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IDRC is committed to addressing deeply rooted and structural barriers to gender equality. 

Inside and outside the home, inequality is expressed in everyday expectations and practices, as well as in the lack of choices available to women and girls. One of the central pillars of this disparity is the uneven distribution of care work between men and women and the lack of recognition care work receives. 

Whether paid or unpaid, the greater part of care work is done by women. Often referred to as the care economy, this work can include caring for children and people who are sick, disabled and elderly, cleaning, cooking, fetching fuelwood and water, and gardening for household consumption.  

The disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care work that falls on women reduces the time they can dedicate to paid work and caring for themselves, and can deplete their physical and psychological well-being. The low social value given to paid care work in sectors such as healthcare, childcare and domestic work — where women dominate — translates to more difficult working conditions, lower pay and less employment security than in other sectors.  

IDRC’s current research investments in the care economy aim to reduce, redistribute, recognize and reward care work through locally grounded innovations, the active engagement of women and their organizations and evidence-based policy recommendations. 

Care solutions for women’s economic empowerment 

Unpaid care has been part of IDRC’s decade-long support for research to advance women’s economic empowerment in the Global South. 

Care solutions are one of the priority themes in Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW) – East Africa, a CAD11.5 million partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and IDRC. The solutions studied under this initiative include a franchising model in Kenya that offers quality, affordable childcare, community-based childcare solutions in Ethiopia, childcare facilities in Ugandan markets and a Rwandan program to reduce and redistribute rural women’s care work through time-saving technologies and awareness-raising activities. 

Launched in July 2023, Scaling Care Innovations in Africa is a five-year CAD25 million initiative that aims to promote tested local solutions to redress gender inequalities in unpaid care and scale their impact. Co-funded by Global Affairs Canada and IDRC, this initiative is part of Canada’s CAD100 million investment to address inequalities in unpaid and paid care work. 

In Latin America, the Collaborative Action Research Fund supports research to inform and help expand a selection of national and state-level care economy public policies. IDRC research partners are also developing ways to measure and track care needs with the Basic Care Basket and the Open Care Indicator System

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Researchers and policymakers involved in the Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women – East Africa initiative reflect on efforts to reduce and redistribute unpaid care work.

Fostering care entrepreneurship and investment 

While public investments are at the core of the transformation that is needed in the care economy, impact investing and entrepreneurship have an equally important role to play in achieving significant change. 

IDRC partnered with the Soros Economic Development Fund to support the Transforming the Care Economy through Impact Investing initiative. The goal: to generate knowledge and evidence to direct private investment into social and for-profit enterprises that provide innovative and affordable market-based care services in emerging markets, as well as decent paid jobs for care workers. More than 160 such businesses are featured in the Care Economy Hub as part of this initiative. 

Building on this work, a program to accelerate innovative entrepreneurship models for care solutions is underway with UN Women Asia, thanks to parallel support from IDRC and the Visa Foundation.  

Women’s paid and unpaid care work during the COVID-19 pandemic 

The COVID-19 pandemic increased the amount of unpaid care needed in homes, especially as schools shut down and family members stayed home because of lockdowns, layoffs, loss of livelihood or illness.  

To address the gendered impacts of the pandemic in low- and middle-income countries, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and IDRC created the CAD24 million Women RISE initiative that includes research on paid and unpaid care. For example, research teams in Kenya and Malaysia focus on the additional responsibilities shouldered by women health workers, squeezed between pressures at home and at work, as health systems experienced spikes in demand and implemented additional safety measures.  

The findings from these projects will contribute to government efforts to improve gender equality and build resilience for future emergencies.   

Gender equality in the care economy is central to achieving development goals 

Action on care issues can unlock progress in sectors other than health. IDRC-supported research has been exploring the links between care and the climate crisis. In research on gender equality and the low carbon transition, for example, care responsibilities are emerging as constraints that prevent women from attending to income-generating green opportunities. 

The potential for climate action lies in addressing these constraints as well as the impacts of climate change on women and girls as key providers of food, water and energy. 

IDRC-supported research in West Africa is testing innovations that can free women’s time and enable them to lead in the adoption of more sustainable energy solutions. An IDRC-commissioned publication provides key insights on these intersecting issues. 

Championing the care economy in international fora 

Along with other donors and organizations, IDRC is championing the transformation towards equality in the care economy by bringing the issue to the impact investing community and to international meetings such as the G20 and the Women Deliver 2023 pre-conference on the care economy and its preparatory regional convenings. IDRC is also an active member of the Global Alliance for Care and supports the alliance to mobilize evidence for use. 

Balancing the scales in care responsibilities is an integral part of IDRC’s commitment to gender equality as a right and a necessary foundation for a sustainable and inclusive world. Taking the lead from research partners in the Global South, IDRC is helping to build the knowledge, steeped in local contexts, needed to develop lasting solutions for equality in the care economy.  

Results and insights

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Top image: Tommy Trenchard / Panos Pictures, IDRC / James Rodriguez, Panos Pictures, Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR