Unpaid care and domestic work – a global challenge with local solutions

By Clare Bishop, Senior Consultant for the OECD Policy Dialogue on Women’s Economic Empowerment

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Unpaid care and domestic work
Women working in Mali.  Photo: Shutterstock.com

The pervasive issue of unpaid care and domestic work in the global fight against gender inequality presents itself in many different contexts and guises. Yet, the one constant thread is the impact of unpaid care and domestic work on time availability. The disproportionate workload borne by women –that hinders their full engagement as economic actors in paid employment, their participation in education and training, and their overall quality of life – is widely recognised. Solutions are diverse. They include technological ones to improve water supplies and save time and labour. They embrace policies and practical ways of providing childcare facilities and paternal leave. And they call for addressing cultural norms underlying the unequal gender division of labour for unpaid work.

With any of these potential solutions, the significance of context when assessing the burden of unpaid care and domestic work is relevant. The two dominant drivers of location and wealth frame both the specific challenges that women face in unpaid care and domestic work and the appropriate interventions.

Indeed, the manner in which the burden of unpaid care and domestic work is addressed shifts broadly in line with economic development. Thus, in contexts where many households do not have access to basic infrastructure, such as piped water supply or an energy source, the emphasis is on the need to reduce the drudgery of women’s and girls’ time fetching water and fuelwood. In countries where the basic infrastructure is in place and the formal sector is sizable, the discussion tends to focus more on boosting and/or retaining women’s participation in economic activities and improving conditions in the workplace by providing childcare facilities, offering parental leave and promoting equal pay. However, even when paternal leave is available, cultural norms and men’s fear of the loss of career opportunities apparently hamper a better balance between partners for childcare duties.

What can be done?

The OECD’s Policy Dialogue on Women’s Economic Empowerment, as one example, focuses on SDG 5.4, which works to recognise, value and redistribute unpaid care and domestic work. The OECD is well-placed to make a unique contribution to this discourse by drawing together three critical work streams – one on data by expanding the OECD Time Use Survey Database to developing countries, one on the effects of discriminatory social norms through the Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI), and one on financing by tracking member states’ engagement in the Development Assistance Committee.

The Policy Dialogue is exploring topics relevant to the issue of unpaid care and domestic work, including:

  • engaging with men and masculinity as an integral part of securing a positive shift in norms and behaviours about unpaid care work;
  • broadening the discussion to include care of the elderly, the ill and people living with disabilities;
  • rolling out provisions in the private sector for greater equality, such as parental leave and childcare provisions, to workers in the informal sector; and
  • ensuring that addressing one element of unpaid care work does not result in shifting the burden to other women, be they poorly paid housemaids, community volunteers assisting with the care of the elderly and the ill, or uneducated girls working as domestic help for better-off relatives.

The January 2018 event launching the Policy Dialogue demonstrated both clear demand and a way to fulfil an important niche. The event drew together over 100 experts from over 30 OECD and non-OECD countries, representing governments, NGOs, the private sector, multilateral and bilateral agencies, and foundations. Participants were eager to share experiences and to learn from different country experiences. They were excited to examine familiar topics from new perspectives, such as the intersection between infrastructure investments and social behaviour change, or social protection and shared responsibilities.

By continuing to facilitate these exchanges of successful practices from across the globe and drawing on concrete experiences to change negative behaviours, norms and policies, the Policy Dialogue promises to help further progress on SDG 5.4.

The impact of location and wealth on the nature of unpaid care and domestic work for three married women in their late 30s living in East Africa*

Rebecca lives with her husband and five children in a rural village. She walks for over one hour twice daily to collect water for her family, accompanied by her oldest daughter and carrying her youngest child on her back. She also spends another hour collecting firewood, and this task is becoming more time-consuming as the nearby trees have been chopped down. Preparing food and cooking on an open fire is also time-consuming. When she works in the fields or attends community meetings, she takes her youngest children with her. Occasionally, when childcare is available, she is able to get casual work on local public works programmes or a commercial farm. By the time she has swept the compound and looked after the children, she has little free time to do anything else. Her husband farms their land and occasionally works for others and travels to the market; he doesn’t help much with household tasks.

Edith and her husband moved with their four children from the village to the outskirts of a large town to have better opportunities to earn a living. She finds some aspects of life are easier than in the village – the tap stand is nearby although the queues can be lengthy and she buys charcoal for cooking from a local vendor. Her biggest challenge is how to look after their youngest children. Childcare provision in the informal sector is limited, and nurseries are very expensive. Because they are new to the area, they don’t have any close family or local networks to help out. She takes her children with her when she works as a street vendor. Her husband also works long hours and has little time to help around the house. As informal workers they are not able to benefit from any social protection systems.

Joyce and her husband live in an apartment in the city with their three children. She works in an administrative position in the private sector. Their two youngest children attend a private nursery, which is expensive but there is no alternative. A teenage girl from their home village stays with them to help around the home and looks after the children after their nursery. Even though there is home help, Joyce spends a couple of hours a day on household-related tasks, especially looking after her children. Although her husband’s company provides paternity leave, he feels that domestic work is still principally Joyce’s responsibility. He fears what his colleagues will think if he took some time off for childcare, especially as he is hoping for a promotion. Even though Joyce has a career, he expects her to collect their children from the nursery and stay at home with them if they fall ill.

  • These stories come from the author’s personal observations