Unpaid Care and Domestic Work

Women are responsible for the vast majority of the world’s unpaid domestic and care work. This means they’re working longer hours total than men, for much less money. To ease the burden, experts suggest we recognize, redistribute and reduce this labor.

One of the major things holding women back from full equality is the disproportionate burden of unpaid care and domestic work that falls on their shoulders. There is no country in the world where men perform more of this work than women do.

Worldwide, women are responsible for 75 percent of all unpaid care and domestic work. They spend up to three hours more a day doing housework than men and up to 10 times the amount of time a day caring for children and the elderly.

Unpaid work can take many forms, depending on the local context. In regions where piped water to homes is not the norm, women and girls are more likely to be responsible for fetching water for domestic use. Collectively, women in sub-Saharan Africa spend 16 million hours every day collecting water, with women and girls responsible for collecting 71 percent of all household water.

When women in rural areas are freed from the responsibility of fetching water, they are able to take on income-generating work, such as livestock-rearing or entrepreneurial activities. When girls don’t have to carry water, they are free to go to school.

(U.N. Women)

In most countries, much of the unpaid work undertaken by women involves caring for children, other family members or doing housework. Oxfam says the extra burden is a result of both women’s lower bargaining power within households and restrictive gender norms regarding their responsibilities.

While women tend to spend fewer hours in total doing paid work than men, the extra time spent on unpaid work often means they are working longer in total. In rural China, for example, women spend seven hours more per week on paid and unpaid work, while in urban areas, women work for 10.5 hours more.

The burden of child-rearing, housework and other unpaid care also cuts into the time women can spend on paid work, a phenomenon known as “time-related underemployment”, which can influence the overall gender pay gap.

Men consistently enjoy more leisure time than women. Across the OECD, men enjoy hundreds of hours more free time per year than women do. A 2014 study found that, across Colombia, the Philippines, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Ethiopia, men had over an hour more time to spend on leisure than women each day.

The Value of Unpaid Work

Just because the domestic and care work women do is unpaid does not mean it is without value. In fact, the United Nations estimates that unpaid care and domestic work is worth 10 and 39 percent of a country’s gross domestic product.

In poorer countries, women’s unpaid work is often a substitute for services that would be provided by the government in richer countries, such as water and firewood provision.

Economic advancement programs aimed at increasing women’s access to paid work can fail to take into account the extra domestic and care work women are already doing. This leads to a “double burden” where women’s overall responsibilities increase as new economic opportunities arise.

Part of the solution to the problem of unpaid care work is for men to do more. But transferring some responsibilities from women to men will not fix the problem alone.

To take on the problem of inequality in unpaid work, experts suggest a four-part strategy:

  1. Recognize and value the hidden work that women are doing through gender-disaggregated data and gender-sensitive programming.
  2. Reduce the drudgery of unpaid work for women, by, for example, providing piped water to homes.
  3. Redistribute care work within households so that men or other family members carry out tasks that would previously be done by women.
  4. Redistribute care work between households and the state in the form of government-provided care services for children, people with disabilities and the elderly.

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