The Issues

What is unpaid care?

Women and girls undertake the bulk of unpaid care work such as looking after and educating children, looking after older family members, caring for the sick, preparing food, cleaning, and collecting water and fuel. The socially prescribed and entrenched gender roles that denote women and girls as care providers can undermine their rights, limit their opportunities, capabilities and choices, and so impede their empowerment.

Significance of unpaid care work in women and girls’ lives

While more women are entering the labour force, their domestic responsibilities have not diminished, revealing the persistence of the gender division of labour. These unpaid care responsibilities occupy large amounts of women’s and girls’ time, restricting their participation in civil, social, political, and economic life. The unequal distribution of care undermines women’s and girls’ rights (to decent work, to education, to health, to rest and to leisure time), limit their opportunities, capabilities and choices and impedes their empowerment.

Links between unpaid care work and women’s economic empowerment

There are strong links between women’s economic empowerment and the amount of time they spend on unpaid care work. For instance, the unequal burden of unpaid care work on women corrodes their ability to seek employment and income. Women in the paid labour market may not also be able to adequately substitute for their care responsibilities, and therefore the care and human development outcomes of both the women, and those being cared for, may be compromised. Finally, women and girl’s income from paid work may be eroded by the need for substitute care, which defeats the very objective of economic empowerment. Studies have measured the time women spend on care work and other unpaid contributions to the economy. However, the relationship between women’s paid and unpaid work has not been studied in depth. There is little research that describes the effects of women’s employment on the social organisation of care within low-income families in developing countries.

The routine necessity of care-giving, particularly for small children, pushes poor women into flexible, low-skilled and low-paid, informal  work that accommodate care responsibilities. Unpaid care work also impacts on the type, location and nature of paid work that women and girls can undertake.

But who cares when women take on paid work? As many working mothers often find it difficult to combine paid and unpaid work, they frequently depend on older women and children, usually daughters, to care for smaller children, with adverse impacts on their education, health, and leisure. Often, they will spend their income on substitute care for their families, limiting their economic empowerment. Policies that encourage women to enter the labour force often do not consider how this will change the organisation of care. This can undermine the wellbeing of children and dependents, by reducing the quality of care.

Broader understandings of women’s economic empowerment

Women’s economic empowerment is as much  about labour force participation, as it is about the choice to work, the choice of sector, location and working hour. A broader notion of economic empowerment comprises both the market economy where women participate in the labour market, and the care economy which sustains and nurtures the market economy. 

Making unpaid care work visible

Group of women and chilren
1. Unpaid care work means looking after and educating children, looking after older family members, caring for the sick, preparing food, cleaning, and collecting water and fuel. It is a social good that sustains and reproduces society and on which markets depend for their functioning. Photo taken by Deepta Chopra

Background to the issues

Our key reading has specially selected research which provides background to the issues

ActionAid Making Care Visible

ActionAid International's Making Care Visible programme was inspired by the efforts of some national governments to measure time use and make visible women’s overall workload including their work in their own households. National time use surveys are used to measure unpaid care work that is currently not included calculations of gross domestic product. ActionAid sought to transform this statistical tool into a participatory time diary tool that could be completed by the women and men involved in the programme. The infographics below were developed as part of the programme.