Care for the Care Takers


Thank you, your comment will be visible after it has been approved.


April 26, 2022

Care for the Care Takers

The Refugee crisis as opportunity for change

  • care
  • covid
  • Gender
  • Refugees
  • Ukraine
  • war
Photo: from @wikiwomeninred. Source: WikiCommons.

Care takers across the world have suffered disproportionately over the last two years in terms of securing their own well-being, as they navigate the ever changing landscape of the COVID pandemic. The gender disparity regarding the identity of these care takers, as well as the specific hardships they have faced, is also well documented across regions and regimes across the globe. Women everywhere have shouldered a heavier burden than men in securing the health of their families, helping their children adjust to the world of online schooling and isolation from friends, working as front-line healthcare and educational providers, and trying to stay healthy and employed themselves. 

The response of most governments has been inadequate; gender disparity in terms of health, educational attainment, and political empowerment increased from 2020 to 2021 according to the Global Gender Gap Report. Governments have failed these care takers during the crisis and, with them, those who depend on the care takers—minors, elderly, and disabled persons. With fewer women participating directly in governance, their needs and vulnerabilities have remained inadequately addressed in policy making that responds to the pandemic and other crises. In addition, the Global Gender Gap Report warned:

Gender gaps in both labor participation and income are likely to increase after the COVID-19 crisis. As reported in previous editions, the disproportionate burden of household and care responsibilities was already an important driver of these gaps even before the pandemic. (Global Gender Gap Report, 2021, 14).

Yet care takers have navigated these precarities by making do, troubleshooting, working double shifts, and serving others every day, while seldom caring for themselves. Because when you are midstream, with others more vulnerable than you depending on your ability to keep going, you keep going. COVID has certainly pushed everyone to find new ways to become resourceful, even as the pandemic has taken a high toll on our health—physical and mental. 

The war in Ukraine began in this context. While many outside expressed shock and disbelief, millions of people in Ukraine were forced to make terrible decisions to help their families. Adult men were mobilized and thus left to defend the country. Though another law was passed to allow for the mobilization of some of the female population as logistical support in the case of armed conflict, it has remained solely on the books. Many women have volunteered in place in all the capacities that men have volunteered. But many other women, as caretakers responsible for another person’s life—a child, an elderly family member, a disabled person—have packed their bags and left. The media has continuously characterized the stream of displaced persons leaving Ukraine predominantly as women or mothers with children. Another way to think about them is precisely as the necessary care taker who is tending to another human unable to take care of themselves, especially under the extreme precarity and danger posed by the war. 

The efforts made by these caretakers cannot be described simply as some kind of “natural” phenomenon, as in “of course they are leaving the country with their children, that is what mothers do, because the dads are busy defending the country.” In this division of care-taking labor, women are making hard choices, and there is nothing natural or obvious about picking up your child (or your elderly mother, or your disabled friend) and leaving everything behind—the rest of your family, all your resources, the community and relations you identify with and depend on. There is nothing secure in front, only a glimmer of hope that you will make it over the border and that you may be able to rest and ensure the person you are taking care of is out of immediate danger. I have been ridiculed for calling these people heroes.  But I insist on identifying these women as such. They have confronted danger, the unknown, and placed themselves in a position of precarity to make sure another person more vulnerable than them will hopefully come out less scathed by the terrible events and trauma of the war.  

Two years of COVID enabled these mothers to become IT specialists and logistics experts. They have learned how to read the symptoms of depression in their children’s eyes. They learned how to prepare for periods of isolation and lockdowns. This applies not only to the millions of displaced women inside and outside Ukraine. It applies also to the volunteers who have been meeting them on the other side of the border. Much has been written about the extraordinary grassroots efforts in Poland. I take the success of those efforts to be connected to the ways in which social media has become a tool for mutual support during COVID, as well as the ways in which women have informally supported each other through learning and play pods, or sharing homegrown pedagogy and tools for dealing with children overcome by the mental toll of the pandemic. Similar on-line support communities sprang up in Romania, and mothers’ support groups retooled their focus towards collecting diapers, formula, wipes, blankets, and toys for those arriving at the border from Ukraine. 

Young women show up every day at refugee centers and transit hubs to help when officials, most of them men, especially among the police force (76% in Romania, higher in the rest of Europe), stand by idly. In a well-publicized case from Bucharest, Romania, a Roma family that included several small children and one disabled elderly person, in addition to several adult women, was ridiculed and left to fend for themselves by the male policemen patrolling the refugee transit center. Their abusive attitude extended to challenging one of the older women about her intent to get some tea and bread from the waiting room.  Because she spoke Romanian, they assumed she was a local Roma woman who, “like all the gypsies,” was coming in uninvited and trying to illegitimately take some of the resources placed there for the refugees. Humiliated, the refugee retreated to her group, afraid to seek any further information or help. Two young women, unpaid volunteers, saw this and went over to help the family. They found the right train and wagon, carried the baggage of the group on the train, lifted the disabled man onto the train, brought the wheelchair on board, and then hugged the refugees, wishing them a safe trip. The entire time the policemen stood idly by, making snide remarks. 

The adage of the past applies today to its fullest: men make war, women make life. Both imply enormous personal effort and sacrifice. One of them is necessary for humanity, and it is not war. When the fighting stops, and it will, hopefully soon, the hard work of rebuilding lives and communities will commence. Caretakers hold the key to that effort. They have been practicing the art of listening and assessing problems in real time, problem solving every day because they have had to. They have managed more on their own than with assistance, because the problems of the COVID global crisis evolved constantly and no structural remedy has been able to anticipate the shifts in the vulnerabilities generated by the pandemic. These skills are now helping refugees in maintaining their focus and helping volunteers in seeing and responding to the needs of the refugees. 

The refugee crisis will continue into the future. We have already seen what it means for millions of people crossing borders out of desperation and in search for stability for those they care for. We know what has not worked in how host countries have dealt with them—in Europe in relation to Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan, and various African waves of refugees. And we know that the main difference between those waves and the current one is precisely the gender make-up of the refugees. The care takers are almost exclusively women, most of them the sole adult in the group they travel with. Some European host countries have extensive experience with such refugee waves, others not much at all. 

They key to moving beyond the crisis of the moment rests in using these past experiences and the many mistakes made along the way, as well as the experience of the COVID pandemic in terms of how women as care takes have fared, and confronting these past inadequacies as lessons for the future. Yes, there is racism in how the media and some officials are responding to the current crisis compared to the Syrian one. Yes, there is also homophobia in how persons who do not present and self-represent as “normal” mothers and women are being treated in shelters and refugee centers. And yes, there is racism in how some Roma are treated. But there is also a well of goodwill, energy, and expertise that care takers everywhere have built over the pandemic. Rebuilding past the pandemic and past the refugee crisis should become a joint effort that rewards grassroots work and engages those doing the brunt of the work, not just as the “natural” agents of care. Women are the key and need to be treated like the partners and essential participants in this process that they have clearly become. 

What this means is a move towards bringing representatives of the NGOs and informal groups providing assistance on the ground in the conversations that government entities, including the EU, are having. It means asking care takers as the real experts: what are the immediate, short term, and longer term needs of the refugee population? What problems have to be addressed in health care, access to education, employment, and childcare? It means focusing on accessibility to basic services for the disabled persons now in refugee centers, a problem that disabled persons already living in many Eastern European countries have already brought to the attention of national and international bodies. It means thinking about welfare beyond the current neoliberal options and the ethno-nationalist and homophobic restrictions that have been put in place in some countries where the refugees have ended up. 

Maria Bucur is the John W. Hill Chair of European History, Indiana University, Bloomington.

A version of this was published in Women’s History Review, vol 31, no. 2, 2022.


Leave a reaction with this article