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To galvanize progress on gender equality, take action on unpaid care work

Photo of Julie Delahanty

Julie Delahanty

President, IDRC
A photo of Annet Abenakyo Mulema

Annet Abenakyo Mulema

Senior Program Officer, IDRC

Every day, Magdaline Masinde drops off her two-year-old daughter at a daycare centre before going to sell soap in one of the city’s bustling markets in the city of Nakuru, Kenya. 

“After my first pregnancy, I kept my son at home and did office cleaning work occasionally,” she explains. “But with two children, I needed to find more regular work.”  

Instead of bringing her daughter to work or trying to find makeshift childcare solutions, Magdaline relies on the Kidogo daycare centre in her working-class neighbourhood. Kidogo provides training for informal childcare providers so they can create a high-quality, safe and healthy environment for preschoolers in low-income neighbourhoods, freeing mothers to pursue livelihoods and careers. 

Globally, the movement to recognize, reduce and redistribute unpaid care work has gained momentum. On October 29, 2023, in fact, the world observed the first-ever UN International Day of Care and Support: a powerful reminder that the care economy, both paid and unpaid, is crucial to the future of decent work, sustainable societies and economies and to achieving gender equality. 

The timing of this new UN day, after the COVID-19 lockdowns brought the importance of the care economy and the world’s childcare crisis into sharp focus, is no coincidence.  

The care economy was further propelled into the spotlight recently when Claudia Goldin won the Nobel Prize in Economics for research pivotal to our understanding of why gender gaps exist and which uncovered key societal drivers, including care work, in restricting women’s earnings and preventing them from reaching their potential.  

Globally, about 50% of women participate in the labour market compared to 80% of men, but women earn on average 20% less and are less likely to reach the top of the career ladder.  Even before the pandemic, Canadian women were spending 1.5 hours more each day on domestic responsibilities and caregiving than men. And when COVID-19 precipitated the crisis of care for children and elders, 12 times as many Canadian women as men stopped working.  

Social and cultural norms dictate that women should shoulder most of the responsibility for unpaid care. These norms need to change. Partners, communities, businesses and governments must each play a role in balancing women’s unpaid care and paid work responsibilities. 

Canada has led on care work worldwide, in part through initiatives such as the Scaling Care Innovations in Africa – which seeks to recognize, reduce and redistribute unpaid care work through tested policy and program innovation – and Women RISE, a global initiative supported by three Canadian research funders, which is looking at the unpaid care responsibilities of women healthcare workers. 

In the meantime, Kidogo is growing in Kenya.  

Kidogo has partnered with the African Population and Health Research Center in research that will help to scale the franchising model. They are providing evidence and expertise for the development of Kenya’s unpaid care and domestic work policy now underway. 

Today, Magdaline is earning a living, knowing that her child is in good care. For mothers like her, childcare offers the promise of equality and opportunity. And yet unpaid care is not just a women’s issue – its recognition, reduction and redistribution is vital for the future of our economies and societies and a cultural imperative. It is time to act and ensure that unpaid care work is no longer an obstacle, but rather a priority that galvanizes global action towards gender equality.