Recognising unpaid care work as a major human rights issue

10 December 2013

Unpaid care work done by women and girls is directly linked to their economic empowerment and underpins human and economic development for all. Unpaid care work includes unpaid domestic labour (cooking, cleaning, washing, fetching water and fuel collection), as well as child care, elderly care and care of persons with disabilities and other vulnerable groups) done in homes and communities.

A recent landmark report by the UN clearly states that heavy and unequal care responsibilities are a major barrier to gender equality and to women's equal enjoyment of human rights, and, in many cases, condemn women to poverty. Despite considerable research, unpaid care work has been largely unrecognised and under-valued by policy-makers and legislators.

As unpaid care work is a major human rights issue this needs to change. Policies must recognise the role of women and girls in the provision of unpaid care; reduce the drudgery of unpaid care; and redistribute unpaid care work (from women to men, and from the family to communities and the state), thus laying the basis for true gender equality.

Invisibility of unpaid care in social protection and early childhood development policies

Social Protection and Early Childhood Development are two sectors where the provision of unpaid care is unquestionably a factor in determining both utilisation/use and result of public services. For example, social protection schemes that improve access to fuel and water help reduce the heavy labour of fetching and carrying, improve women and girls' health, and free up time for them to participate in political and community life, as well as in the labour market. Early childhood development programmes provide childcare as well as early learning; they can also improve sanitation, and provide vaccines and oral rehydration salts, which reduce childhood illnesses.

However, the main findings of a new IDS report found that unpaid care is largely invisible at all levels of policy in both sectors - in statements of policy intent, in implementation, and in outcomes.

IDS reviewed major early childhood development and social protection (including conditional cash transfers, public works, social transfers, and unconditional cash transfers) policies in 144 low- and middle-income countries. The review found that only a small number of care-sensitive policies – 23 out of 149 social protection policies and 40 out of 263 early childhood development policies expressed the intent to address unpaid care concerns. The 23 social protection policies were spread across 16 countries - the largest number of programmes was in sub-Saharan Africa (11), followed by Latin America (7). The 40 early childhood development policies were spread across 33 countries, with Latin America and the Caribbean having the largest number of ‘successful’ policies (15), followed by sub-Saharan Africa (13).

In the social protection sector, we found that policies revolve mainly around redistribution of care from the family to the state. There were no social protection policies that aimed to redistribute care work from women to men. Additionally, there were only two social protection policies aimed at reducing the drudgery associated with unpaid care and only two policies that referred to provision of support in terms of training and advice.

In the early childhood development sector, many more policies acknowledge men's role as fathers for redistributing the care work involved in bringing up children. Support provision in terms of better parenting training is widespread, while redistribution of care from the family to the state has been justified on the grounds of freeing up women's time so that they can take on paid work. There is no mention of reducing the drudgery of unpaid care.

Who Cares

Our animation on unpaid care work, ‘Who Cares’, illustrates our research on unpaid care work linking women and girl's economic empowerment and their human rights. The story follows a woman caregiver, living in poverty, throughout her daily journey as she struggles against the drudgery associated with unequal care responsibilities. It reveals the importance of incorporating care into public policy agenda by recognising women's contributions through unpaid care work, reducing the drudgery associated with performing UCW and redistributing responsibilities for care towards men, the local community, or the state.

For more on our unpaid care work visit our Interactions website, a new online resource presenting real-time research on the empowerment of women and girls.

Related resources to watch

  • 'Who Cares', our animated film on unpaid care.
  • Interview with Magdalena Sepulveda Carmona, UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, at the UK launch of the UN special report on unpaid care work, co-hosted by the Institute of Development Studies.
  • Interview with Kate Donald, Advisor and Researcher to the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, exploring the links between unpaid care work, women's empowerment, and the role of the state.
  • Interview with Ramya Subramanian, social policy specialist, on unpaid care work and the development agenda in India.