Throughout the year, ASEAN member states will hold various meetings with the primary objective of moving forward the ASEAN Community Vision 2025 of a peaceful, stable, resilient, outward looking, connected and empowered region with vibrant, sustainable and highly integrated economies.

With this year’s theme of “ASEAN Matters: Epicentrum of Growth” under Indonesia’s chairship, ASEAN is expected to focus on strengthening economic recovery from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Parallel with its effort to realise an integrated economy, the ASEAN bloc is also on a journey to introduce a “care-sensitive dimension into national and regional gender policies”. In 2021, during the peak of the pandemic, ASEAN leaders agreed to work on the “Comprehensive Framework on Care Economy”.

The International Labor Organisation (ILO) estimates that in Asia and the Pacific, 1.1 billion people spend eight hours in the day doing unpaid care work – taking care of dependents – as well as indirect care tasks, such as cooking, cleaning, domestic work and the collection of fuelwood and water. Women perform 80 per cent of the total hours of care work and spend 4.1 more time than men on doing this physical and mental labour for free.

The Framework is the first essential step on achieving greater gender equality by recognising unpaid care and domestic work and its invaluable contribution to the functioning of our societies and economies. It focuses on six broad strategies that are expected to address the current and future societal needs arising from demographic change, societal inequalities and sustainable development challenges.

At the 42nd ASEAN Summit plenary session held in May this year, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr proposed to address the concerns of the region’s ageing population. “Consistent with Asian tradition of valuing our elders, we must view this both as an opportunity and as a challenge, especially in terms of adequate social benefits on one hand and social empowerment on the other,” he said.

This is a significant statement as the demographic shift in the region will intensify women’s care work in the future. The current care models and investments within ASEAN predominantly focus on maternal and childcare roles, overlooking the impending demographic shift.

The Framework acknowledges that low fertility rates in several countries of the region and changes in women’s workforce participation could affect the traditional system of families taking care of the elderly. It speaks about the need to ‘create effective responses – both intelligent policy making and practical solutions to help societies prepare for the challenges on institutional care, community-based care, training and support for care-givers’.

A momentum has been built in the region and countries like Cambodia and Indonesia are working on national action plans for care economy. But more needs to be done. In the past 20 years, the gender gap in unpaid care work has decreased by only seven minutes – from 1 hour and 49 minutes to 1 hour and 42 minutes. At this rate, it could take almost 300 years to fill this gap!

Most ASEAN member states lack comparable statistics to measure progress in women’s unpaid care and domestic work. Other than Cambodia and Thailand, member states do not have national sample survey data on how many hours individuals devote to paid and unpaid work. Integrating time-use surveys and other household and labor force surveys into national statistical systems can help quantify the economic effects of policies geared towards reducing women’s burden of unpaid work and increasing their labour force participation.

Economic growth in the region has enabled the provision of infrastructure such as clean water, sanitation, transportation and food in urban spaces. However, these “engines of liberation” that enable women to spend less time doing very low productivity tasks are yet to reach those living in rural areas.

ILO estimates that there are 244 million informal workers in the ASEAN region. Asia and the Pacific region hosts the largest share of the world’s women domestic workers, at 52.1 per cent. A total of 67 per cent of domestic workers are covered by country labour laws and/or regulations specific to domestic workers.

Increased investments in universal social protection schemes, including social protection floors, and targeted programmes for women and girls can enhance the impact of existing social insurance and assistance programmes implemented by ASEAN member states. Caregiver representation, voice in social dialogue and ability to collectively bargain for better benefits and work conditions are some of the ways in which women and their care work can gain visibility in policy processes.

Redistributing unpaid care work requires tackling gender norms between women and men. In 2020 an Asian Development Bank study in Laos found that men would like women to take up more paid work, but there was no recognition that this shift might require a rebalancing of roles in the household.

Instead, men perceived household work to be a waste of time and preferred not to participate in domestic work or household chores. The study further mentions that despite the understanding among women and men that unpaid care work should be reduced, there is little encouragement for redistribution within policy dialogue, community norms, or in practical terms, at the household level.

The way ahead for ASEAN is to encourage more regional cooperation and the unique context of the region necessitates learning from each other, offering valuable insights that may not be readily available from global perspectives. ASEAN has an opportunity to establish itself as a policy leader on care in Asia by championing the outlook that spending on care is an “investment” in its future.

Myrah Butt is Gender Justice Policy and Advocacy Manager at Oxfam International. Sophoan Phean is National Director of Oxfam in Cambodia

The views expressed are their own.