(9 January 2017) Whether they mind their siblings, look after the sick and elderly, or lend a hand with household chores, children are engaged in providing care the world over. However, most care work performed by children remains invisible, taking place in private spaces, away from the public eye and far from government policy agendas.
In order to foster discussion on the issue of children and care work in low and middle-income countries, UNICEF’s Office of Research - Innocenti recently convened an expert’s round-table in Florence. The meeting was attended by a group of leading scholars in relevant fields.
“We would like to start a conversation on how care work impacts on children’s well-being,” said Sarah Cook, Director of UNICEF Innocenti, “The aim is to bring together the evidence and create a narrative that can help put this issue on national and global policy agendas.”
The discussion drew on expertise across a range of research and practice sectors – child rights, gender, care, economics, social policy, time-use analysis and social statistics – to explore the relationship between care provision and child well-being. Topics discussed included the distribution of care responsibilities among household members, and between family, society and the state; the impact of women’s employment on care provision and outcomes for children; different models for the provision and financing of care, and research methods and the availability of data.
The special nature of care work and the complexity of distinguishing between different forms of care were examined. Diane Elson, of the University of Essex, stressed the need for a clear distinction between paid and unpaid care work, and between care work and other forms of domestic work. The important concept of a “threshold” for bench-marking when care work may lead to positive or negative impacts on child well-being was also discussed.
Elson noted that an essential component of care work is an emotional element in the relationship between the carer and person cared for – whether provided by a family member, or through social or other services. This relationship can have positive consequences for a child’s well-being and needs to be recognised in any response.
Surveys and qualitative research conducted among child caregivers in Latin America and Africa show that when children care for close family members, they may gain skills, have positive experiences and learn from adults and elders. They may gain an increased sense of self-esteem due to recognition received for their contribution to the well-being of their family. Children may thus need to be supported in their role as carers, rather than having this responsibility removed from them.
Understanding when care work shifts from being a positive to a harmful experience for children is an important challenge. Shirin M. Rai, at the University of Warwick, highlighted the difficulties in identifying such “thresholds” which depend on numerous factors. These include the age of the caregiver, the emotional involvement of the child, the nature of tasks being performed, the context in which they are carried out and the amount of time and responsibility involved.
Elsbeth Robson, of Hull University, pointed out that it is important for government and policy makers to listen to the views of child caregivers. “In many countries young carers call for more support to carry on their care work,” she said. “They ask for solutions that can help them to free some time from care duties, share experiences among other child caregivers, while they continue taking care of family members.”
The second day of the round-table was devoted to a discussion of data availability and research methods. Panelists highlighted opportunities and limitations of using qualitative and quantitative evidence, as well as the importance of longitudinal studies to track and understand the transitions of children into adulthood and their patterns of time use.
In particular experts stressed the need of more qualitative research to better understand children’s engagement in care and domestic work, by matching data on time use with information about household socio-economic status, the quality of care and emotional engagement of children.
Questions about ethics in data and research were also raised in the discussion. All participants warned about the need to be extremely careful when asking respondents for their time in the context of time poverty. Moreover, the issue of collecting potentially harmful or sensitive information when secure storage and archival is not assured was also addressed.
Evidence generation is only the first step needed as part of a broader effort to trigger policy shifts on children and care work. Efforts need to be put in place to communicate evidence and advocate for policy change. However, policy change can be challenging in a context where children (and women) caregivers are often not politically represented nor organized or mobilized.
After two days of detailed exchange enriched by the diversity of expertise among the participants, contributors expressed their willingness to continue dialogue, in order to shed more light on a global phenomenon that impacts profoundly on child well-being yet remains poorly understood and largely invisible to public policy.
Full report: Care Work and Children: An Expert Roundtable