Unpaid care and domestic work

Who it affects and why it's a problem

Unpaid care and domestic work (hereafter, unpaid care work) includes cleaning the home; cooking; washing and dressing children; looking after sick or disabled family members; and collecting fuel or water. And it’s disproportionately done by women.

Not only is it seen as being “women’s work”, it’s often not seen as being “real” work.

Learning aims

Completing this module will give you an understanding of:

  • What unpaid care work is
  • How unpaid care work, sustainable agriculture and violence against women and girls connect
  • How unpaid care work affects women’s lives.

Nalishebo Nalishebo, Likulwe Ward, Zambia. Photo: Fredrick Ntoka/ActionAid

How does unpaid care work affect women’s lives?

When women lose their time to unpaid care work, they lack crucial time to increase sustainable productivity and better access markets; to know how to claim their rights, to participate in decision making and to rest.

When women spend less time on unpaid care work, they have more time for paid work, farming, making improvements to their home or farm, socialising, participating in their community, advocating for their rights, taking a part in family and community decision-making, and resting.

Women spend 12 years of their lives on unpaid care work.

The weekly average time spent by men and women on total work (both paid and unpaid) in India is shown to be 48 hours and 62 hours respectively, according to India’s 1998-1999 National Time-Use surveys. Women therefore spend 28% more time on work than men do in total. Women spend almost nine hours per day on work as opposed to 6.8 a day by men.

If we apply the International Labor Organisation (ILO) norms of 48 hours a week, as per the surveys used, women are highly time stretched, and in excess of ILO’s stipulated maximum, while men are within the limits of the norm.

Women get much less personal or leisure time a day, and less time to sleep and rest as a result. This leads to detrimental effects on women’s health. ActionAid’s Young Urban Women project in India, Ghana and South Africa demonstrated the negative impact of the disproportionate burden of unpaid care work on marginalised women’s access to sexual and reproductive health rights and facilities.

It’s not just a rights issue. It’s not just an equality issue. Unpaid care work makes it impossible for women to advance their economic development.

That holds them back at an individual level, and it holds back their communities and countries from benefiting from their talent, labour and productivity.

Compromising women’s economic empowerment

The burden of unpaid care work exacerbates women’s time poverty, severely limiting their ability to participate in various political, social and economic activities. Women’s economic empowerment goals are entirely incompatible with the continued gendered nature of unpaid care work: poor rural women in particular are severely constrained in their ability to access economic opportunities, a key requirement for women’s economic empowerment.

In Bangladesh, where three quarters of the population live in rural areas, rural women have a low level of labour force participation, particularly in the case of women who are married and have children [source: ILO (2013), Female labour force participation in Bangladesh: trends, drivers and barriers]. In Pakistan, where most of the population live in rural areas, 87% of rural women work in the informal agricultural sector and the unpaid care economy, and experience seclusion and limited mobility, with little or no access to information, skills training and credit opportunities [source: PODA (2008), Rural Women in Pakistan].

In particular, women engaged in care work carry out a number of care-related tasks in the morning (5am – 11am), which has also been identified as prime time to secure paid work.

Women then often have to settle for precarious, flexible and poorly paid work in order to balance their care burden. Thus, poor rural women face several obstacles to accessing fair and reasonably paid employment.

When women are able to access paid work, they continue to face various challenges due to the sub-optimal type of work and work conditions made available to them.

Women are overrepresented in the informal sector, and among the working poor, in all four South Asian countries under consideration. They also face significant wage differentials and experience discrimination in the labour market.

The double burden of paid work and unpaid care work

When women do enter the paid workforce in order to access economic empowerment, they are confronted by a double burden: the challenge of balancing household, childcare and eldercare with paid work responsibilities. This often results in women and girls forgoing their basic rights to access education, healthcare, decent work and leisure time. This perpetuates cycles of dependency (mostly on male members of the family), can reinforce gender inequality and violence against women, and keeps women and girls disproportionately tied to conditions of poverty.

The challenges related to women’s unpaid care work can be, and have been, mitigated through policies and programmes that are attentive to the needs of women, and the nature of unpaid care work.

In Patharkot, Nepal, for example, women used time diaries to indicate the need for a local well to reduce the time they spend collecting water. The well also served to reduce instances of diarrhoea amongst children and other family members. Thus, it is possible to constructively intervene to reduce women’s unpaid care work for better empowerment outcomes.

Dulali Begum, an agribusiness entrepreneur who lives in Purbo Udakhali village, Bangladesh, sews at her machine.

Unpaid care work isn’t the problem, inequality is

Globally, women carry out 76% of unpaid care work, over three times more than men [source: ILO (2018), Care work and Care Jobs for the Future of Decent Work].

We know that unpaid care work holds women back and keeps them in a subordinate position to men, but we have seen remarkably few improvements in recent years.

Globally, women have joined the formal workforce in huge numbers over recent decades. But in the last three decades, the gap between women’s and men’s contributions to unpaid care work reduced by only seven minutes per day [source: ILO (2018), Care work and Care Jobs for the Future of Decent Work].

Women continue to work more hours inside the home, and to lack the time they need to improve their wellbeing, their finances and their family’s wellbeing.

Unpaid care work itself isn’t the problem; it’s essential for society to function.

Childcare, cooking and caring for sick or vulnerable people are all essential services for society, but this is not acknowledged at policy level or at household level. Without care, society would come to a halt.

But when unpaid care work is invisible, unvalued, disproportionate and left exclusively to women, then we have a problem.

If the unequal distribution of unpaid care work is holding women back, what is the solution? Read tackling the burden of unpaid care work to learn about the four ‘R’s approach to these issues.

Time spent daily in unpaid care work, paid work and total work, by sex, region and income group, latest year - ILO

Dig deeper

Read about how infrastructure can address women’s unpaid care work in a chapter from OECD’s Enabling Women’s Economic Empowerment – New Approaches to Unpaid Care Work in Developing Countries.

Learning action

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

Unpaid care and domestic work
Which of these are forms of unpaid care work?
How much time do women around the world spend on unpaid care work every day?
How much time do men around the world spend on unpaid care work every day?
How can we limit the impact of unpaid care work on women's wellbeing?
Ask your colleagues or friends the same question during your next tea break.

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