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Reducing unpaid care work can contribute to the green transition in West Africa


Green growth and women’s unpaid care work may seem like two separate issues at first glance. But research is showing that innovative solutions that reduce unpaid care work and enable women to seize emerging opportunities in low-carbon economies are critical to a sustainable transition.  

IDRC is supporting several research projects addressing the multifaceted barriers that prevent women from leading the transition to low-carbon economies, including the unequal responsibility for unpaid work that women and girls often bear as primary caregivers. Unpaid care work comprises the care of children and the elderly as well as cleaning, cooking, fetching fuelwood and water and gardening for household consumption. Women’s disproportionate responsibility for care work reduces the time they can dedicate to paid work or caring for themselves and depletes their physical and psychological well-being. 

“Unpaid work is an important issue that needs to be addressed as women strive to lead the green transition,” said Flaubert Mbiekop, senior program specialist at IDRC. “For women to contribute to their full potential and benefit fairly from the green transition, quality evidence is needed on policy and business options to expand economic opportunities for all and to promote inclusive practices and equal access to existing and emerging opportunities.” 

The amount of unpaid care work that falls on women is significant, according to Bipasha Baruah, Canada Research Chair in Global Women’s Issues at the University of Western Ontario.  

“Through socialization of gender norms, women bear the burden of unpaid care work, especially in the Global South,” Baruah said. “In rural communities in the Global South, women walk long distances to collect water and firewood for their families. This adds dramatically to women’s care burden and deprives them of the ability to participate in other productive activities such as seeking paid work or enjoying leisure time.”  

Through its Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW) – West Africa initiative, IDRC is investing in research to generate evidence, anchored in local contexts, to build gender equal post-COVID-19 socio-economic systems. Several of these projects also contribute the transition to low-carbon economies.  

Evidence for women to lead the introduction of cook stoves  

Improved cooking stoves are an example of green solutions that preserve resources used for fuel and that reduce women’s unpaid care work by saving them the time they would need to collect wood and cook on less performing stoves. 

The Government of Senegal runs programs to introduce better performing Jambaar stoves that require 40% less wood or coal for fuel. After strong results in urban areas, the program promoting stove adoption in rural areas is proving less successful, despite efforts such as publicity campaigns targeting women and training programs for stove distributors who are mostly men. 

Research in Senegal, led by the Université de Gaston Berger, Senegal, in collaboration with Duke University, United States, aims to generate evidence on how to involve more women and women’s organizations in the stoves’ distribution chains. The key is to understand better what motivates women entrepreneurs and women’s organizations to become involved.  

They are running pilot tests using empowerment training for women vendors and beginners’ kits containing a small number of stoves to allow women with little access to capital to start selling. In a randomized controlled trial, the research team will compare impacts on sales and on the vendors and women’s organizations themselves, to identify which combination of measures is the most promising.  

Other than cookstoves, examples of sustainable time-saving technologies in Senegal include mini solar hullers and solar millet mills supported by UN Women. 

Conserving mangroves and women’s time 

In Benin, IDRC-supported research is promoting the widespread adoption of clean and environmentally friendly technologies for women entrepreneurs in the country’s mangrove regions.  

“We compared the performance of solar cookers and traditional cookers for salt production and fish smoking,” said Elie Antoine Padonou of the National University of Agriculture, Abomey Calavi, Benin. “This experimentation revealed that the solar cooker contributes to reducing significantly the demand for firewood, the time spent cooking and air pollution.”  

The adoption of solar cooking technology in salt production and fish smoking will help safeguard Benin’s mangrove areas, while also reducing the workload of women and improve their income and well-being.  

The research also studied women entrepreneurs’ unpaid care responsibilities in the region, it’s impact on the amount of paid work they do and their mostly informal arrangements with other women family members and neighbours for unpaid child and elder care. A better understanding of their coping strategies illustrates the need for care services to enable rural women to lead in the adoption of more sustainable energy solutions.  

Another IDRC-supported research team in Benin is examining the impacts of the Guev cooker on the economic empowerment of women and its prospects for scaling. 

Care, empowerment and low-carbon transitions 

IDRC has made strong investments in research to achieve women’s economic empowerment through solutions for climate action and a transition towards low-carbon economies. The Gender Equality in a Low-Carbon World initiative does just that. In some of this research, care responsibilities are emerging as constraints that prevent women from attending to income generating green opportunities. 

A strong focus on care innovations drives several IDRC investments and partnership, such as the Transforming the Care Economy through Impact Investing initiative, a parallel grant with the Visa Foundation to jointly strengthen private sector innovations in the care economy in Asia and the Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW) – East Africa initiative. Some of the care innovations identified and being studied are also low-carbon solutions.  

IDRC’s emphasis on exploring the links between these apparently separate strands of research is echoed in the findings from an IDRC-commissioned publication that provides key insights on the intersecting issues. The report concludes that significant research has been conducted on women’s economic empowerment, the care economy and global efforts to transition to clean energy, but how the individual thematic areas impact one another is not nearly as well understood. 

“At IDRC we see care, the green transition and women’s economic empowerment as interdependent and intertwined,” Mbiekop said. “Failure on any one of these would undermine the two others.” 

Investments, such as IDRC’s, national governments, multilateral organizations and many others, reflect the complexity of the challenges and the need to work holistically across sectors to spur progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. 

Contributor: Flaubert Mbiekop, senior program specialist at IDRC. 

Research highlights

  • IDRC is supporting projects that explore the nexus of unpaid care work, women’s economic empowerment and the transition to low-carbon economies. 
  • Randomized controlled trials in Senegal will guide government efforts to introduce improved cook stoves that use less firework and save women time.  
  • In Benin, partners are working with women to replace firewood with solar cooking technologies to be used in salt production and fish smoking. Benefits include safeguarding Benin’s mangrove areas, while also reducing workloads and improving incomes.