Policy and unpaid care work

How policy can help to balance the inequalities surrounding unpaid care work

The gendered nature and unequal burden of unpaid care work is a key challenge to attaining women’s economic empowerment.

Given the disproportionate amount of time that women living in poverty spend on unpaid care work, they are unable to secure safe, fair employment, and are often forced to compromise their health and leisure time to secure paid work. Policies to achieve women’s economic empowerment must take into consideration unpaid care work and its impacts on women.

Learning aims

Completing this module will give you an understanding of:

  • The importance of addressing unpaid care work in formal policy frameworks
  • Some of the gaps that exist in South Asian and sub-Saharan African policy frameworks
  • Recommendations for how policy can effectively incorporate unpaid care work and related issues.
Sabita Rani leading the WLER village group

Sabita Rani leads the WLER village group, Bangladesh.

Using policy to tackle the inequalities surrounding unpaid care work

Changes at the individual, family and community level matter.

Seemingly small changes in the lives of people like Rekha, Fenci, Anapogbila, Alhassan, can be transformative. But small-scale change isn’t enough.

“Across the world, millions of women still find that poverty is their reward for a lifetime spent caring, and unpaid care work provision by women and girls is still treated as an infinite, cost-free resource that fills the gaps when public services are not available or accessible. … Without further delay, public policies should position care as a social and collective responsibility and treat unpaid care givers and those they care for as rights holders.”

Magdalena Sepulveda Carmona, Former UN Special Rapporteur on Poverty and Human Rights

Let’s take a look at unpaid care work in policy, with a focus on South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

South Asia’s policy frameworks

There are several regional and national level actors and policies in place for the promotion of women’s economic empowerment in South Asia, for example the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

To help empower women living in poverty in rural South Asia, we created a policy brief. It looks at the frameworks set by three key actors in South Asia:

  • South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)
  • United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia Pacific (UNESCAP)
  • International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)

The brief also looks at national level policies and programmes to address women’s economic empowerment in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. Each policy or framework is followed by a brief identification of gaps or challenges. The section following this goes on to discuss these gaps and critiques in greater detail, describing their impact on rural women living in poverty in South Asia.

Africa’s policy frameworks

Agriculture accounts for around a third of Africa’s GDP and women make up as much as half of its rural workforce.

Women are the backbone of African economies, they play a fundamental role in ensuring food and nutrition security across the continent, and are the principal food producers for their families.

However, their work in agriculture is precarious, low-skilled and small scale, and much of it consists of subsistence farming.

In keeping with global commitments, the African Union (AU) has defined gender equality in general, and women’s economic empowerment in particular, as a priority in its own right and as an instrumental strategy to achieve broader inclusive growth in many of its poverty reduction policies and frameworks.

The AU’s gender policy is aimed at strengthening national gender machineries to accelerate the implementation of gender commitments. The Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa (2004), for example, strengthens African ownership of the gender equality agenda in all socio-economic and political sectors, while committing governments to annual reporting on progress.

The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (the so called Maputo Protocol), which came into force in 2005, was a game-changer for women.

It is legally binding and requires states to address violence and discrimination against women and girls in public and private spaces, among other issues.

Agenda 2063 – the AU’s strategic framework for Africa’s socio-economic transformation over the next 50 years – has put achieving full gender equality in all areas at the top of its objectives.

Gender equality and women’s economic empowerment has also been prominent in the declaration of the AU African Women’s Decade (2010–2020) and as a thematic focus of two consecutive AU Summits: “Year of Agriculture and Food Security” in 2014,54 followed by the “Year of Women’s Empowerment and Development towards Agenda 2063” in 2015.

The AU’s policy focus regarding gender equality has been on education, ending violence against women and girls, women’s political participation, and economic empowerment.

But despite the Maputo Protocol calling upon African leaders to ‘take the necessary measures to recognise the economic value of the work of women in the home’ and step in with support (Article 13), unpaid care work as a key dimension of women’s economic inequality has hardly been mentioned in key AU policies, including in those of special relevance to rural women.

In response to these challenges, ActionAid developed a policy brief to provide an analysis of the current policies, and practices, across Africa that relate to rural women’s economic empowerment and, in particular, the inclusion of the issue of unpaid care work. 

What policy change is needed?

ActionAid has specific recommendations to tackle unpaid care work in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, and beyond. These include:

  • Recognise, reduce and redistribute women’s unpaid care work.
  • Include climate resilient sustainable agriculture strategies. Given the disproportionate dependence on agriculture of poor rural women in South Asia, any policy to empower them must invest in sustainable methods to ensure protection from climate related vulnerabilities, and encourage climate resilient, sustainable practices.
  • Ensure a consideration of intersectionality of issues affecting women’s empowerment and the intersectionality of women’s identities. Learn more about how ActionAid takes an intersectional feminist approach.
  • Adopt an intersectional approach, attentive to the linkages between unpaid care work, violence against women, climate resilient sustainable agriculture, and women’s economic empowerment. Interventions must also consider the intersectionality of women’s identities as mothers, farmers, workers, people living with a disability and others, so that a holistic approach is undertaken when working with rural women.
  • Reduce physical and safety related vulnerabilities for rural women. It’s important that women have a safe working environment, free from violence and harassment, and security in mobility and participation.
  • Represent women in planning. Women should have a stake and a say in crucial processes of decision making, including the types of jobs created and made available to them, and the macro-economic climate within which labour is transacted.
  • Challenge existing labour market structures. Regional and national civil society actors must constantly question the assumption that focusing on inclusion into the existing neo-liberal, often exploitative, market labour force will necessarily lead to positive empowerment outcomes.

Gaps in existing policy frameworks

While these organisations, and the frameworks put forth by them, provide a strong basis for the achievement of women’s economic empowerment, there are certain gaps in their ability to attain their goals. These gaps include:

  • Overlooking unpaid care work considerations and their impacts
  • Failing to identify the links between women’s economic empowerment and violence against women
  • Neglecting the importance of climate resilient sustainable agriculture for poor rural women
  • Making false assumptions around empowerment strategies
  • Failing to challenge exploitative labour market structures
  • Failing to adopt an intersectional approach to economic empowerment.

Dig deeper

Read ActionAid’s policy briefs about incorporating women’s economic empowerment and unpaid care work into regional policies in South Asia and Africa.

Read our guiding principles and minimum standards on unpaid care and domestic work.

Cover image of ActionAid's Policy Brief: Incorporation of Women’s Economic Empowerment and Unpaid Care Work into regional polices: South Asia

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Policy and unpaid care work

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