Skip to main content

Recognizing women’s unpaid care work for food security and climate resilience


Women and girls aged 15 and above work on average three times more than men on unpaid care tasks in the Global South. The disproportionate responsibility for this work and its invisibility restrict their opportunities for education, employment, livelihood support and political and social engagement. It also affects their health, reduces their leisure time and deepens their vulnerability to poverty.

Much unpaid or underpaid work from women occurs in rural areas where about 2 billion people live in small family farm households, working on land plots of not more than two hectares. There, women often manage their own small plots to grow food for their family.

Lack of recognition for unpaid care work is a barrier hindering rural and urban women’s equal access to development opportunities. Emerging evidence also suggests that climate change and environmental degradation increase this work in the home and on the land, as extreme climate events intensify, natural resources such as firewood and water become less available, and health impacts increase the need to care for others. Research also points to the crucial roles that women can play in efforts to make food systems more resilient, adapt to climate change and take care of ecosystems, particularly through their communal work.

Research highlights

  • Women and girls aged 15 and above work on average three times more than men on unpaid care tasks in the Global South. 
  • Lack of recognition for this work is a barrier hindering women’s equal access to development opportunities. 
  • Rural and urban women are at the forefront of environmental and climate action though much of their unpaid care work to make food systems more resilient, adapt to climate change and take care of ecosystems.

Unpaid care work in food systems

Women’s unpaid care work emerged as a key factor in IDRC-supported research in Ghana aimed at increasing women smallholder’s access to livestock vaccines, by challenging inequitable gender norms through community discussions and the support of gender champions. The research partner, CARE Ghana, initially found that its training and interventions for women farmers had to factor in gender norms. For example, they had to adjust the timing of their sessions to accommodate the fact that women were responsible for more unpaid domestic labour and farming tasks, which made it difficult for them to attend trainings and capacity-development activities. The project was ultimately successful in shifting many norms, including by recognizing women’s unpaid work in livestock raising. It increased women’s ability to claim ownership over their livestock, make decisions about vaccinating and selling the animals, and control the income from those sales.

CARE Ghana’s international umbrella organization, CARE International, has been raising awareness on the issue of unpaid or underpaid care work in food systems globally. According to the NGO, two-thirds of the world’s extreme poor are engaged in agriculture. Through its Decent Work for Equitable Food Systems Coalition, CARE, along with partners, is advancing equitable livelihoods by promoting labour and human rights and increasing opportunities for decent and productive employment within the agri-food sector that generates living incomes and wages.

IDRC’s partnership with Global Affairs Canada, Scaling Care Innovations in Africa, seeks to scale solutions toward gender equality in unpaid care work in sub-Saharan Africa. Many of the research projects in this initiative are addressing the unequal distribution of unpaid care work in rural and agricultural settings.

Caring for the environment

The poverty crisis in agriculture and rural economies is compounded by the stresses of climate change. People are being forced to leave the countryside for the cities in search of work and a better life, due to poverty, economic policies promoting mining and land development, and environmental changes. These migrants are more often leaving women behind with a large burden of unpaid care work. The people that do migrate sometimes end up in low-income settlements with few services. The amount of people living in these informal settlements currently exceeds 1 billion worldwide and their numbers are increasing. 

When women are displaced by climate impacts and other factors, their unpaid care work extends to the new communities and environments in which they find themselves. 

IDRC-supported research in the Reconquista River Basin, northwest of Buenos Aires in Argentina, has shed light on the environmental care role that women play. Originally from northern Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Venezuela, these women now make up a substantial proportion of the more than 4,000 inhabitants of San Martin municipality who work in an open-air dump. Their care work includes providing environmental services, such as reducing, reusing and recycling solid waste; maintaining potable water, sewage systems and green spaces; cleaning waterways; and engaging in community gardening.

Part of the research, led by the Universidad Nacional de General San Martin (UNSAM), was to develop a diploma course in Gender, Environment and Territory completed by 36 migrant women. The course, certified by the UNSAM Academic Council, tackled practical environmental and gender concepts prevalent in the Reconquista area and in the women’s lives. It aimed to provide them with tools to strengthen their role as agents of change and to successfully develop their own projects so that the vital care work carried out by women for their homes, communities and the environment may be recognized, rewarded and considered in policy development with a view to addressing climate change. 

Acting on care and climate change

IDRC has since partnered with Fundación Avina to support new research addressing the intersection of care and environmental and climate change. As climate change is disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable, especially women and girls in the Global South, women are also at the forefront of environmental and climate action. Much of their community-centred care work, such as reforestation, land rehabilitation, composting and looking after water and biodiversity, contributes to climate action and adaptation. Much of this work is also unpaid.

It is critical to address paid and unpaid care work and climate change together. Yet the links between these two issues have been overlooked in policies, programs and research. Fundación Avina will bring together care and climate evidence and learn from concrete practices that address both, including those advanced by Indigenous, feminist and grassroots organizations.