Unpaid Care Work – A Gateway for Gender Equality

December 8, 2020

© UNDP/PAPP - Mohammad Za’noon

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, countless reports have been published on the increase in incidents of the burden of unpaid care work on women globally. Different governments around the world have taken different approaches to responding to the pandemic and consequent socio-economic effects; however, the common denominator seems to be that progress made towards gender equality pre-pandemic is at serious risk as evidenced by the rise in gender-based violence cases. Another worrisome indication jeopardizing gender equality is that women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to this crisis than men’s as women make up 39% of global employment but account for 54% of job losses since May 2020.[1] The pandemic has exposed structural weaknesses in reducing the gender equality gap, but this presents opportunities for designing interventions to ensure a strong comeback toward achieving gender equality in the coming years. 

UNDP/PAPP is participating in the United Nations Secretary-General’s Campaign UNiTE by 2030 to End Violence against Women, in addition to calling for the prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls. Through its Accelerator Lab,  UNDP/PAPP is exploring a specific angle connected to gender equality and ending all forms of violence against women: unpaid care work.

What is unpaid care work anyway and why does it matter? 

Unpaid care work relates to the provision of direct or indirect care without remuneration, carried out within the household. It includes, but is not limited to caring for children, elderly and sick individuals, washing, cooking, shopping, cleaning and helping other families with their chores. These activities are considered work, because theoretically one could pay a third person to perform them. 

Globally and in the State of Palestine, the burden of unpaid care work has been exacerbated by the pandemic as schools have closed and working from home has become a ‘new normal.’ Globally, women perform 76% of the total hours of unpaid care work, more than three times as much as men. In the State of Palestine, it is almost eight times more than men as per a survey administered by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. According to a survey conducted by AWRAD in May 2020, 68% of women reported a significant increase in household duties, compared to 44% of men.[2]

Caring for children and managing households are largely handled by women and girls in the State of Palestine - deepening gender equality gaps, and negatively affecting the livelihoods and wellbeing of women and girls.[3] Women are put in the impossible position of choosing between caring for their children, attending to household chores and working from home or for their own businesses. With extended disruptions to life as we knew it and no benefits to support women, especially those working in the informal sector, the risks of women losing their jobs and the reversal of progress that has been made to date to reach gender equality are imminent. If the burden of unpaid care work continues to disproportionately fall on women, this will influence the economy with lower GDP growth and take a huge toll on women’s well-being. Working toward better recognition of unpaid care work might seem subtle but could positively affect the larger goal of attaining gender equality by creating better conditions for this.  

What can we do about this? 

Tackling unpaid care work requires a broad approach of looking at policies, household dynamics, cultural influences of fixed gender roles, and the specific needs of women, men, boys and girls. Working toward easing the burden of unpaid care work will require interventions at different levels (policy, community, household, and individual) and by an array of actors in sectors that are not confined to working on gender equality. Other areas that ought to be tackled are closing the gender gap in digital inclusion with the increase in remote work and promoting positive attitudinal biases through campaigns. While strategic work, especially on the policy level, to address entrenched gender norms is underway, the magnitude of the problem requires immediate action that would reduce the burden of unpaid care work. To this end, UNDP/PAPP’s Accelerator Lab is partnering with UN Women to test community-based interventions that could alleviate part of the burden of unpaid care work, and to advocate for the uptake and scale-up of successful solutions by communities, the government, and other development actors. 

The first step for us was to convene with representatives from different ministries such as Ministries of Labour, Education, and National Economy to better understand the magnitude of unpaid care work and what is being done at the national level. We were surprised to hear from the Heads of the Gender Units that they themselves are struggling with an incredible amount of unpaid care work with little being offered by employers or their families. The problem is entrenched in deep seated cultural beliefs of gender roles even among women, the silver lining for us from this first conversation was that there is a hunger to change things on the ground. Some of the suggestions from the conversation with the Ministries representatives are on how employers can offer flexible working hours, after school support, and childcare at the office. Another area of interest is on strengthening the role of media in promoting positive masculinity. These preliminary findings led us to design a flash survey to be administered to women to understand how the pandemic has affected the levels of unpaid care work and if there are any changes in intrahousehold dynamics in relation to men’s share of unpaid care work. We are interested to learn about the kind of support women have received from their communities, and what would they have liked to see as a response from the government, development actors, and civil society organizations. Once we receive the findings, several experimental initiatives will be rolled out among communities.

We have some preconceived ideas of potential interventions based on preliminary reports and anecdotes, but we will validate our thinking through following up with the respondents of the survey through holding a focus group discussion, where we are planning to invite spouses. What we know already is that there is not a one-size-fits all intervention as the household dynamics and societal pressures influence the levels of unpaid care work. In some communities, the answer might be that minor infrastructure support is needed (an additional laptop/iPad to allow for online learning and working from home), whereby for other communities the solution might be to create a network to take turns in attending to childcare. Before rolling out any interventions, we want to hear from women and their partners on what they think would be useful to test out. Stay tuned for our next steps!  

[1] Harvard Business Review: Don't let the pandemic set back gender equality 

[2] http://www.awrad.org/print.php?id=9b5ed5y10182357Y9b5ed5 

[3] COVID-19: Gendered Impacts of the Pandemic in Palestine and Implications or Policy and Programming