Making unpaid care work more visible in public policy

Prevailing gender norms mean that, across all societies, 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. This unequal burden of unpaid care undermines women and girls’ rights (to decent work, to education, to health, to rest and leisure), limits their opportunities and, therefore, impedes their economic empowerment.hinders women from seeking employment and income, which in turn holds them back economically.

There is a large and robust body of evidence about the extent of unpaid care work that women and girls do, and its contributions to both the economy and human development outcomes. Unpaid care work is directly linked to the economic empowerment of women and girls. But is this evidence being used to inform public policy? Doing so would include the implementation of the '3 Rs':

Recognition of the role of women and girls in the provision of unpaid care, as well as its social and economic value.
Reduction in the drudgery and time burden of unpaid care, especially for women living in poverty.
Redistribution of unpaid care work: from women to men, and from the family to communities and the state.

(This widely used framework was introduced by Emeritus Professor Diane Elson of the University of Essex)

Who Cares: Unpaid care work, poverty & women's human rights

This animation supports a United Nations special report on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, and research relating to the need for policies to support the empowerment of women and girls. Also available in Hindi

Our approach

Making care visible in public policy

As part of our research programme, “Influencing Policies to Support the Empowerment of Women and Girls”, IDS has been exploring the political economy conditions under which policy actors recognise or ignore the significance of unpaid care.

Along with our partners, we are looking at the supply side of care: who provides care, under what conditions, and at what cost? We are also looking at where, why, when and how unpaid care concerns become more visible on national and international policy agendas.

We are using three approaches to do this:

  • Literature reviews: We have conducted a thematic literature review, in which we examined public policies on social protection and early childhood development (ECD) in 144 low and middle income countries. While we were able to identify a small number of care sensitive policies, it was very difficult to find information about the implementation or evaluation of these policies. There was also very little information on the outcomes of the policies. This represents a significant knowledge gap which, along with the invisibility of care within existing policies gives us a sense of the low priority given to the care economy by policy makers.

  • National level advocacy: We are working with ActionAid Nigeria, ActionAid Uganda, ActionAid Nepal, BRAC Institute of Governance and Development, Bangladesh and the SMERU Institute, Indonestia to support their advocacy strategies and help integrate unpaid care into country programmes.

  • International level advocacy: We are working with Action Aid International and OxfamGB to increase the visibility of unpaid care work in global policy agendas.

Read more

Research updates

In response to the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), International Development Research Centre (IDRC), and Oxfam organised a call for evidence on what works for positive change in the care economy.

Drawing from the experiences of an organisation who works with mental health carers, this briefing highlights the importance of widening the global mental health agenda to include local carers’ voices, greater government investment in mental health with social protection schemes for carers, flexible paid employment arrangements, and innovative mental health care actions.

This new policy briefing argues that progressive national tax reforms and improvements in global governance accountability are vital for positive change but that, despite State obligations to ensure economic policies are non-discriminatory and prioritise human rights, regressive tax policies and underfunded public services perpetuate women’s disproportionate responsibility for care. Also available in Spanish translation.

In the news

  • Upcoming event: Interventions for women’s economic empowerment in South Asia

    Join us at the What Works Global Summit in London from 26-28 September. The session, Interventions for women’s economic empowerment in South Asia, on Wednesday 28 September, 9-10.15 am, in BO7, at Birkbeck College, will describe the early qualitative and quantitative results from three studies that are evaluating interventions for increasing women’s economic empowerment in the South Asian context. The panel will conclude with a synthesis of research findings, a discussion of research gaps, and a consideration of policy implications.

  • High Level Panel must support women’s collective action as key to realising women’s economic rights

    The UN High Level Panel for Women's Economic Empowerment is seen as an important step in gender equality. But how can it ensure it supports women effectively? Rachel Noble from Action Aid shares her views in the latest blog in the Oxfam 'Her' series.

  • Her series - Why 'care' about development?

    Belén Sobrino from Oxfam Intermon sets the case to keeping unpaid care work high on the SDG agenda, and reminds us of the importance in ensuring we reduce the the burden of care, not just the work itself. The 2030 Agenda opens up opportunities for taking a closer look at the interconnections between care and inequalities for women and girls.

    from Oxfam