Despite notable progress in the development of a publicly funded care system, most care in Colombia is still provided by unpaid family members or informal low-paid domestic workers, a pattern that perpetuates gendered, racialized, and class-based inequities.

As in many countries, women in Colombia dominate the paid and unpaid care sectors. An aging demographic and increasing numbers of women in the paid workforce put more pressure each year on a family-based model of unpaid care. In 2017, the value of unpaid care in Colombia was estimated at 186 billion pesos1, a figure which surpassed any other single sector in the country and was 77% comprised of female labour (DANE Gobierno de Colombia 2020). When their paid and unpaid labour are combined, Colombian women work on average two hours more than men every day (DANE Gobierno De Colombia 2018).

Furthermore, the COVID-19 economic crisis has hurt women in particular: in 2020, the unemployment rate for women in Colombia was 20.4%, in comparison to 12.7% for men (Tribín Uribe et al. 2021), and poverty rates for women have also increased significantly due to the pandemic (Cuesta and Pico 2020; Hernández Bonilla et al. 2021; Quanta 2021; Mauersberger 2022).

The scope of Colombia’s public care system has expanded in recent years, following decades of civil war, economic crises, and fiscal austerity. Over the past three decades, millions of Colombians have experienced reduced poverty, improved health outcomes, and a better quality of life due to the enactment of universal health care, increased pension coverage, and numerous new and bolstered family welfare and social security programs (OECD 2016).

Yet most of Colombia’s public care systems offer support only for the most vulnerable, rather than comprehensive universal policies. These programs, then, threaten to reproduce inequality, through stigma and two-tiered services (Sepúlveda Sanabria 2017). To fill care gaps, some larger municipalities (such as Bogota, Medellín, Cali, and Pasto) have implemented social programs to support parents and other caregivers, contributing to an uncoordinated national care system (Quanta 2021). Overall, however, Colombia has relatively little preventative social programming, and continues to rely heavily on family care provision and informal domestic care workers (Carrillo et al. 2012; Quanta 2021; Ramírez Bustamente and Garzón Landinez 2021).

The informal care labour market: an intersectional issue

Colombia’s paid care economy is dominated by informal labour. This sector consists of non-salaried employees lacking job security protections, parental leave, pensions, health insurance, and other contributory social programs. With limited government support for childcare and long-term care, most families have little choice but to turn to these informal market-based solutions.

In 2019, 40.1% of Colombian women working in care were in the informal sector, compared to only 8% of men, and informality rates are even higher for Indigenous and Afro-Colombian women (Quevedo Rocha et al. 2021). Of all paid care workers, 26.6% were domestic workers in the informal market (Quevedo Rocha et al. 2021). Women in paid care work earn 43% less than male care workers and are three times more likely than men to report doing uncompensated work for their employers (Quevedo Rocha et al. 2021). Evidently, informality begets inequality and exploitation, perpetuating gendered racial hierarchies and systemic discrimination  (Salvador 2007).

The legacy of internal displacement due to Colombia’s civil war (1964 – 2016) also contributes to inequality in the informal care sector. Many urban domestic workers are internally displaced persons (IDPs) from rural areas. They are disproportionately lower educated, Black or Indigenous, young women. Working as domestic servants for middle and upper-class families is one of the few employment options available to female IDPs, but as domestic labour is hidden and precarious—since it occurs in private homes—this increases the risk of worker abuse and exploitation (Pineda Duque 2018; Shultz et al. 2014).

Childcare: a focus on the most vulnerable

Universal state funded childcare does not exist in Colombia. The national Zero to Forever campaign, which began in 2011, consists of a mix of subsidized childcare, for which only low-income families can register (Diaz and Rodriquez-Casmussy 2016; Salvador 2007). This low-cost childcare (offered in childcare centres or the homes of licensed providers) has resulted in an increase in formal childcare attendance among the most economically vulnerable families, with significantly improved early childhood education and nutritional outcomes (Bernal and Ramírez 2019). However, since only children from low-income households are eligible for this publicly funded childcare, and private centre-based childcare is unaffordable for most families, childcare for middle-income families is overwhelmingly provided by low-paid domestic workers, along with mothers and grandparents (Bernal and Ramírez 2019).

This lack of affordable, accessible childcare and after-school care remains a significant employment barrier for Colombian mothers (Aguado Quintero 2007; Ceballos-Ramos 2018; Diaz and Rodriquez-Casmussy 2016; Ramírez Bustamante 2019). In 2007, family members provided 86% of childcare in Colombia (Salvador 2007). These unpaid caregivers are usually mothers or grandmothers (or fathers and elder siblings to a much lesser extent), many of whom take their children to work with them. Female labour force participation is also negatively impacted by Colombia’s highly gendered parental leave policies, which reinforce the concept of mothers as primary caregivers of children (Friedemann-Sánchez 2012; Ramírez Bustamente et al. 2015; Tribín Uribe et al. 2019).

Long-term care: lack of formal services and regulations

Family also remains the key means of support for seniors and disabled persons in Colombia, with only a very small percentage in institutionalized care (Salvador 2007; Santos Pérez and Valencia Olivero 2015). Similarly to childcare, the publicly funded long-term care (LTC) system for Colombian seniors is not universal and is only available to those in vulnerable situations: those with neither family to care for them nor the economic means to hire a domestic care worker or pay for a private LTC home (Gómez et al. 2009).

This family-based care is frequently supplemented by informal paid care, largely due to a scarcity of formal eldercare workers and LTC institutions in the context of a rapidly aging population (Quevedo Rocha et al. 2021). In larger municipalities, there are some senior day centres funded by municipal governments or operated by non-profits (Salvador 2007). There is a dearth of LTC institutions in rural areas and small towns in particular: 65% of Colombian municipalities do not have any long-term care homes (Quevedo Rocha et al. 2021). Where they do exist, most LTC homes in Colombia are privately operated. These have been criticized for offering little choice and program options for residents, due to a lack of government regulation and oversight (Osorio Bayter and Salinas Ramos 2016). As more private long-term care homes begin to open to fill these gaps, the lack of job security and other worker protections in institutional settings is creating new patterns of feminized, racialized, and class-based labour exploitation (Pineda Duque 2018).

Support for disabled people and their caregivers is a particularly acute issue in Colombia due to the casualties from the lengthy and violent civil war. A 1993 social security reform expanded financial support for disabled persons and their family caregivers. However, evidence suggests that these social security supports for disabled persons and their caregivers have not done enough to alleviate their care burdens and that these families are disproportionately living in poverty (MINSALUD Colombia 2014).

Gendered pension inequality

A lifetime of low-paid and unpaid care work contributes to the feminization of poverty (Barcena 2009). In addition to higher informal employment rates, unemployment rates for women are also higher; when combined, the result is that women are less likely than men to be eligible for pensions upon retirement (Navarro 2006; Salvador 2007). Only 21% of retired Colombian women have access to pensions, in comparison to 31% of men (CEPAL 2017). Even women who were employed in the formal sector tend to have lower pensions, due to gendered wage discrimination and the fact that the mandatory age of retirement is 57 years for women and 62 years for men (Buchely 2013).

The program Colombia Mayor provides financial support to seniors, but—similar to other social programs in Colombia—only older adults living below the poverty line are eligible. The majority (53.1%) of Colombia Mayor’s beneficiaries are women (Ramírez Bustamante and Garzon Lardinez 2021). Thus, Colombia’s current pension and old age security systems reinforce gendered patterns of poverty, position women as dependants, and fail to recognize the social and economic contribution of women’s unpaid and low-paid care work (López Rodríguez 2019; Navarro 2006).

Recommendations: more universal care policies could help reduce inequality

The care economy in Colombia is dominated by women, primarily unpaid family labour and domestic work performed in the informal economy. Care work in Colombia continues to be largely invisible, with its social and economic contributions left unacknowledged and undervalued. (Esquivel 2011; Sepúlveda Sanabria 2017). Counter-productively, market-based “solutions” to family care burdens not only reinforce the place of care within a female home-based sphere but also further devalue it through the neoliberal prioritization of cost savings and efficiency over quality of care and labour rights. The lack of a unified and universal national plan for Colombia’s care policies reinforces and perpetuates systemic inequities, especially for the vulnerable lower-class women who comprise most domestic workers; a group which is over-represented by internal migrants, Indigenous peoples, and Afro-Colombians.

A framework for a better care system exists. Colombia’s health care system is laudable in that it is universal and has made inroads in more equitable provision of medical services for low-income, Indigenous and rural communities (Mignone and Vargas 2015; Patiño Suaza and Sandín Vásquez 2014). This is distinct from the country’s approaches to childcare, long-term care, and pensions. Although some inequalities of coverage persist, the relative success of universal health care in Colombia offers a model for reforming its care economy.

In the past decade, Colombia has made notable progress in providing free preschool access to the most vulnerable children. But a lack of affordable formal childcare remains a major employment barrier for middle-class mothers, who then turn to family or low-paid domestic labour to meet their childcare needs. A similar pattern exists in the long-term care system, in which only the most vulnerable low-income seniors and disabled persons are eligible for state funded LTC, leaving family members and domestic workers to provide the majority of long-term care. These gendered care burdens then combine with systemic pension inequality to perpetuate the feminization of poverty in Colombia.

While haphazard, informal solutions to systemic care gaps do support formal labour force participation and lessen the care burdens of middle- and upper-class women—to some extent—this configuration transfers burdens and risks to the shoulders of poor and racialized women. Echoing Esquivel’s argument for Latin America more generally (2011), the evidence discussed above strongly suggests that rather than allowing further informal and unregulated market shifts to fill its care gaps, Colombia needs to refocus its social policy agenda on the care economy, move toward more universal care services, and apply an intersectional policy lens to defeminize the concept of care and better protect all women, particularly racialized and otherwise vulnerable domestic care workers.

1 Approximately 78 million Canadian dollars, or 61 million US dollars (using July 2017 currency rates)


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Photo attribution: N. Mazars, “Colombia: between pervasive violence and oblivion” available through a Creative Commons license on Flickr