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The high cost of unpaid care


Economically empowering women demands much more than simply increasing their participation in labour markets. Research on paid and unpaid work in five countries suggests that affordable childcare, better infrastructure, decent work, and shifting gender norms are all part of the solution.

Women in low-income countries are less active in labour markets than men, but their working days are endless. Globally, just 49% of women are counted in the labour force compared with 76% of men, according to the International Labour Organization. However, these figures mask the true extent of women’s economic contribution. According to the Global Gender Gap Index, on average, women spend almost five hours a day caring for their families, compared with only one-and-a-half hours a day for men. This gap is wider in developing regions.

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5, one of 17 SDGs adopted by the UN in 2015, aims to empower women and girls. This goal calls for greater recognition and redistribution of unpaid care and domestic work, along with the full and equal participation of women in decision-making. In a series of studies undertaken through the IDRC-supported Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW) program, researchers looked at how the burden of care affects women’s employment and wellbeing, their children’s wellbeing, and the difference that affordable childcare can make.

Exploring solutions to women’s double burden

Between 2015 and 2017, studies by GrOW-supported research teams explored how women and families in low-income households balance unpaid care work with income-earning activities. In Kenya and India, researchers carried out randomized control trials to test the role that childcare provision might play in unlocking women’s full economic potential. In India, Nepal, Rwanda, and Tanzania, researchers used surveys, interviews, and participatory research to explore gender norms and how family members in low-income households share unpaid care work alongside their income-earning activities. They also assessed how programs and policies can help women achieve a better balance between paid and unpaid work.

Women’s care responsibilities constrain their paid work options.

Across the countries under study, unpaid care and household chores — reinforced by social norms — undermine women’s earning potential. In 16 study sites across India, Nepal, Rwanda, and Tanzania, research led by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) revealed that women did the bulk of unpaid work in their households. Two-thirds of all women were responsible for collecting water, fuel, and wood. In India, 88.2% of interviewed women in extended families were responsible for these tasks. Women saw themselves as better at household tasks and care work, and saw men as breadwinners, better suited to tasks requiring physical strength.

These norms, and the burden of care associated with them, affected both the quality and quantity of paid work that women undertook. When in paid work, women were distracted by their care duties — especially childcare and household tasks such as cleaning and cooking. Many spoke about how pregnancies and young children restricted their hours, or caused them to leave work altogether. Women also felt underpaid and unable to bargain for better wages due to their domestic responsibilities. This double burden of care and unpaid work traps low-income women in poorly paid, unproductive, and precarious jobs, while undermining their bargaining power in households.

I get home tired and [...] start doing the unpaid care and there is a client who wants me to repair his clothes and my baby wants to breastfeed; it becomes too much for me and I end up failing to [...] rest.

Abayisenga Dancile, a tailor in Mbazi, Rwanda

The drudgery of women’s work undermines their health and well-being.

The studies highlight that the stress of juggling paid work and unpaid care affected women’s physical and emotional well-being. In its four-country research on households’ division of labour, IDS found women deeply fatigued by the combination of arduous and poorly paid jobs and the drudgery of unpaid work, with no time for rest.

Children in one of India’s balwadi (pre-school), near Udaipur.

Poor infrastructure adds to the burden on poor women.

The drudgery of daily chores is amplified when families lack basic infrastructure such as electricity, transportation, and running water. Women reported having to travel long distances for water and firewood. In Nepal, the lack of electricity meant rural women waited long hours to use the local flour mill in their “off hours”, compounding their struggles with paid labour. Access to healthcare was also inadequate. Many in India complained of poor quality care and the discriminatory attitude of medical staff. In Tanzania, poor roads added to the time that women spent reaching health facilities for themselves and their families.

Work with decent pay and conditions, alongside basic public services, is essential for women in low-income countries to break free from the backbreaking drudgery of their daily lives.

Deepta Chopra, Research Fellow at IDS

Women’s double burden also harms their children.

Women’s heavy workloads have consequences for their children’s schooling and health. Children may suffer from neglect and the older ones may be expected to shoulder adult responsibilities, looking after younger siblings and taking on a share of their mothers’ drudgery. Daughters pay the heaviest price for their mothers’ paid work by sacrificing some of their schooling. Children often shadow their working mothers, and some graduate into “helping” their mothers complete paid work, effectively providing unpaid child labour. Many are also exposed to dangerous tools and toxic workplace conditions.

The contrast with families provided access to quality childcare sheds further light on how mothers’ workloads affect their children. Researchers found that in the Korogocho slum on the outskirts of Nairobi, 22% of children not enrolled in childcare showed signs of cognitive delay — more than double the levels found among those who were in care (9%).

Access to affordable childcare boosts women’s economic outlook.

The expansion of early childcare centres in low and middle-income countries has been slow and is typically offered only privately. However, evidence from Kenya and India shows that childcare is in demand and allows women to increase their paid employment — but only when it is affordable. In Korogocho, research by McGill University and the African Population and Health Research Center showed that more than 80% of mothers provided with vouchers for free childcare took advantage of the opportunity, compared with 58% of those who received no voucher. After a year, those that gained access to free childcare were 17% more likely to be in paid employment than those who were not. A similar study in Udaipur in India also showed an increase in employment, though of a lesser magnitude.

In Kenya, mothers who received childcare vouchers worked on average five hours less per week, without affecting their total earnings. This suggests that subsidizing childcare for working mothers may allow them to work less without significantly reducing their earnings, thus giving them more time for themselves.

Actions to empower women

  • Conventional measures of economic empowerment that only focus on paid work need to be re-examined. Far from being empowering, the combination of low-quality paid work and endless domestic toil simply pushes most women to exhaustion. Well-intentioned public works and other women’s empowerment programs need to include measures to reduce the care burden and drudgery of women’s work.

  • Improving access to water, transportation, electricity, and other infrastructure would go a long way to reducing women’s lack of time and the fatigue associated with their daily chores. Labour-saving technologies, such as fuel-efficient stoves, can also reduce drudgery. Such investments increase the productivity of unpaid work.

  • Subsidizing care is crucial for improving women’s economic prospects and reducing gender inequalities. There is considerable demand for childcare among low-income women and both women and their children benefit. Cost, more than quality of care, is the main factor preventing mothers from using available childcare centres.

  • Decent work is a first step towards shifting gender norms around care work. In addition to pursuing economic pathways likely to generate decent employment for all, governments can support a long-term shift in norms through measures such as paid leave for new fathers, or employment standards that prevent discrimination against working mothers.

Read the full brief (PDF, 329KB) about women’s double work burden.

Learn more about the three highlighted GrOW projects:

  • Balancing unpaid care work and paid work

  • Improving childcare options to create better economic opportunities for women in Nairobi slums

  • The influence of affordable childcare on women’s empowerment in India