Share the Burden! Why Unpaid Domestic and Care Work Should be Top of the Agenda

Country Road, Southeast Asia

On Sunday 6th September in Ankara, Turkey, Chatham House convened an International Policy Forum on ‘Empowering Women for Economic Growth: The smart choice for the G20’. The forum aims to build on a commitment by the 2014 G20 summit in Brisbane “to advance gender equality in all areas, including skills training, wages and salaries, treatment in the workplace, and responsibilities in care-giving”.

The programme covered women in leadership, economic incentives for increasing women’s participation in the labour market, and empowering women through entrepreneurship.  All pretty familiar stuff at these type of events.  Yet care giving and domestic labour seems to be missing, even though it has made it to the G20 summit outcome document.  It seems a shame that unpaid care giving and domestic work has not made it on to this agenda.
This is an important and relevant issue for the vast majority of women even in the richest countries. In 2014 the OECD Development Centre produced a policy brief arguing that throughout the world women spend between two and ten times as much time on unpaid care work as men; and that this gender inequality is the missing link in explaining gender gaps in levels of employment, wages and job quality.

For the poorest women in the poorest countries this gender inequality is magnified as the burden of unpaid domestic and care work is relatively greater, and especially so if we include within it domestic food production.  Those in chronic poverty often carry very high burdens of unpaid care and domestic work, because of high dependency ratios within the family and a lack of access to assets and resources to reduce the burden.  They also face discrimination through social norms that reproduce and reinforce these demands on their time.

From research undertaken by the Chronic Poverty Research Centre (CPRC) we know that chronically poor women and girls struggle to access public services such as water and electricity.  Many hours may be spent in fetching water or collecting fuel for cooking.  A lack of choices over reproduction and access to health services may increase the number of children that need care. She may also be expected to care for elderly relatives or other family members in need. Poor nutrition may leave her low on physical energy, and cause her to be ill and she may be afraid to speak up to ask for help or resources.

Economic empowerment for these women is not likely to come through greater representation of women in leadership.  Indeed women leaders are often able to be politically and economically empowered themselves, through the exploitation of their poorer sisters who take over their domestic burdens as nannies, cooks and cleaners.  Neither is entrepreneurship the key, as the structural and social barriers are too great for the chronically poor.

We need to put unpaid care and domestic work firmly on the agenda whenever we talk about the economic empowerment of women. And then we need to find ways to value, support it, and share it out.  There are practical ways in which the burden can be reduced for example in prioritising access to water and sustainable energy sources for domestic use, extending school hours or providing facilities for childcare and the care of other vulnerable persons, and improved access to health and education services.  Being able to talk about domestic and unpaid care work as serious agenda items is a crucial step in valuing this work as something that must be fairly shared men and women, as well as between the family and the state.


This post first appeared on Chronic Poverty Advisory Network.


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