Everyone is familiar with the term ‘care’ as it is experienced in his/her lifetime in various forms. We take it lightly as it seems ordinary. However, this term bears great gravity. A new branch of knowledge is being developed on care ethics. Care ethics has wider implications such as care of self, needy, animal or the environment. Most importantly, it tries to bring to the fore the actors whose contribution is neglected. This work briefly discusses care ethics from gender and development perspectives.
Vulnerability and interdependences are closely associated with care ethics. As human beings, we are vulnerable at any given moment right from birth till death. Our life is intricately connected with other human beings and nature. We need care all the time, though we may not notice the care we are receiving or giving. Notable intellectuals who have contributed to explore and enrich our understanding on care ethics include Carl Gilligan, Nel Noddings, Joan Tronto, Patricia Paperman and Sandra Laugier, among others.
Voice to voiceless
Care ethic helps us to see what has been taken for granted. It helps to give voice to the voiceless. Mothers, wives or sisters tend to the needs of their children, husbands and brothers. They feed family members, clean and maintain the house. However, effort of a female of taking care is hardly acknowledged by her family members. We think that it is natural. Care work in our society has been lost in the gendered notion of a ‘dutiful wife’ and a ‘loving mother or sister.’
A mother wakes up early, cleans the house, cooks and feeds the family in the morning. In the afternoon, she toils in the farm and returns to attend to the regular domestic chores. This has been the routine of a woman for generation in rural Nepal. In urban areas, mothers or wives do the ‘double shift’ if they are doing formal jobs in the afternoon as they also attend to domestic chores. Access to economy may give them a sense of empowerment. However, that does not compensate the care work they regularly undertake for their families. Hard labour for extended period can result in serious health hazard of women.
Care work does not only result in somatic problem it also has psychological aspect. In some cases, domestic maids continue to take care of children even if their employers are mean and rude to them or even if they are underpaid because the maids develop sentimental attachment with the children. As such, in giving care, the emotional labour of women is unaccounted for. This is also true in the case of airhostesses, nurses and beauticians, who are mostly women. In these professions, salary the women workers get or the money they earn may only compensate their physical work. Beauticians are likely to have regular clients, and the clients have special bondage with them because the profession of a beautician is built upon trust. Even as a beautician attends to her clients, she also listens to their stories and frustration. Similarly, a nurse shares the suffering of her clients.
Care ethics also involves rights aspect. Certain sections of society such as children, destitute, sick persons and senior citizens have rights to have care. Care ethics is not as simple as we presume. It is not just about giving and receiving care. Care can be complex as it can involve the issue of domination and victimisation. One may be playing the role of an oppressor while giving care and the recipient could be feeling dominated and oppressed.
Care ethics is most crucial in the world of development. Development organisations/ workers are in the dominant position. Though their motive is to provide care, sometimes their action of providing care could be infringing on the rights of the beneficiaries. For example, a development project has an ambitious plan of providing livelihood skill to a certain number of youths in a locality. The objective is to equip them with skill so that they do not have to migrate abroad to work in risky informal sectors. An organisation imparts pottery training. Post training, it provides them with equipment and seed money to start their pottery business. The youths, who were enthusiastic about the training and their skill, may later decide to discontinue their venture and opt for another type of work or even migrate abroad. The organisation could perceive this as its failure.
Concerned over the resources invested in the beneficiaries it could exert pressure on them to continue with the pottery business. Doing so hinders the agency and freedom of the beneficiaries because the organisation is dictating the life course of the individuals on the pretext of doing care work. People have rights to dream and craft their own future. They have rights to say no to the service someone offers them and chose their favorite profession. Rather, development organisations can help vulnerable people to make informed choice.
Care ethics is not all about human beings alone. It incorporates the environment and animals as well because we care for animals and the environment. Our life is a part of the eco-system. This piece of writing only draws an outline on what care ethics is. In fact, care ethic is a profound philosophy, which needs to be approached seriously. Care ethics deserves due attention from researchers, policymakers, government and its development partners to create a just society.
(Ojha is a communications officer, Winrock International, Nepal.)