responsibilities with men or with others without any negative consequences to those for whom they’re caring. I’m not sure that this does justice to woman’s authentic feminine genius, her capacity to nurture others. Moms and dads generally care for people in characteristically different ways. They are not interchangeable parts. One of the reasons why courts have a presumption in favor of mothers with regard to children from broken families is because the courts recognize that moms are in general better at caregiving, and that is better for the child. The presumption of redistributing seems to fail to acknowledge what children may lose or what mothers themselves may miss.
The third presumption is that there is a built-in antagonism in the relationship between women and men. Men, the thought goes, have delegated caregiving tasks to women in order to advance in their careers, and that the advancement of women must involve redistributing those “burdensome” activities back to men. If men have the power and often abuse it vis-à-vis women, the answer, some have affirmed during these days in some CSW sessions, is for women to seek power and take it, understood primarily in economic, political and legal terms. The upshot is that life becomes a power struggle of opposition between men and women, which is healthy neither for the family nor for society, neither for women nor for men.
We must admit that the whole question is complex and many considerations come into play, not least among them the values and relationships that different cultures attached to caregiving and unpaid work. But no matter how complex the issue might be, an honest examination should begin by acknowledging the objective value of caregiving, whether done by women or men. If women do it more, either because they’re simply better at it, or choose to do it for the good of the whole, they should be supported in doing so, by genuinely appreciating the extraordinary importance of what they are doing. No women who desire to give of her time in this way should be stigmatized by society or penalized in comparison to other women or to men. Work schedules should be continuously adapted so that if a woman wishes to work she can do so without relinquishing her family life or enduring chronic stress. Rather than having her readjust everything to the rules of the marketplace, the marketplace itself should be adjusted to what society recognizes is the enormous personal and social value of her work. Humanity owes its very survival to the gift of caregiving, most notably in motherhood, and this indispensable contribution should be esteemed as such, by both women and by men.
Today’s panelists will help us to explore these themes in much greater depth. Thank you for being a part of the conversation.
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