The Care Economy in Bolivia

22 Nov, 2018 | Vivian Braga

Social issues

Photo: Marie de Lantivy

Valuing life and domestic labour

Bolivia is a melting pot of different ethnicities. It is home to women that belong to 36 different nations recognised by the country’s Political Constitution. Whether they are Andean, Amazonian, rural, urban, rich, poor, lesbian or heterosexual women, what all of them have in common is the vast amount of time they spend performing domestic tasks and caring for people inside and outside their homes.

The majority of Bolivian women, mainly those with a lower income, dedicate most of their time to domestic work and caring for family members. In general, this work is not remunerated and is thus invisible to the mainstream economy, where, according to local employment surveys, women are considered inactive. The lack of statistical information concerning this work inhibits the quantification of what these women contribute economically to the country.

The survival of the human species depends on our interdependence and on the decisions we make on a daily basis. At the centre of these decisions is the question of how families organise themselves in society to procure the resources they need and take care of their members. In a study called ‘The Economy of Care in Bolivia’, Elizabeth Zamora observed that Bolivian women, especially those from low-income demographics, bear the brunt of the weight of domestic responsibilities, which thwarts their participation in political and social life. Even when women have a larger participation in the labour market, they still allocate time to performing domestic tasks, which often results in women working double or triple shifts on a daily basis.

The care economy gives value to human energy dedicated to caregiving activities.

Amongst the set of tasks considered ‘domestic’ are those specifically related to the care of individuals. According to Zamora, the demand for care services in Bolivia is directed mostly to the younger population, which can be subdivided into three categories: children up to five years old, children from five to ten years old and adolescents. The most common care tasks in Bolivian households involve getting children ready for school, feeding them, watching over them, bathing them, etc. These tasks are almost exclusively delegated to women. They are carried out by housewives, mothers, grandmothers, older daughters, close relatives, or ‘trusted’ domestic workers.

Some women, mainly those from with a higher social status, choose to leave their jobs or work from home to have more time to care for their family. The majority of Bolivian women, however, do not have the freedom to make that choice, given the professional and financial risks it may entail. According to Zamora, if Bolivian women are not at home taking care of their children, the elderly or the disabled, they are working in hospitals, nurseries, social assistance centres or caring for their family members. These women do not choose how much time they want to devote to caregiving activities. The resulting responsibility leads to a loss of autonomy for women, which limits their economic development.

The concept of the care economy has its origin in feminist economics. The care economy gives visibility and value to the human energy that is dedicated to caregiving activities. These tasks can be thought of as services that are overlooked by dominant economic theories that focus on financial relationships. Shedding light on this issue has sparked a crucial debate on the role of caregiving services in a country's economy. The care economy puts these activities at the centre of the conversation. It recognises care as an indispensable pillar of society, acknowledging that without actions of care, societies would collapse.

We all have the right to be cared for and to care for others, but who should have that obligation in society?

Given the rigid gender roles in Bolivia, not all individuals who are economically active provide a service of care. On top of the issue of gender equality, the question arises: How can society meet the growing demands of care if more women are entering the labour market in a non-caregiving capacity? This is an increasingly relevant question given the growing demand for care services due to a growing aging population.

To address this imminent crisis of care, a set of institutions, advocacy groups and people committed to improving the living conditions of women in Bolivia, established the National Platform for Social and Public Co-Responsibility of Care in October of this year. Their objective is to create spaces for analysis and debate, as well as to formulate proposals and to develop strategies aimed at mobilising the State and civil society.

Given the rigid gender roles in Bolivia, not all individuals who are economically active provide a service of care.

This initiative aims at finding a balance between the role of the State, civil society and the market in guaranteeing access to quality care services. It is implied that women should not be exclusively responsible for providing these services. There are relevant examples of other social arrangement, such as the creation of child care centres, the extension of school hours for children to do their homework at school, care centres for the elderly and campaigns to encourage men to share the weight of caregiving tasks at home.

The premise for these actions is the need for the democratisation of care and the implementation of public policies that recognise the importance of caregiving in society. This means recognising our interdependence and making sure everyone can play a role in caring for others and being cared for themselves.


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