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Care and support systems: A matter of human rights

17 February 2023

Stephen Lewis Foundation supports a project that raises awareness and funds in support of African grandmothers. ©Eric Miller

“We need to radically reshape our understanding of support and care systems,” said UN Human Rights Chief Volker Türk in his statement to Member States on transforming support and care systems. “The economic and social value of care work must be recognized.”

Türk added the COVID-19 pandemic proved that our care systems are not prepared to deliver for the times we live in.

“This unpaid or underpaid work is socially unrecognized, reinforcing exclusion and discrimination faced by women and girls throughout their lives,” he said. “At the same time, the voices of those giving and receiving care – older people, those with disabilities, children or the sick – including those who are women, have not been heard, or worse, ignored.”

According to UN Human Rights, international human rights law recognizes everyone’s human rights to health, education, social protection, and participation in public life for all. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) provided a basis for all these rights in 1948. Other human rights treaties that followed further elaborated on these rights.

As part of Human Rights 75, an initiative held this year to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the UDHR, Türk “calls on States to take concrete steps towards establishing support and care systems that are human rights-based, gender-responsive, disability-inclusive and age-sensitive.”

Ignored & invisible

Women and girls with disabilities are both the recipients of support and care, and the providers of support and care, according to Rosario Galarza, Intersectionalities Officer at the International Disability Alliance.

“Despite the rising demand, the support needs of most persons with disabilities worldwide are not being met,” she said. “This became a crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic, with severe and sometimes fatal consequences for persons with disabilities.”

Galarza stressed the need for governments to invest more heavily on support systems to help women and girls with disabilities live a life free of violence and to participate more fully in their daily lives.

“Women and girls with disabilities have the right receive support and care, the right to give support and care and the right to self-care on an equal basis with others,” she said. “These rights are the key to unlocking the unrealised promise of autonomy, independence, and full participation in society for women and girls with disabilities around the world.”

Domestic work is a type of care system that is often undervalued. Novelita Palisoc has been a domestic worker for over 19 years in the Philippines and Qatar. She was responsible for doing many tasks as a domestic worker such as being a nanny, a cleaner, a chauffeur and a laundry worker — all at the same time.

“I earned so little, had no social benefits, experienced violence and even sexual harassment,” she said. “I did not say anything before because I thought I owed everything to my employers and had no right to demand for my rights or to express my grievances. Instead, I kept silent.”

Palisoc later confided in a friend about her work issues and was invited by her to join a domestic worker’s union where she took workshops to learn more about her rights as a domestic worker.

“Through trainings and seminars, I became educated and empowered,” she said. “I learned that as a domestic worker, I have rights which should never be denied or begged for; that my employers have responsibilities; and more than anything else, that I deserve respect and dignity.”

As a member of the International Domestic Workers Federation Executive Committee, Palisoc helps represent the interests of domestic workers.

We all deserve safe and fair working conditions.

Novelita Palisoc, Domestic Worker

“We all deserve to be free from shame, from abuse, from silence. And we all deserve justice, dignity, and respect,” she said.

Through these experiences she was able to find her voice and now empowers other domestic workers by informing them about their rights and how to defend these rights, by helping them negotiate their benefits, by combatting illegal recruitment, and by empowering women to speak up against violence and harassment in the world of work.

Older people who are giving care to family members or to the community are also facing many economic and social challenges. Idah Nambeya is a Zambia-based Senior Advisor to the Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign at the Stephen Lewis Foundation (SLF), which is a global movement to raise awareness and funds in support of African grandmothers.

According to the SLF, African grandmothers have stepped in to care for the more than 15 million children orphaned by AIDS across Africa and have become one of the most vulnerable groups affected by the pandemic.

“Grandmothers are experiencing a depletion of their resources, in every sense – economic, emotional and physical – because of the challenges they face in struggling to support orphans and vulnerable children (OVCs),” she said. “They have been draining their small savings, tilling small plots of land while holding off property grabbers, and studying new skills to earn more income.”

But, with the support of community-based organizations, grandmothers are developing innovative savings and income-generating activities and initiatives. They are also building a movement to ensure that government policies, programmes and strategies integrate their needs and rights, including income security, pensions and grants, land and inheritance rights, eliminating violence against women, and improving access to healthcare.

“Care and support should not merely be seen as an act of charity,” Türk said. “It’s a matter of human rights. Both those providing and receiving care and support have rights. That means support and care systems must respect and advance the enjoyment of human rights for all.”