Tackling the burden of unpaid care work

How we can use the four 'Rs' approach to create real change

Unpaid care work can consume large parts of a woman’s day. So what solutions can we use to support women to reclaim their time, their agency and their power?

In this module we consider how the recognise, reduce, redistribute, represent (the four ‘R’s) model can have a positive impact on women’s lives, alleviating some of the burdens of unpaid care work.

Learning aims

Completing this module will give you an understanding of: 

  • How the four ‘R’s approach works
  • Tools we can use to recognise unpaid care work
  • How to reduce unpaid care work through labour-saving interventions
  • How to redistribute unpaid care work by changing social norms
  • How women’s representation at decision-making level can change the narrative.

Women celebrating with their harvest, Uganda. Photo: ActionAid

The four ‘R’s approach to unpaid care work

To solve a complex problem like the unequal burden of unpaid care work, we need a comprehensive solution.

That’s where the four ‘R’s strategy for addressing unpaid care work comes in. This four-part approach was devised by Professor Diane Elson. It recommends that anybody tackling unpaid care work focuses on: recognition, reduction, redistribution and representation.


Recognition of the critical importance of unpaid care work helps men, families and communities to see that unpaid care work is happening, and how much time it takes.

Time diaries are a crucial tool for tracking the amount of unpaid care work and who is doing it.


Reducing the drudgery associated with endless household tasks leaves more for paid work, leisure time and decision-making.

Labour-saving devices like energy-efficient stoves and water tanks are a key way that women can reduce their unpaid care work.


It’s not enough to identify how much unpaid care work women are doing, or to reduce it through labour-saving tools. Unpaid care work must be shared out more equally among families and communities, if women are to live lives that are empowered, equal and free from violence.

Men learning to cook, helping to feed and dress children or clean the home are all examples of redistributing unpaid care work.


Too often, women are shut out of decision-making spaces. When women are able to define and represent their own demands for change and participate in community and national level planning and budgeting processes, we can ensure that more gender equal policies are created, which lead to more equal distribution of unpaid care work.

Time diaries

Time diaries are one of the most effective tools to help women reclaim their time, agency and power. They’re as simple as they sound: a diary in which you track your time.

It can be difficult to say how much time we spend on our tasks each day. Many time diaries use a narrative approach to time. They start by asking questions like ‘about what time did you wake up?’ followed by a series of questions about the following activities, like ‘what did you do next?’, ‘how long did you do it for?’, ‘were you doing anything else at the same time?’, ‘what did you do next?’

Here’s an example of how a rural woman might fill out her time diary, on a typical morning:

Here’s an example of a real time diary, which ActionAid has used successfully with thousands of people.

The time diary is a powerful tool for seeing how much time people actually spend on unpaid care work.

But simply seeing how much time you lose each week to cooking or cleaning, won’t change anything. That’s where the 4 ‘R’s approach comes in. 

Recognising unpaid care work


How many hours of unpaid care work did you spend this week?


On average, women around the world perform four hours and 25 minutes of unpaid care work daily – more than three times men’s average of one hour and 23 minutes.


In Bangladesh, women engage in 6.3 hours of unpaid care work per day, while men spend 1.1 hours per day on unpaid care work.


How does your result compare to these averages?


If your result surprised you, you may have begun to recognise how much – or little – unpaid care work you are doing.


There is no country where women and men perform an equal share of unpaid care work


[Source: The Unpaid Care Work and the Labour Market. An analysis of time use data based on the latest World Compilation of Time-use Surveys / Jacques Charmes; International Labour Office – Geneva: ILO, 2019]


ActionAid has helped many families to see how the burden of unpaid care work falls unequally in their household. In Bangladesh, for example, smallholder farmer Selina discovered that she spends about ten hours on unpaid care work each day. Her husband spends more like three hours. By completing their time diaries, they’ve recognised the gap in their care work commitments. But how do they take action to share the burden more equally?

Reducing time spent on unpaid care work

Philomene Mukaburezi is a 63-year-old widow who lives in Kavumu village, Rwanda. She has two children. Mukaburezi and her family were living a difficult life when ActionAid entered their lives. They farmed a small amount of land, using unproductive techniques. Their farming could not yield enough produce for the family to eat. They reported that eating two meals a day was a “miracle” for the family.

Philomene and her family lived in these challenging conditions for more than ten years. They say they had no hope for a better future. Life became even harder when Philomene’s children finished high school. She thought they were going to sit home without pursuing their studies. “It was like an injury” she says. But a smile came to her face after she joined a women’s group, supported by ActionAid’s POWER project.

In 2016 Philomene joined Twitezimberebabyeyi women’s group. She received trainings on different topics including women rights, Rwandan family law, and sustainable agriculture among other topics.

Philomene started attending village meetings advocating for the community, and particularly for women. This drew the attention of her neighbours and local leaders and she was chosen as an agriculture promoter in the village. She trained other people how to grow crops in a modern and highly efficient way.

Using the skills and insights gained from the trainings, Philomene started engaging in income-generating activities like farming and saving money.

She’s known for her impressive banana plantations which produce a banana that weighs almost 100kgs. She eats these at home, and can sell them for profit, too. One banana sells for around $10.

ActionAid provided Philomene with a cow. The cow gave birth to a calf, and is also a source of organic manure to make her land fertile.

By revolutionising her banana farming, Philomene has turned her life around. With the money she earns from selling them, Philomene now earns almost $200 per month. It’s a dramatic change from before she became involved with POWER, when she could earn $80 a month at most.

Philomene has managed to pay school fees for her children and they have even been able to graduate from university. She also saved some of the money she was earning and used her savings to buy cooking gas.

By saving hours of time previously spent collecting firewood and cooking with it, Philomene has reclaimed her days.

She’s gone from struggling for work and money, to being a boss herself. She now has three permanent staff and four casual workers on her banana plantation. Philomene says she’s overjoyed with her new life.

Redistributing time spent on unpaid care work

If women stop spending ten hours a day on unpaid care work, what happens to household tasks? Time-consuming tasks like fetching water or firewood won’t go away. Unless a household gets a new device like an energy-saving stove or water tank, somebody still needs to do these tasks.

In too many homes, men enjoy leisure time while women work all hours.

When men and boys start to take on even small amounts of unpaid care work the results can be dramatic.


Members of the Rural Women development link with their crops. Photo: ActionAid

Women’s representation at decision-making level

Better representation of women’s voices at every level of decision-making is vital for tackling the issues surrounding unpaid care work.

You can learn more about how women’s representation in decision making can create an impact at different levels – from community to international cooperation – in various modules.

Community-level representation

Collective organising at community-level can be a powerful tool for women to take decision-making into their own hands. Read how joining local women’s groups helped Petronille and Lucky to turn their lives around in the role of women’s groups module.

Regional representation

Agatha Achiaa shares the challenges and successes that came with running for office in the District Assembly Elections in Ghana multiple times over a number of years in the when women speak out module.

International representation

South Asia and the African Union have introduced policy frameworks to promote women’s economic empowerment. Read how they are working to create change, and where the gaps remain in the policy and unpaid care work module.

Dig deeper

Read more in ActionAid’s Women’s Leadership in Resilience, a set of inspiring case studies that demonstrate the courage and skills of women who have taken up leadership roles in resilience-building initiatives across Africa and Asia.

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Tackling the burden of unpaid care work

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