The realities of unpaid care work

Stories of three women being held back

Traditional gender roles that see cooking and cleaning, among many other domestic tasks, as strictly women’s work are often deeply embedded in the minds of both men and women.

In this module Selina, Shirin and Rekha share their experiences of being held back by unpaid care work, and we learn how Rekha’s situation has started to change for the better, in spite of tradition.


Learning aims

Completing this module will give you an understanding of: 

  • How unpaid care work affects women like Selina, Shirin and Rekha
  • How women’s knowledge of their rights affects how much unpaid care work they do
  • How supportive male relatives can play an important role.
Tamanna washes her hands

Tamanna, Bangladesh. Photo: Md. Deloar Hossain/ActionAid

Selina’s story

“Will a man cook? It is the job of a woman” says Selina.

In Selina’s village more than half of the men think it’s not okay for women to step out of the home, and four in 10 women agree.

As for unpaid care work like cooking, more than half of the men and women in the village believe it is women’s work only.

From dawn to dusk, Selina has no time to rest.

Selina looks after her three young children, father and mother in-law and her husband, who is an auto-rickshaw driver. She is the only person who does any household chores. From dawn to dusk, whatever involves cooking, cleaning, washing, bathing, sweeping or feeding is her work, and her work alone.

Selina got married when she was only 12 years old. Her father died when she was young, and her family had no money to send her to school any more. She was married off. She had no choice. Families living in poverty often feel they have no option but to marry their daughters off.

Selina gets up early in the morning, when others are still sleeping. She washes the dishes from last night’s supper. Then she prepares breakfast. She is expected to get her husband’s clothes ready, feed, bathe and dress her children, and care for anyone who is sick or elderly. Before she can cook lunch, she has to walk a long way to gather firewood.

While Selina is cooking, feeding, bathing, dressing, caring, walking, fetching and carrying, she’s using up all her time and energy.

That’s time and energy she can’t use for paid work, improving her home or her garden, farming more effectively or learning new skills.

“I grow some vegetables. But they are used to meet household needs. There is no time to do anything beyond this.”

Selina is too time poor to learn about new techniques for growing crops, or to improve her garden.

“Even if I did” she says, “How would I sell my products? My husband, parents-in law and society will not allow me to go to the market.”

If Selina’s whole day wasn’t devoted to unpaid care work, she would have a better chance of growing more and better produce, selling them, gaining financial independence, providing her children with more opportunities, and regaining some time for her own leisure.

Excessive unpaid care work is the thief of women’s time.

Shirin’s story

Most Shirin Akhter is 39. She looks after her two children and her husband, who works as the village doctor. She gets up early to prepare breakfast for her family, then she washes dishes, does laundry, and prepares lunch.

To make a small amount of money, she fits some sewing work into her day when she can. Shirin’s husband helps her sometimes, like arranging the lunch table and serving himself, or helping to hang out the clothes for drying, but this is rare and only if Shirin asks.

Because she has so much work to do in the home, Shirin finds it hard to expand her small sewing business to make money for herself, or to have time to engage with other activities in the community.

Despite this, Shirin finds it hard to resent her role, which she sees as her duty.

She feels guilty if she does other things with her time, and believes that she should stay in her home, because there she is able to do all the unpaid care work for her family.

Rekha’s story

Like Selina and Shirin, 44-year-old Rekha Begum faces a never-ending to do list. With three children to care for, Rekha’s days were already busy. But when her husband suffered a stroke in 2005, life got even harder for her. His illness required treatment which drained the family’s savings, and left him paralysed and needing constant care. The family’s cattle were sold and farmland mortgaged.

Rekha was left in a very vulnerable economic position on top of her vast unpaid care burdens.

With no money to keep her children in school, Rekha had to send her two sons to work in factories in Chittagong and Dhaka.

Rekha’s days start with morning prayer at dawn, and then she sweeps her house, washes dishes, cooks rice, washes her husband, gives him medicine, and feeds him. Then she washes clothes and takes a shower herself, before finishing cooking lunch. She helps her husband to have a shower and feeds him again. She also has to make time to collect firewood. Rekha then spends time massaging her husband’s body and doing physiotherapy exercises.

In between all of this unpaid care work, Rekha makes a little money, just enough to support her family and pay for her husband’s medication, by cooking a local food called chanachur to sell.

With so much unpaid care work to do, it’s remarkable that Rekha has found time to become a community leader. So how is Rekha able to achieve this incredible result?

The support of male relatives is one part of the puzzle.

Rekha’s husband supports her to pursue these activities, and her grown-up sons also wish her to succeed, and support her by undertaking some of the care work in the rare times they are able to visit home.

Rekha feeds her husband

Collective action

Supportive (male) relatives have an important role to play in redistributing unpaid care work.

But it’s not all down to the men in Rekha’s life. The other difference between Rekha and other women like her is that she has a network of supportive women engaged in collective action, because they believe they deserve equality.

For many years, Rekha has been a vital contributor to the local women’s group, ‘Bonna Nari Dall’, of which she has been president since 2007.

Read more about women’s groups in the role of women’s groups.

One of the group’s aims, in collaboration with its partner ActionAid Bangladesh, is to recognise and reduce the burden of unpaid care work affecting women. Shirin is also involved in the group – she has been its vice president since 2016 – but she is a much newer member, and it is clear that change which challenges embedded social norms takes time. Shirin is still finding it hard to shake the idea that she has the duty to be solely responsible for her family’s care.

The enormous burden of unpaid care work causes both women to have limited time to relax, socialise, or explore their own economic and educational growth, let alone engage in community activities.

Especially when a disaster hits, the overwhelming need to care for their own family and make sure their dependents are safe is a barrier to supporting the wider community.

Bonna Nari Dall women’s group is working to share messages around disaster prevention, and to promote a more resilient community.

Last year when they discovered that the nearby dam was damaged, Rekha and the group tried to share warnings with the community, as well as advocating to the local government, sending demands to fix the dam. But because of the needs of their family and increased burden of unpaid care in flooding season, it was hard for the group to reach the most remote community members, or to keep up the consistent advocacy needed to enact change in the local government.

These are just some of the ways that women coming together can change their own lives, beliefs and attitudes.

To learn more, read about the power of partnership.

Dig deeper

Read more about tackling gender inequality in ActionAid’s report, Shifting Power: Learning from women’s experiences and approaches to reducing inequality.

Learning action

Add your responses below and submit them to test your knowledge and understanding.

The realities of unpaid care work
Encouraging families to redistribute unpaid care work may simply mean that girls have more work to do.

It’s not enough to change behaviour through practical interventions; we also need to change mindsets.

Exercises which ask participants to imagine scenarios and discuss questions like, “what would life be like if women went on strike?” or “‘in a world where care work was paid, how much should care and domestic workers earn?” can help to start mindset-shifting conversations.

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