Understanding the care economy in Southeast Asia

Tuesday 23 January 2024

What does the care economy look like in Southeast Asia? When it comes to looking after children, the elderly and disabled communities, who is doing the work and how is this labour valued, perceived and compensated? To answer these questions, we undertook a landscape study of the care economy in three Southeast Asian countries: Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia, as part of our partnership with Investing in Women (IW). IW is a multi-country Australian Government initiative in Southeast Asia that seeks to accelerate women’s economic empowerment through increased and equitable opportunities in the private sector, contributing to inclusive, sustainable economic recovery and growth in targeted countries.

The research is clear: most of the unpaid care and domestic labour in this region is done by women and this disproportionate burden of care hinders their ability to work and fully participate in the paid economy. This unequal division of care is driven by broader gender stereotypes and norms that depict nurturing as a “natural” skill of women and therefore less valuable than other forms of labour. Paid care work is similarly female dominated, with women making up the majority of the care workforce and is similarly under-valued. Ultimately, these gendered patterns in the care economy are dictated at a systems level by social policies and reinforced through the feminisation and female-dominated nature of the workforce, which mean it is taken less seriously and consequently compensated less than other industries.

There are no agreed definitions when it comes to care work: what counts as care, who is doing the caring and how we talk about it varies from country to country and is constantly adapting and evolving. This makes it hard to draw comparisons, create policy and share common learnings across countries. The care economy in our case study countries (Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam) is complex and dynamic, with a wide range of actors involved in shaping the provision and development of care. Besides communal and family systems, we identified four main actors playing a key role in providing care and/or developing relevant policies and interventions in the three countries: government, non-government organisations (NGOs), international organisations, and the private sector.

So, what can be done to engage with these key players to boost women’s economic empowerment in the care economy in these countries? Our study identified several key gaps and opportunities to address the gender imbalance in the care sector in our case study countries, including:

  • Shifting social norms: There are many channels that can be harnessed to change social expectations around caregiving roles and support the more equitable distribution of care – such as media, education, government, or community initiatives. For example, policies like paid parental leave, subsidised or affordable care services and flexible work arrangements can be promoted using social media and other widely accessible communication channels. Additionally, gaining a deeper understanding of how norms change around caregiving can help policymakers and other actors identify opportunities to advance more equitable care distribution.
  • Working with organisations to strengthen and establish standards: To improve the quality and professionalism of care in Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia, it is essential that care policies are designed to address the challenges in the sector, identify and meet current and future needs and draw on the evidence of what’s worked in other developed and developing countries. This will require creating best practice guidelines, standards, and training in collaboration with training institutions, government policymakers, and private sector organisations.
  • Encouraging government policy change: Governments need to invest further in the care economy. This can be done by presenting clear and empirical evidence of the demand for and benefits of such investments and ensuring that policies are informed by private sector perspectives, such as employers, policy implementers and key stakeholders in the care economy. External non-state actors, such as private sector partners and international development partners, can play a critical role in helping governments to coordinate investments in the care economy, with a focus on countries with emerging economies.
  • Supporting individuals: Micro-level interventions can empower people in their daily lives. Women are a large part of the care economy worldwide, and their quality of life is impacted by the formal and informal care system. More research is needed to understand the impact of rising costs on families' ability to provide care and to map the relative demand for and access to care services by geography and demographics. Once this evidence is available nationally, relevant policies can be developed to address these challenges.

IW has partnered with GIWL as the primary research partner for its current phase of the program. GIWL provides IW with skills and expertise to develop globally recognised research, thought leadership and provides expert inputs into IW's strategic direction and evidence-based approach. You can find out more about this work here.

This article was written by Dr Elise Stephenson (Deputy Director GIWL), Dr Gosia Mikolajczak (Research Fellow, GIWL) and Dr Betty Barkha (Research Fellow, GIWL) and summarises findings from our landscape study Understanding the Care Econonomy in Southeast Asia. You can read the full report here.

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Updated:  23 January 2024/Responsible Officer:  Institute Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications