Care work is central to human and social wellbeing. And yet, it is unpaid and rarely explicitly recognised in development interventions. International development discourse increasingly highlights unequal care work distribution as a significant barrier to women’s economic and political empowerment. How to address this topic in practice?
About the analysis of unpaid care Work
Care work can be carried out by households and families (women and men) and state, private sector and civil society actors - the responsibility is distributed
differently in different societies as the role is socially ascribed. The distribution of care work in a society is affected by economic, political and social factors. For example, an unequal distribution of care work between women and men is often attributed to traditional gender roles, or cultural or religious factors. Additionally, the provision of affordable, quality public services significantly affects the amount of time households devote to care work such as child and elder care. Where such services are not available or affordable, women may have an exhaustingly high burden of care work.
In many contexts care is perceived as being women’s work, whether it is paid or unpaid. Paid care work is often perceived to be unskilled work and conditions are insecure, informal and relatively poorly remunerated. Women from disadvantaged groups are disproportionately employed in the care sector (domestic work, home health care, etc). Paid care work is often mostly an extension of what women in a particular society do at a household level. Furthermore, unpaid care work tends to be perceived as purely reproduction-oriented and not productive “work” at all.
While unpaid (non-care) work such as subsistence agriculture is included in calculations of gross domestic product (GDP) and systems of national accounts, unpaid care work, in contrast, has remained largely invisible in economic calculations, statistics, policy and political discourse. It is commonly undervalued by society and policy makers, despite the fact that unpaid work constitutes an integral part of any functioning economy and society. Indeed, even the more conservative estimates suggest that unpaid care work accounts for some 13% of
Why analyse and address unpaid care work?
The centrality of care to sustainable development and gender equality is recognised in the Agenda 2030: “Recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate.” However, this statement stops short of advocating for the redistribution of unpaid care work and also opens a door to diluting the human rights based argument by introducing the caveat “as nationally appropriate.”
Unpaid care work is also addressed in the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), for example in point 8 of the General Recommendation 23 (1997): “Relieving women of some of the burdens of domestic work would allow them to engage more fully in the life of their communities. Women’s economic dependence on men often prevents them from making important political decisions and from participating actively in public life. Their double burden of work and their economic dependence, coupled with the long or inflexible hours of both public and political work, prevent women from being more active.”
Unpaid care work was recently highlighted as one of seven drivers in the recent report by the UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment: “Progress on the agenda to expand women’s economic empowerment depends, to a significant extent, on closing the gender gap in unpaid work and investing in quality care services and decent care jobs. ” There is a large and robust body of evidence about the extent of unpaid care work that women and girls do, and its contributions to economies around the world and to human and sustainable development outcomes.
Indeed, many international development projects rely heavily on women’s unpaid care work, as community volunteers, social mobilisers, environmental stewards, etc. For example, projects depend on but generally do not consider the implications of time spent on development ‘management tasks’ such as participation in watershed committees or water user groups, commonly created by development projects. As such management committees are often established in the frame of governments transferring management responsibilities to communities, the result is a transformation of a management task from a public service provided by a state into an unpaid investment provided by the community, often women. This unpaid work is not acknowledged or planned for with sensitivity to women’s overall burden of work. Further, when tasks are paid, or reach a higher level of responsibility and power, men tend to take over. Development projects that insist on representative levels of women’s participation in such committees, important from a participation and inclusion point of view, contribute to increasing time demands.
This note aims to provide practical guidance on how development actors can work on this topic. It provides suggestions on acknowledging and addressing unpaid care work, linking academic research, policy discourse and practice. The aim is to facilitate a process wherein women and men develop and decide on different choices for how they spend their time, rather than being automatically constrained by certain roles. Unpaid care work is cross-thematic, from a development cooperation point of view, and as such is relevant for all development practitioners.
Analysing and addressing unpaid care work: the four R's
Reduction of unpaid care work means that the time spent on unpaid care work is reduced for individual women and for society more generally. It also means reducing the drudgery of heavy and repetitive work, which can have serious physical and mental health consequences for women. This frees up time and energy for other activities. For example, unpaid care work would be reduced by having a clean water source closer to the house or through labour saving technologies such as washing machines, fuel efficient stoves, use of renewable energy for household tasks, electric grinding mill etc. The reduction of unpaid care work is often addressed through technological improvements and infrastructural development.
Redistribution of unpaid care work means that the overall amount of unpaid care work remains the same, but it is more fairly shared among different people and between public and private institutions. The key to redistribution is a consideration of equity. One example of this is where male household members take on a greater share of housework and childcare, or where states take on the responsibility to provide accessible quality public services in the care sector, such as childcare, health services, elderly care homes, and primary education. A key dimension here is what happens with male labour migration. In such contexts, women take on more agricultural tasks but without commensurate social support for child care or flexibility in gender based division of roles in agriculture. For example, in some Asian contexts women are restricted from ploughing and when the men are away they have to depend on men from other households to plough their land.
Representation refers to the observation that women are often less involved than men in leadership or decision-making positions, whether in households or in cooperatives, companies, local councils or community based organisations. As a result, women’s practical needs and challenges are often not reflected. In particular, women’s need for specific services or infrastructure to support care tasks or for better access to information and overall wellbeing often have low priority. Representation through individual and collective action is critical for women’s empowerment and to bring about a change to women’s status in society through more engagement in public life.
This can then contribute to a more collective responsibility for unpaid care work between women, men, community, the state and private sector. We understand representation not only in the sense of political representation but also economic representation, meaning being empowered economically and having the opportunity to participate in remunerative activities outside of the house. Indeed, economic empowerment may be considered a confidence builder and an enabler of political voice.
Women’s unequal unpaid care work burden is a significant factor to be addressed in this respect. Thus unpaid care work is not only a question of human rights, but also one of human and economic development. The aforementioned Panel’s report notes that gender equality is: the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.
Learn more about our lessons learned related to unpaid care work from action research and the methods applied in Nepal and Kyrgyzstan and download the full publication: