FAQs on unpaid care

Gender equalitySocial issues


What is unpaid care work, and why is it important?

Unpaid care work encompasses the supports and services individuals provide within households or communities without financial compensation. These include, for example, caregiving, household chores, emotional support, and fetching wood and water. It primarily involves tasks that benefit family members, but extends to aiding individuals beyond one’s home, such as friends, neighbours, and community members. Unpaid care tasks often fall on households and communities, in particular women and girls.

Why should unpaid care be recognized and valued as work?

Unpaid care work provides services that benefit not only those directly receiving care, but society as a whole. These tasks could be performed by someone, for example, a domestic worker, in exchange for payment. They require physical and mental effort to perform, and are costly in terms of time and resources. Unpaid care work often leads to time constraints and hinders participation in paid work, leadership positions, and education. Recognizing unpaid care work as integral to economies and societies would enable it to be considered as a vital economic and social policy issue. How does unpaid care contribute to social and economic development?

Unpaid care plays a critical role in supporting individuals, families, and communities, contributing to the overall well-being of society. It enables economic activities by maintaining a healthy and functioning population, promoting social cohesion, and enabling individuals to participate in the workforce.

Who is involved in unpaid care work?

Globally and sub-Saharan Africa, women have the main responsibility for unpaid care work. In sub-Saharan Africa, it is estimated that women spend 3.4 times more time on unpaid care tasks than men, though the proportion varies across cultures. Women’s unpaid care work is often unrecognized and undervalued, and it limits women’s opportunities to engage in income-generating and other kinds of activities.

What are the problems associated with unpaid care work, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa?

Unpaid care work is a critical concern in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere due to pronounced gender inequality. Those involved in unpaid care work, predominantly women and girls, often face challenges such as time constraints, limited access to support services, and a lack of recognition of their work. This can lead to stress, exhaustion, isolation, burnout, and economic vulnerability.

Women who lack financial resources are frequently consumed by tedious, time-consuming, and physically difficult domestic responsibilities. Unpaid care work is associated with higher levels of stress, mental health issues, a lower quality of life, time poverty, limited mobility, and poor health and well-being. According to some research, middle-aged, full-time homemakers are five times as likely to have cognitive impairments than women in other occupations, with “cognitive impairment” defined as “trouble remembering, learning new things, concentrating, or making decisions that affect their everyday life.”

Unpaid care can reinforce gender inequalities by limiting women’s opportunities for education, employment, and personal development, often restricting them to low-skilled, irregular, or informal paid employment. While unpaid care restricts individual women’s involvement in the labour market, on a societal level, it also affects productivity, economic growth, and efforts to reduce poverty.

How is the gender disparity in unpaid care work manifested in sub-Saharan Africa?

The gender disparity is evident in the estimated 16-hour working day of rural African women, who work 12 hours more per week than men. Rural women’s unpaid care work is magnified due to households’ often poor access to water, firewood, energy, and other basic household needs. The unequal distribution of caregiving tasks contributes to the challenges faced by African women mentioned above.

How can communities address the issues associated with unpaid care?

Addressing the gender inequities related to unpaid care work requires providing a range of types of support. These include:

  • holding community events to discuss issues and establish community networks,
  • raising awareness about the gender stereotypes that contribute to the unequal distribution of unpaid care work, and
  • creating digital platforms such as social media pages and websites that can raise awareness about unpaid care work and encourage community conversations.

Communities can create programs that develop caregiver skills and community forums to explore issues and solutions. Community forums could bring together community members, professionals, and caregivers to provide mutual support and share information. Offering training programs and workshops tailored to caregiving skills can empower individuals, particularly women, to expand their capabilities beyond domestic roles.

Raising awareness about the consequences of unpaid care work includes campaigning for supportive policies such as flexible work arrangements and low-cost childcare, actions that can be led at the community level.

Online platforms can build supportive networks and share resources by enabling virtual discussions and resource sharing, and hosting online workshops for caregivers.

These online activities have the potential to bridge geographical gaps while also serving as a useful source of knowledge and emotional support. But, because participating in online activities can be particularly challenging for rural women, holding regular town square meetings and small gatherings to converse, network, and share resources may be necessary to help raise awareness, identify solutions, and provide emotional support.

Digital technologies, including mobile money platforms, can enable women to do business remotely, and allow them not only to buy and sell goods, but to accumulate savings. Digitizing local saving groups could lead to more secure and stable savings adapted to women’s saving patterns, savings that can be used to mitigate financial shocks, including those related to health and unpaid care.

Digital technologies can also enable women to do simple errands such as depositing school fees instead of having to stand in line at the school or bank. Building women’s access to and capacity and confidence to use digital technology can provide them with important information, new market opportunities, and more lucrative employment. It can also help facilitate social protection services such as paid maternity, paternity and parental leave, and social cash transfers.

Communities can strengthen social networks by organizing workshops within women’s groups, holding town meetings, and convening gatherings with community leaders that highlight the economic and health disadvantages faced by women due to unequal distribution of unpaid care work.

Creating support networks such as insakas within the community can offer a platform for caregivers to share experiences, resources, and solutions. Insaka is a term used in several Zambian languages and dialects to refer to “a gathering or meeting place.” An insaka is typically a physical space with an open plan that is circular in shape and without doors. It plays a significant social role in traditional Zambian village life.

How does recognition of unpaid care work contribute to gender equality?

Recognizing unpaid care work is a key, necessary step towards advancing gender equality by making visible the often-overlooked contributions of women in caregiving roles. This requires understanding gendered roles and responsibilities within households, as well as the dynamics in households, social groups, and communities that affect women’s time and mobility. For example, when women cannot leave their house to market crops due to unpaid care responsibilities, they may lose control over money earned from their farming efforts.

Acknowledging unpaid care work and making it more visible challenges traditional gender stereotypes, prompting a reevaluation of the unequal distribution of caregiving responsibilities within households. It can drive policy reforms that support work-life balance, economic empowerment for women, and initiatives such as subsidized child care services that can help change societal expectations regarding gender roles. Accessible and affordable child care services allow parents, particularly women, to pursue employment or educational opportunities without sacrificing caregiving duties.

How can recognizing unpaid care work lead to innovation in care practices?

Recognition of unpaid care work includes valuing unpaid care as skilled work that requires an enormous amount of hours, that causes time poverty, and that limits engagement in paid work, education, and leadership roles. Recognition of unpaid care work as a significant contributor to social and economic life requires moving beyond viewing GDP as the only important economic marker.

Recognition of unpaid care can drive development of a variety of innovative practices that reduce women’s unpaid care work. These include technological solutions such as rural electrification, good quality wells, piped water, fuel-efficient stoves, alternative fuels such as biogas, solar, and wind energy, and long-term investment in infrastructure such as mills and other labour-saving technologies. Recognition of unpaid care work can also drive implementation of programs such as social cash transfers. In Zambia, for example, social cash transfers are provided to some individuals and households. Economically vulnerable individuals receive $8 US bimonthly, while persons with disabilities receive $13 bimonthly.

Recognition of unpaid care work can also drive redistribution of caretaking tasks between men and women through school food programs and flexible, family-friendly working conditions and schedules that enable women and men to balance their working hours and caregiving responsibilities.

What government and workplace policies and programs can help those engaged in unpaid care work?

Policies and programs to support unpaid caregivers include those that help balance work and personal life such as flexible working hours, paying fair wages, offering affordable and easily accessible daycare, providing parental leave, and government support to unpaid care workers.

The State’s role is to assume care responsibilities through public care services and infrastructure, for example, by enforcing care-friendly policies, care-supportive labour regulations, and access to resources such as water and energy. Government investment in clean water, electricity, and transportation can help reduce the amount of time women caregivers spend on chores like fetching water and firewood.

Governments can also invest in security to enable women to travel to work or school without worry. Government investments in good health care and good quality schools helps women learn and stay healthy, which improves their performance at work. Government programs could also provide stipends for caregivers to alleviate financial stress. For example, a “care relief fund” could provide financial help to caregivers facing economic hardship.

These supports help ensure that caregivers can fulfill their responsibilities without compromising their well-being. Mental health support, including counseling services and community networks, can address the emotional toll of caregiving, contributing to overall family well-being. Opportunities for education and skill development can enhance the quality of care, and empower caregivers, particularly women constrained by traditional gender roles, by promoting personal and professional growth.

How can individuals contribute to raising awareness of unpaid care work?

Individuals can contribute by actively participating in discussions within their social circles and communities, promoting awareness of issues, and supporting policies that recognize and address unpaid care, especially the inequitable distribution of caregiving responsibilities within families.

Individuals can also take advantage of social media platforms, using personal networks to share articles, infographics, and personal experiences related to unpaid care work. Engaging in discussions during community gatherings, town hall meetings, and local events can bring attention to the challenges faced by unpaid caregivers.

Collaborating with local organizations to organize workshops or awareness campaigns can also help. Additionally, individuals, and in particular men, can challenge traditional gender norms by actively participating in caregiving responsibilities, sharing their own experience, and supporting policies that promote work-life balance and recognition of unpaid care work.


Contributed by: Alice Lungu, radio and television producer, Lusaka, Zambia.

Reviewed by: Zahra Sheikh Ahmed, Programme Analyst, Women’s Economic Empowerment, UN Women East and Southern Africa Regional Office, Nairobi.

Information sources

Alonso, C., et al, 2019. Reducing and Redistributing Unpaid Work: Stronger Policies to Support Gender Equity. IMF Working Paper WP/19/225. https://www.elibrary.imf.org/view/journals/001/2019/225/article-A001-en.xml

Fälth, A., and Blackden, M., 2009. Unpaid Care Work. UNDP Policy Brief, Issue 1, Oct. 2009.  https://www.undp.org/sites/g/files/zskgke326/files/publications/Unpaid%20care%20work%20English.pdf

Ferrant, G., Pesando, L. M., and Nowacka, K., 2014. Unpaid Care Work: The missing link in the analysis of gender gaps in labour outcomes. OECD Development Centre. https://www.oecd.org/dev/development-gender/Unpaid_care_work.pdf

UN Seedat, S., and Rondon, M., 2021. Women’s wellbeing and the burden of unpaid work. BMJ, volume 374. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8406085/#ref15

UN Women, 2022. A Toolkit on Paid and Unpaid Care Work: From 3Rs to 5Rs. https://www.unwomen.org/sites/default/files/2022-06/A-toolkit-on-paid-and-unpaid-care-work-en.pdf

UN Women, undated. SDG 8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all. https://eca.unwomen.org/en/news/in-focus/women-and-the-sdgs/sdg-8-decent-work-economic-growth-0


This resource was produced through the ‘UCARE – Unpaid Care in sub-Saharan Africa‘ initiative, which aims to increase gender equality and women’s empowerment through a commitment to more just and equitable sharing of unpaid care and domestic work within the household and the family in sub-Saharan Africa. The project is implemented in partnership with Farm Radio International (FRI), UN Women, and The African Women’s Development and Communications Network (FEMNET) thanks to funding from Global Affairs Canada.