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Q&A: Why Not Wages for "Women’s Work"?

Mirela Xanthaki interviews JAN PETERSON of the Huairou Commission

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 17 2009 (IPS) - Caring for children, ailing relatives and neighbours, cooking and cleaning – all of it feels like “work,” but without the regular paycheque.

Jan Peterson Credit: Huairou Commission

Jan Peterson Credit: Huairou Commission

Gender activists note that the vast majority of care givers are women, and the time they spend keeping households and communities running smoothly often prevents them from finding paid employment outside the home. At the same time, the lack of remuneration creates the impression that shouldering these kinds of responsibilities is of little value to society.

“Women want to be invested in, they want to have more training, but they want to do their own training too,” says Jan Peterson, who has devoted more than three decades to grassroots and local organising around women’s issues. “They want to be supported at building their own capacity in this work.”

A resident of Brooklyn, New York, Peterson is the founder and chair of the secretariat of the Huairou Commission, and also founder of GROOTS International, a women’s empowerment and development network.

“For poor women in Africa, working in HIV/AIDS care-giving is an everyday necessity, but also it is an entry level for organising and building power for themselves,” Peterson told IPS during the recent U.N. Commission on the Status of Women conference here. “Other people talk about the burden of care – people like me, who has an Alzheimer’s husband, or other people that have sick people at home.”

Excerpts from the interview follow.

IPS: How long has the issue of compensating for care work been on the table? JP: Wages for housework was on the agenda as long as I can remember and believe me, I go back to 1975 and the first conference [in Mexico City]. The women’s movement has been on this topic forever and we are actually tired of the topic because now is the time to act.

The first grassroots presence at a conference was in Huairou [China]. That is why we have this name – that is the city where the NGOs met during the Beijing conference [in 1995].

I feel great hope out of the excitement of doing the research and the fact that the women themselves have formed what they call the “Home Based Care Alliance” which is within countries and across countries. When poor women begin to organise, people usually listen because they say “Oh, that’s cute,” but now people are listening in terms of the strategies, from the Dutch to the G77 countries.

IPS: How do you go about placing a monetary value on care work? JP: Different groups have different opinions on how they want to be compensated. Some groups are saying that they want to be paid for their work, while others say that they don’t want to become an employee of the state. Instead of a minimum wage salary, they want other things. They may want financial support to add to a savings and credit club, they may want to get a piece of land so that they get extra food for their families and the people they are taking care of.

Lots of them said that they wanted to be given a status that they were caregivers so that they could make themselves visible. If they have a card, some kind of credentials, like all members of a professional organisation, it would make their work a lot easier.

IPS: How will the discussions proceed? JP: We talked with a lot of governments while they were here and they seem to be very interested, but they worry when you start to mention money. In a time of financial crisis, there is a need to look at how to put people to work, so that can be one way.

We have organised groups of caregivers in many countries, but in six of these countries the women are doing their own research. There is a quarter-million-dollar grant called “Compensation for Contribution” done together with UNDP where grassroots women are taking actions themselves, interviewing care givers within their countries (300 in each country) and they are going to show what their work has contributed to that community, to that city.

Some want pay, some want other things and they are fighting about it, it is not an easy proposition.

IPS: What other public policies would be useful? JP: There are many strategies available. What we have to ask ourselves is what kind of society do we have and what kind of institutions do we want to put in place. Do we want to have a place where people dying of AIDS are taken care of by their neighbours? Do we want to create grandmother centres so that grandmothers who are raising orphans have a place to go and they are not isolated in their homes, where they take support from each other, share frustrations and earn money from some small selling of products?

We don’t want everything run by the government, but the government can run and support a variety of initiatives. I would rather be taken care of by my neighbour than a stranger I don’t know. Who wants to go to a nursing home anyway?

IPS: What about male care givers? JP: Men care givers do exist and some talk about [their numbers] becoming more when you start to pay. Our group from Honduras talked (at the U.N. conference) about being fifty-fifty men and women. In fact, there is a large section of gay men that were care givers and they were open to push for this diversity.

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