Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa
Conseil pour le développement de la recherche en sciences sociales en Afrique
Conselho para o Desenvolvimento da Pesquisa em Ciências Sociais em África
مجلس تنمية البحوث الإجتماعية في أفريقيا

Gender in the Economy of Care


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The struggles for social equality between men and women remain an area of continuing relevance to any quest for a holistic understanding of economy, society and politics in contemporary Africa. The household, in spite of its changing forms over the years, constitutes the primary framework within which the basic ground rules for these struggles are set – and, therefore, the main site where the quest for gender equality and justice are fought, won and/or lost in the first instance. It is the arena where the power relations that are germane to the dynamics of gender in the broader society are fashioned, given ideological legitimation, institutionalised, contested, revised and transformed. Previous academic preoccupations with the household from a gender point of view have involved scholars in a close interrogation of history, tradition and culture; the mode of construction and exercise of patriarchal power; the contradictory interface between patriarchy and matriarchy and within these categories as well; the framework for the structuring of opportunities between the girl-child and the boy-child; the gender/sexual division of labour; the dynamics of domesticity; and the practice of male power and masculinity, including domestic violence of various kinds. Interest has also been shown in the household as a site of a complex of transactions: production, exchange, socialisation, affection, and identity formation.

More recently, attention has been drawn to the emergence and growing importance of female-headed households and the implication of this development for the concept of the family “breadwinner” and the politics of femininity. Female headship of households was initially linked to the destabilising consequences of the migrant labour system; today, it has been reinforced by the ravages of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the spate of violent conflicts occurring across the continent, and the increase in the number of displaced persons, developments which in their own right feed into the growth of the domestic economy of care. At all stages of the evolution of the household, the centrality of the labour of women to its production and reproduction and, ultimately, the production and reproduction of the economy at the local, national and regional levels has never been in question. Gender economists have sought to demonstrate the critical function performed by women’s unpaid labour – most of which pertains to the structuring of the system of care - in the politics of the wage relationship, urban settlement patterns, national productivity, competitiveness, and external (cross-border) trade.

The exigencies of household welfare internal to the well-being of the members of the family constitute a permanent element in the structuring of the economy of care and the central role which women play in it. The changing requirements of the macro-economy at different phases of the process of accumulation impacts on the domestic, household context to produce other critical elements of demand on the time and resources of women to shape the evolution of the care economy. The structuring of the particular role which different categories of women assume in the economy of care is, clearly, a function of their broader social position, a fact which makes the arena of the care economy a terrain of complex, interlocking gender and class equations. In the contemporary context, critical developments which have had a direct impact on the changing content and contours of the economy of care include the economic crises which most African countries began to undergo in the period from the 1980s onwards and which have persisted for much of the last two decades; the orthodox structural adjustment programmes sponsored by the IMF and the World Bank and which fed into the overall dynamic of crises, stagnation and decline; the rapid and far-reaching erosion of state capacity, including the historic role assumed by the post-colonial state in basic social provisioning; the expanding boundaries of unemployment, poverty and informalisation; the processes of globalisation which have produced a set of new opportunities and constraints; the widespread alienation of the youth that has become a key feature of the contemporary African political terrain; the increased precariousness of the condition of the child; and the emergence and institutionalisation of various low-level survival strategies as individuals, households, and communities seek to cope with the effects of prolonged economic crises and structural adjustment. These developments have impacted directly on the household in a way as to compel changes in the gender division of labour, produce new pressures on the allocation of women’s time, catalyse the emergence of new gender identities, and steer women into various new activity clusters designed to secure the welfare of the family.

Participants in the 2004 Gender Institute will be invited to, among other things, explore various aspects and dimensions of the economy of care as viewed from the perspective of the changing requirements for the upkeep and well-being of the family, the reconstitution of the division of labour within the household, and the re-composition of male – female relations at a time of broad-ranging retrenchments that have affected the state and state capacity, the public sector, the formal economy, the health status of the citizenry and the stability of the polity. The wealth of conceptual, theoretical and methodological issues thrown up by the growing economy of care will be explored by participants in the Institute as will the range of factors that account for its changing content and context. The basic contours of the economy of care will also be examined by the participants, including especially a disaggregation of the differing location of different categories of women and men in the structure of care and the interface of gender and class which it produces. Furthermore, the shifting composition of male-female relations within the household and beyond, as well as the import of the of reversals taking place in pre-established roles will be analysed from the point of view of the dialectic of the empowerment and disempowerment of women. The economy of care also broaches the issue of the public provision of social services. The interface between the public and the “private” realms in the constitution of the economy of care will be explored as part of the overall critique that will be undertaken of contemporary public policy-making in Africa. The challenges posed by the processes of globalisation to the economy of care and the opportunities that they offer will also be studied.


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