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How Bogotá cares for its family caregivers

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Around the world, women and girls end up doing most of the caregiving in a family - looking after young children, the sick, the elderly. According to a recent estimate, if women were paid just minimum wage for this work, they would add nearly $11 trillion to the global economy, but caregiving is largely unseen and unpaid. In Bogota, Colombia, the mayor decided it was time to do something about this, and a few years ago, the city launched a groundbreaking program, one that focuses on helping the city's caregivers and easing the invisible load that they carry. NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee reports.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Thirty-year-old Katerine Lozano Rios works for the women's affairs office in Bogota. She says in Colombia, women are just expected to be the caregivers, like the women in her family.

KATERINE LOZANO RIOS: (Through interpreter) All the women around me were caregivers, and they had to abandon their education for it.

CHATTERJEE: And all that work inside the house went unacknowledged. As for the men, she says, they had a higher status because they were the breadwinners.

RIOS: (Through interpreter) They never had to do anything in the house.

CHATTERJEE: Rios, who's a strategy leader for the new program, says the program is trying to shake up this rigid division of labor to improve the lives of caregivers and help them find paid work. Take Ruth Infante. She's a single mother of three.

RUTH GOMEZ INFANTE: (Through interpreter) My name is Ruth Gomez Infante. I'm 42 years old, and I'm a caregiver.

CHATTERJEE: Ruth and her kids live with her parents, sister and niece.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

CHATTERJEE: It's about 2 p.m., and she's just back home after picking up her 9-year-old daughter from school.

INFANTE: (Speaking Spanish).

CHATTERJEE: She unzips her daughter's pink backpack to check for homework, and then Ruth plops down in a chair with a sigh of relief. Her eyes look tired behind her glasses. Her day started at 5 a.m.

INFANTE: (Through interpreter) It's total chaos here between 5 and 6 in the morning. I'm usually yelling to my kids, Estephan (ph), hurry up. Ivan, why are you still in the shower?

CHATTERJEE: Once the kids are out the door, it's time to help her parents.

INFANTE: (Through interpreter) When my papa and my mama have doctor's appointments, I'll have to drop off my kids and then come back and pick my parents up.

CHATTERJEE: And so it goes. Ruth's been a full-time caregiver for years. She doesn't mind the work, but it is relentless and money's tight. And she's had little time for herself, even when her brother died by suicide a few years ago.

INFANTE: (Through interpreter) My mother was devastated. My father was devastated too. So were my children. And I remember a moment where I felt like I was sort of crumbling, but I couldn't afford to.

CHATTERJEE: With everyone depending on her, she had to hold it together. Studies show that caregiving is stressful and puts caregivers at a higher risk of symptoms of anxiety and depression. But the city's new program for caregivers is changing that for people like Ruth.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

CHATTERJEE: It's about 9 in the morning, and Ruth is at a cardio class with a dozen or so other women. They're in a large room overlooking a neighborhood on the slopes of the Andes Mountains.

(CROSSTALK)

CHATTERJEE: Ruth's worked up a sweat. She looks happy, smiling and chatting in between songs. This center is one of the 20 Care Blocks launched by the new program called Manzanas del Cuidado. It offers a range of free services - education, child care. Ruth comes here every week.

INFANTE: (Through interpreter) I take advantage of the time when my daughter Diana is at school to dedicate some time to myself.

CHATTERJEE: Ruth has also taken training courses to freshen up her resume. She'd like to find a paid job.

INFANTE: (Through interpreter) Maybe I could work four hours, but four flexible hours.

CHATTERJEE: Her family still depends on her, and she wants to be there for them. But for Ruth and most caregivers, finding jobs with flexible hours is tricky. There just aren't many jobs offering that. Natalia Ramirez Bustamante studies gender issues and employment at the University of the Andes in Bogota.

NATALIA RAMIREZ BUSTAMANTE: In my interviews with employers, it was very often the case that they mentioned the need for the workers to be there at all times during working hours.

CHATTERJEE: What's worse, she says, is that employers actively discriminate against female job applicants. Women are sometimes made to take a pregnancy test when they apply for a job. Ramirez Bustamante says employers have admitted this to her in her research, even though the practice is illegal.

BUSTAMANTE: I asked whether they carried out any lab exams before giving a job to a candidate. And in two cases, the heads of human resources of the two big businesses in Colombia said, the only test that we order is a pregnancy test.

CHATTERJEE: Changing this kind of discrimination, she says, is beyond the scope of this new program for caregivers. But her research shows that it has made a profound difference in the lives of women by showing them that all that time spent looking after others, that's work, too. And it's valuable work that should be shared by family members. Ruth says that's already happening in her family.

INFANTE: (Through interpreter) Everything I learn at the Care Block, I will tell my kids.

CHATTERJEE: And now her kids are helping her out at home.

INFANTE: (Through interpreter) For example, my son Carlos Ivan helps his grandpa take his insulin.

CHATTERJEE: And that's lightened her load a little so she can start making room in her life to find work that can bring in some money.

Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.