The hidden crisis: Women, social reproduction and the political economy of care in Africa

Published on Pambazuka News, by Zo Randriamaro, March 6, 2013.

The political economy of care centres on the unpaid work of African women in socially reproducing workers as well as caring for the sick in society. Social mobilization and policy actions to overcome the crisis of reproduction is necessary to address this unpaid work that is vital for the perpetuation of neoliberal capitalism.


The concept of social reproduction – that is the process that makes it possible for individuals, families, and society itself to continue – provides the framework for this article, which is premised on the existence of a silent and hidden crisis that is affecting the invisible and undervalued realm of the real economy, i.e. the care economy which is a crucial dimension of the process of social reproduction and relies on the unpaid care work performed mainly by women for sustaining families, households and societies on a daily and generational basis … //


I argue that a political economy approach is required for a sound analysis of the current crisis of social reproduction in all its dimensions, in order to identify its root causes and to provide adequate responses.


  • There is need to address the limitations of the current human rights paradigm and practice in recognizing and responding to the dual crises of social reproduction and care. In particular, a political economy approach allows us to understand the link between these crises and relations of power and domination at local and global levels, thereby avoiding to disconnect the problem from its underlying causes and consequences, and to obscure the share of responsibilities and obligations between states and other actors.
  • In contrast to conventional economics, a political economy approach highlights the interlinkages between the economic, social and political realms, and how power operates through the structured relations of production and reproduction that govern the distribution and use of resources and entitlements within households, communities and society. A political economic approach allows one to de-bunk the myth of the unitary household model, and to make visible the hitherto hidden linkages at different levels with power relations that underpin the global economic order and macroeconomic policies, as well as the intersections with issues of class, race and other variables. The political economy analysis points to three key elements that affect both the depth and prevalence of the crises of care and social reproduction.
  • First is the sexual division of labour within the public and private spheres, which is underpinned by gender norms and ideologies that hold women primarily responsible for unpaid work in the households, thus creating inequalities in bargaining power in the household between men and women. Caring professions in the public sphere and labour market that are similar to the ‘feminine’ unpaid care work are also undervalued, while the detachment of unpaid care work within the human rights movement from the broader struggle for social and economic equality has led to its perception as women’s only problem.
  • The second element is the contemporary global macroeconomic environment. Neoliberal free market policies and the quest for cheap sources of labour and maximum profit have disrupted local economies and dramatically changed labour markets through deregulation, flexibilization and casualization of work. It is in this context that on the one hand, women from developing societies have entered into wage employment on an unpreceded scale. On the other hand, the neoliberal policy environment has also led to their increased workload in the market and at home, and to the feminization of poverty, especially among unskilled and marginalized poor women, who lack access to productive resources and basic capabilities (Erturk, 2009). Such poverty, marginalization and lack of protective mechanisms, make women easy targets for abuse and undermines the prospects for the progressive realization of their rights (Elson, 2002).
  • The third key element highlighted by the political economy analysis of care is related to the gendered impacts of globalization, which have involved in many instances the ‘privatization of public services and infrastructure that regresses women’s rights by placing greater burden on their labour in the household, as well as the establishment of political and legal systems with limited or no significant participation by women’ (Erturk, 2009: 12).



  • Since 2003, researchers have called for attention to a growing crisis of social reproduction that is most severe among the poorest segments of the populations in developing countries, due to the fiscal crisis of the state and the policy choice for cutbacks in public provisions for social services (Gill and Bakker 2003). These authors have pointed to the dual processes of ‘wider privatization’ of state functions and ‘reprivatization’ of key institutions of social reproduction (education, health and social services) as part of the on-going neoliberal reforms (Gill and Baker 2003).
  • Those reforms also involve a new framework for resource allocation for social and individual welfare between the state, the family, the market and the voluntary and informal sectors. In this new framework, social life is marketized with the commodification of spheres of society that were previously shielded, and citizens having become responsible for helping themselves.
  • This marketization of citizenship has resulted in crises and transformations in social reproduction, and has led to worsened human insecurity, with increased struggles for survival among the poorest. In addition to the neoliberal policies aimed at the free movement of capital and deregulation, all these circumstances have required a return to community-based survival strategies (reprivatization) that rely primarily on women’s initiatives and labour (Hunter, 2005).



  • The dominant development policies have failed to acknowledge that gender roles are continually challenged by social and economic changes as well as by political and legal reforms, and that women’s reproductive labour capacity is not infinitely elastic. In particular, policy makers have failed to acknowledge the crisis of care in Africa due to the heightened demand for and burden of women’s reproductive work resulting from the cumulative effects of hunger, HIV/AIDS, cutbacks in government expenditures, economic downturn and crises, and fiscal austerity measures, just to name a few.
  • Current trends in family structures and gender division of labor, whereby women continue to provide most of the unpaid care work, are exacerbating inequalities in well-being between women and men, as well as the impact of wealth and income inequalities between and among the different categories of women, with far-reaching implications for outcomes among the future generation, including the perpetuation of gender inequalities (Floro, n.d.).
  • As mentioned earlier, this evolving crisis of care for people is due to growing inequalities within and across societies with respect to access to care and subsistence necessities, and to the priority given to the requirements of market production over those of social reproduction in economic resource allocations (Floro, n.d.). This is in spite of the need to address care through public policy, which is now more urgent than ever in the face of the intensified need for care services in the context of increased women’s time poverty for unpaid care work, age-ing populations, major health crises (especially HIV/AIDS) coupled with recurrent food and economic crises.
  • Meanwhile, as care giving is essential for human survival, the burden of care work has been shifted back onto families, with women and girls often acting as the ultimate safety net. There are, however, serious limits to how far burdens can be unloaded onto the unpaid care economy without damaging human capabilities and the social fabric
    (Razavi 2007, UNRISD 2010, Elson 2009). The housewives living in the urban areas of several African countries who participated in the 2008 food riots have called for attention to such limits: indeed, they went in the streets not only to protest against higher food prices, but also to warn about the fact that they were tired and unable to withstand the drain on their capacity to act as stabilisers in the face of the impacts of the economic crisis on their households (Randriamaro, 2012).
  • And yet, this is a crisis that continues to be ignored, and one which the world continues to dismiss, even as its magnitude requires a global response. The new conditions of reproductive work, along with the changes in family structures and in the global macroeconomic environment require urgent social mobilization and policy actions to overcome the crisis of reproduction.

The pre-requisites for achieving this goal include:

  • the recognition of the value of unpaid care work, its reduction, and more equitable redistribution between men and women as well as between states, communities and families;
  • a re-thinking of the sites of social reproduction, away from the privatized sphere of the family and towards a socialized care system;
  • the conscious decision to refuse to have women and vulnerable social groups – such as children, the elders, immigrant workers – pay the price for social reproduction; and,
  • the engagement with the development of an alternative economic paradigm that fully integrates unpaid care work and that can ensure adequate social reproduction.

(full long text, end notes and references).


Samir Amin: Chávez Has Died, But the Bolivarian Revolution Continues, on Mr Zine, by EFE, March 9, 2013: The President of the World Forum for Alternatives (WFA), Egyptian economist Samir Amin, today paid tribute to the late president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, whose death he called a great tragedy;

Nicolas Maduro sworn in as Venezuela acting president following Hugo Chavez death, on, March 9, 2013;

Nicolás Maduro on en.wikipedia.

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