Care-less Politics

“What you want is a slave and not a domestic worker!” cried Rosita Acosta, President of the Domestic Workers’ Association in Costa Rica in 2007 during parliamentary discussions of a proposed bill that aimed to limit domestic servants’ working hours to eight a day. This was her protestation in response to women MPs who rose against her, arguing that they could no longer participate in politics if their domestic servants did not work extended hours.¹

Costa Rica has received international acclaim for having an impressively high percentage of women in parliament (33.3 per cent) (IPU 2014). But frankly, what is the point of having so many women parliamentarians if they trample over working women’s rights in order to stay in power and worse, when they use their positions to stall social justice? Perhaps if the legislation being discussed in Costa Rica had been about giving women more welfare hand-outs, there would not have been such resistance. But the fact of the matter is that many of the women who make it to parliament globally either have no unpaid care responsibilities or are able to delegate them to domestic servants or extended family. Herein lies one of the most important missing links to why elitist women’s agendas are sometimes inimical to gender justice, and some of the most articulate young women leaders from the working class will hesitate to enter formal politics and why formal political representation remains exclusionary for women.

In a study of women’s political leadership trajectories in eight countries, unpaid care emerges as one of the strongest predictors of age and class in profiling women in politics. Women who pursue political careers are most likely to have older children, or either to have the privilege of drawing upon paid domestic help or to have women from their extended families financially able to stay at home and help them with their children. This is corroborated by a study from Franceschet and Piscopo (2012: 49) which shows that female legislators in Argentina are more likely to be single and have fewer children when compared to the national average, suggesting that family obligations may diminish their opportunities to enter politics. Not even the most progressive of quotas will address that.

A study of local women leaders in Ghana by Takyiwaa Manuh shows that among the women in local politics she interviewed, many relied heavily on their older children to assume some of the care responsibilities while they were away campaigning. Islah Jad’s study of women in local office in Palestine also shows that women rely on older children to take care of their younger siblings. Sohela Nazneen’s study of women local councillors in Bangladesh shows that women candidates rely on their mothers-in-law to supervise their homes while they are away campaigning and discharging their official duties. Mother-in-laws could afford to employ domestic workers to perform household chores on behalf of their daughter-in-laws and they have a vested interest in their family being in power.

While in Ghana, Egypt, Bangladesh and Palestine, women politicians’ life histories suggest that husbands and partners played a positive role in endorsing their political careers (for all kinds of reasons), it is predominantly demonstrated in the areas of helping with campaigns, networks, public speeches and rarely features in the form of continued unpaid care (as opposed to occasional). If we think we are en-gendering the face of politics by merely introducing affirmative action, we can think again. When local council meetings and parliamentary sessions are held in the evenings and extend to late into the night, when political leaders meet over weekends to discuss informal alliance and coalition building, you know they are most likely to be the patriarchs or the elites with little or no unpaid care responsibilities. Many of these patriarchs whether from privileged or working class backgrounds would suggest that if women can’t balance home responsibilities and politics, they should not be there.

Politics will continue to be gender biased if unpaid care is not broached. Instead of only asking women politicians how they manage family responsibilities with their political career, the media should be asking the same questions of male candidates and MPs. Male politicians’ dismissals of unpaid care responsibilities be it with respect to their children, or their elderly or sick relatives should not be justified on the basis of their political responsibilities. Conversely, positive examples of male political leaders who are responsive to unpaid care issues should be recognised and engaged with, though not as heroes but just as responsible citizens.

If we are serious about dealing with elitist politics and how the intersections of gender and class work to keep women out of formal politics, unpaid care is one good place to start. Many young women with families and with well recognised leadership skills and a strong constituency base choose informal activism because of the flexibility it affords. They choose not to make the leap from the informal to the formal because of its inherent constraints to their ability to meet unpaid care responsibilities. The way politics is done and run needs to factor in unpaid care. Processes of deliberation and decision-making be they at the local or at the parliamentary level need to be sensitive to unpaid care responsibilities and how they feature in timelines. In Ghana many local councillors interviewed said they would not consider running for office for a second term because the job was taking too harsh a toll on their finances and families. Unpaid care responsibilities were a factor.

Political empowerment programmes to encourage women to enter (and stay) in formal politics are almost universally rolled out around the world. It would be interesting to research how many of them take unpaid care responsibilities for women into consideration in their design and implementation. Do they select training days with due consideration for childcare? Do they assume that women can be away from their homes until late in the evening because they are attending workshops? Do they take into account how some women may go through dormant phases in their political trajectories because of a sick parent or relative, but that this does not mean they are out of the race? Do they still get invited to capacity-building programmes?

We are not suggesting that tackling unpaid care issues is the magic bullet for narrowing the gender gap, ensuring that more women stay in politics and addressing all the class biases in politics. However, it is to say that a politics without due attention to care has perpetuated all kinds of unequal power relations that intersect across class and gender. It’s a vicious circle that ends with women and men advocating for agendas in parliament that are incongruent with gender and social justice because they have vested class interests in maintaining the status quo. If we are to build virtuous circles for inclusive politics, looking at unpaid care may help us bring in women with young families, working class women who don’t have the luxury of domestic servants or those women without access to extended family to help with their commitments, and help create a community of sharing in which men and women share the joy and pain of care responsibilities and engage in politics because – not in spite of – that.


Franceschet, S. and J. Piscopo (2012) ‘Gender and Political Backgrounds in Argentina’, in S. Franceschet, M. Krook and J. Piscopo (eds), The Impact of Gender Quotas, Oxford University Press: Oxford

¹ This incident is told by Sagot in her paper “Does the Political Participation of Women matter? Democratic Representation, Affirmative Action and Quotas in Costa Rica, IDS Bulletin 41, issue 5, September 2010, p31

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