What is unpaid care?

Care is essential for human wellbeing and for economic development, and across all societies, women bear greater responsibility for unpaid care than men (Esplen, 2009). Prevailing gender norms mean that 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. The large amounts of time spent by women and girls on unpaid care means that their participation in civil, economic and social spheres, and in public life is restricted. The negative implications of the lack of leisure time reduce women and girls’ wellbeing (Eyben and Fontana 2011), while the drudgery associated with care may lead to adverse health outcomes. Women in the paid labour market may also not be able to adequately substitute for their care responsibilities, and therefore the care and human development outcomes of those being cared for may also suffer.

Globally, increases in girls’ education and women’s paid work also mean that the supply of unpaid care is diminishing at a time when demand is increasing (due to a range of factors including a rapidly ageing population, migration, and the impact of HIV). In times of economic crisis, the drudgery of unpaid care work increases at the same time as the demand and need for both unpaid care work and paid work increases.

Despite all of this, unpaid care work is largely invisible across public policy– whether in relation to intent, implementation or outcomes. The impact of development policy is reduced or compromised when unpaid care concerns are not recognised and addressed. 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 recognising the role of women and girls in the provision of unpaid care; the need to reduce the drudgery of unpaid care; and the need to redistribute unpaid care work (from women to men, and from the family to communities and the state), thus laying the basis for true gender equality.