Unpaid care work

Gender equalitySocial issues


What is unpaid care work?

  • Care work consists of activities “to meet the physical, psychological, and emotional needs of adults and children, old and young, frail and able-bodied. It includes direct caregiving activities related to caring for children, the elderly, people with illnesses, and people with disabilities, as well as indirect or domestic work such as cooking, cleaning, and collecting water, food, and firewood.” (12) Unpaid care work encompasses the support and services individuals provide within households or communities without financial compensation. It primarily involves tasks that benefit family members, but extends to aiding individuals beyond one’s home, such as friends, neighbours, and community members. (12) Unpaid care tasks often fall on households and communities, in particularly 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.
  • Unpaid care work requires physical and mental effort to perform. It is costly in terms of time and resources.
  • Unpaid care work is time-consuming, often leading to time constraints and hindering 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.
  • Unpaid care work could be performed by someone, for example, a domestic worker, in exchange for payment.
  • Unpaid care is key to the functioning of societies and to the survival and well-being of households, families, communities, and societies as a whole, enabling people to live, and thrive. The elderly, sick, disabled, and children all benefit from the assistance they need to carry out daily activities such as feeding, washing, dressing, and moving around. Without this help, they could find it difficult to care for themselves and live independently.


Background and context of unpaid care work

Gender norms behind unpaid care work

  • Gender norms “are a subset of social norms that relate specifically to gender differences. They are informal and deeply-entrenched and widely held beliefs about gender roles, power relations, standards or expectations that govern human behaviours and practices in a particular social context and at a particular time. They are ideas or ‘rules’ about how girls and boys and women and men are expected to be and to act.” (19)
  • Discriminatory gender norms are expressed and maintained through rules of behaviour for everyday life, and through social structures, educational systems, and the media. They take root in the family and are quickly internalized in childhood and become part of children’s behaviour and attitudes.
  • Social, cultural, and gender norms in sub-Saharan African (and elsewhere) view men as family breadwinners, and women as responsible for unpaid care work. Men are discouraged from participating in unpaid care work, while women and girls are obliged to perform the vast majority. In Mali and Burkina Faso, for example, men who do unpaid care work are ridiculed, and both men and women consider this ridicule appropriate. These kinds of community sanctions against men who help their wives with household chores encourage men to comply with existing inequities through stigmatization and potential loss of status, devaluing and marginalizing them. In Kabale district, Uganda, researchers found that men who work with their wives in the kitchen are viewed as having been subjected to kibwankulata (witchcraft) by their wives. “A common saying compares a man who does care work with a dog that follows its owner wherever he/she goes. Such beliefs discourage men from sharing care responsibilities.” (11)
  • Women and girls are disadvantaged by limiting their roles to the home, while men’s expectations are generally outside the home. The 2021 Gender and Social Institutions Index regional report for Africa (10) notes that “African women currently face the highest level of discrimination in laws, social norms and practices compared to women in other regions of the world.”
  • In Burkina Faso, Pag la Yiri is a common expression in the Mooré language, which translates as “the woman is the home.” The expression reflects a deep-rooted attitude regarding women’s place in society as “guardians of the home.” It’s an attitude shaped by factors such as religion, culture, and income level.
  • While research shows positive attitudes toward women’s paid work in sub-Saharan Africa, the narrative of men as breadwinners and women as caregivers persists. (12)

The scale of unpaid care work

  • Women in sub-Saharan Africa spend 4 hours and 25 minutes per day on unpaid care work, compared to 1 hour and 23 minutes for men, resulting in women spending 3.2 times more hours on unpaid care than men. (4, 12) Rural women in sub-Saharan Africa tend to spend more time on unpaid care work than urban women. For example, women in rural Mali spend an average of four hours and 22 minutes on unpaid care, compared to two hours and 18 minutes for women in urban areas of Mali. In Ethiopia, rural women spend three hours and 26 minutes a day on unpaid tasks, compared to two hours and 57 minutes for urban women.
  • Worldwide, 16.4 billion hours are spent every day on unpaid care activities, according to International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates (2). This is equivalent to two billion people working eight hours a day without pay. The ILO values this contribution at 11 billion dollars.
  • In Burkina Faso, 92% of the population think that a man’s role is to financially support his family, and 33% believe that a man responsible for care and domestic duties instead of pursuing paid work is not worthy of esteem. (3, 7)

For more information, see also document 6.


Why is it important to talk about unpaid care work on the radio (and elsewhere)?

  • Many households don’t think about valuing the time women and girls spend fetching water, cooking, sweeping, taking care of children and others, and so on. Rather, it’s taken for granted. This is why unpaid care work is called “invisible work.”
  • The disproportionate amount of unpaid care work keeps women and girls so busy that they are more vulnerable to poverty and physical and emotional strain or “burnout.” This limits women’s opportunities for paid work and is detrimental to their health and well-being.
  • The lack of adequate infrastructure (for example, electricity, day care centres, labour-saving equipment such as mills), that should be provided by governments, increases women and girls’ unpaid care work.
  • Through everyone agrees that it benefits society, unpaid care work is typically unrecognized and unvalued.
  • In recognizing the importance of unpaid care, it is essential to highlight the gender inequalities in who performs unpaid care, assess the economic impact of unpaid care, and promote appropriate policies and support measures.
  • Women play a key role in agricultural production and ensuring household food security, but their unpaid care work responsibilities, including the expectation that they will work as unpaid care workers on family farms, are one big reason for the gender gap in agricultural productivity. (12)
  • It is important to recognize, redistribute, and reduce unpaid care work.

For more information, see also documents 4, 8, and 9.


The economics of unpaid care work

  • If unpaid care were replaced by professional services, the financial cost to individuals and society as a whole would be high. Unpaid care therefore saves valuable economic resources.
  • Unpaid care work not only limits women’s ability to find time for paid employment but constrains their choice of jobs, the quality of their employment, and their connection to and continuity in the workforce. Policies such as flexible work arrangements, limited working hours, parental leave for both parents, and accessible, affordable, and high-quality childcare and eldercare services could boost women’s participation in the labour market. They could also narrow the gender pay gap and help create a more equitable distribution of household and caregiving responsibilities between men and women.
  • Responding to the gender inequities associated with unpaid care work by investing in care services and social protection initiatives, including providing daycare and elderly care, would not only reduce unpaid care work, but also create opportunities for decent work. By 2035, this approach has the potential to generate nearly 300 million jobs. (2)
  • It is estimated that unpaid care work accounts for 7.2 per cent of GDP in Ethiopia, 7.9 per cent in Tanzania, and 8.8 per cent in South Africa. (12) Not including unpaid care work in GDP underestimates total economic activity and social well-being. To account for unpaid care work in GDP, states must recognize and accurately quantify time and labour dedicated to unpaid care work in ways that are integrated into national accounting systems.


The impacts of unpaid care work

The impact on the professional and personal lives of unpaid care workers

  • Unpaid care work affects people’s ability to balance paid work and private life or to engage in paid work. Women workers must try to combine the responsibility of unpaid care at home with the obligation to be punctual and present at work.
  • The unique circumstances and challenges faced by rural women must be taken into account, as they work both in the fields sowing, weeding, and performing other farming tasks, and in the kitchens preparing meals and being responsible for feeding the family.

The impact on girls’ access to education

  • In most cases, women rely on other women and girls in the household to help with domestic tasks such as childcare and agricultural production. In many cases, this has negative consequences for adolescent girls. It can affect their school attendance or cause them to drop out of school, perpetuating cycles of discrimination and gender inequality.

The impact on women’s political and social participation

  • The lack of value attached to unpaid care work, its location within the home, and the time required to take on multiple responsibilities, can all prevent women from participating in local decision-making forums and political life, taking on community leadership roles, or simply sharing their opinions. This exclusion of women from public life reinforces stereotypes of women as powerless second-class citizens, and perpetuates gender inequalities and cycles of poverty.

A question of social equity

  • In sub-Saharan Africa, 73.7% of men participate in the labour force, compared to 62.1% of women. (20) But these figures mask the true importance of women’s economic contribution. In low-income countries, women are less active in the labour market than men, but their working days are endless. (5) Working women in sub-Saharan Africa are significantly more likely to be” vulnerable” workers, with 81.3% of the female labour force categorized as vulnerable, compared to only 61.8% of male workers fall into this category. “Vulnerable work” is defined by the World Bank as comprising types of self-employment that are associated with lower income and low job security.
  • Highlighting this kind of gender disparity can raise awareness of the need for a more equitable distribution of unpaid care work amongst households, communities, the state, and the private sector (see section on the “care diamond” below.) The invisible work of unpaid care can be made visible by recognizing the importance and economic impact of unpaid care work on society. Public policies that support women’s paid care work and public investments can help reduce and redistribute unpaid care work.

The rural-urban divide

  • Inequalities between rural and urban areas highlight the hardship of unpaid care for rural residents. Urban women benefit from the greater independence that comes from living away from family ties and restrictive social norms. But they also suffer from the loss of traditional care support networks, particularly in childcare. To compensate for this lack of support, middle-income women are turning to a growing rural domestic work force to transfer their care responsibilities (4).

Climate change

  • Sub-Saharan Africa is very susceptible to the impacts of climate change, which multiplies existing challenges in rural areas, especially for women and girls who are already struggling with the lack of essential infrastructure. Women farmers are affected by climate change-exacerbated droughts in terms of their ability to earn income, and to access resources like water, fuel, and food for their families. According to UNICEF, in 2022, 2.7 million children were not attending school because of persistent drought, and an estimated four million in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia were at risk of dropping out, leading to mothers having to manage increased unpaid caregiving responsibilities. (12)


What are the solutions to gender inequalities in unpaid care?

Recognize and value unpaid care work

  • Governments can put in place policies and programs to recognize and value unpaid care work. This can include awareness-raising campaigns, training programs for family care givers, and specific certifications or diplomas for care work.

Balance work and family life 

  • Governments can adopt policies that promote access to basic infrastructure and essential public services such as electricity, health care, water, child care, schools, and transportation. They can also adopt policies and programs that distribute or promote ease of access to modern household appliances such as gas stoves that can reduce the drudgery of work and the time spent doing it, enabling women to participate in education, leadership, and decision-making. But improvements must ensure that care remains available and affordable to all.

Modernize equipment to reduce the burden of unpaid care work 

  • Modernized stoves, washing equipment, accessible mills, and other types of equipment can reduce the time and labour-intensity of tasks such as fetching water, processing family harvests, and collecting firewood for women involved in unpaid care work. A study in rural Senegal found that investing in small water piping systems saved women time that they then used to establish new livestock-raising businesses and gardening. (17)

Promote positive masculinity—defeminize the image of care work

  • Goodwill ambassadors and traditional leaders can spread messages to change the norms that restrict unpaid care work to women. This involves raising public awareness of the discriminatory stereotypes that perpetuate the inequality of care work and encouraging men, boys, other family members, community members, people in business, politics, and government, elders, religious leaders, and the media to promote measures that reflect positive masculinity.
  • Men are more likely to engage in care work when they are aware of its value and the investment of time and knowledge it requires. If the collective perception of care work is more positive, and especially if this is supported by a respected leader, men are more likely to get involved. However, it is important to ensure that spokespersons are local actors, so that the community doesn’t feel that they are being imposed on from outside. Changing attitudes is a long-term process.
  • Most stereotypes are developed and perpetuated within the family circle. Radio programs and communication strategies can offer alternative visions and promote shared responsibility for care work by stimulating discussion and changing attitudes, behaviours, and values. This strategy uses the power of communication and radio to highlight men’s participation in unpaid care work.

Promote a culture of shared responsibility  

  • Reducing the amount of unpaid care work and sharing domestic tasks within the household, as well as amongst the private sector and government. will empower women economically because they will have more time to devote to themselves, their families, and paid work. (4) UN Women’s HeforShe campaign provides ways for men to stand in solidarity with women for gender equality, embodying positive masculinity by working with women and each other to build businesses, raise families, and give back to their communities. (18)

Promote the International Day of Care and Support

  • In July 2023, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed October 29 as the International Day of Care and Support and called on Member States, the United Nations system, civil society, the private sector, and the public to observe the day annually. The International Day of Care and Support aims to recognize and draw attention to the problems associated with unpaid care work and highlights the need to address the systemic barriers that perpetuate gendered unpaid care work. (4)


The “care diamond”

  • The fact that households and communities take responsibility for the vast majority of caregiving tasks leads to various types of injustice, including gender inequities. Unpaid care provided within families can be understood as part of the care diamond (see figure above) that includes four institutions that can provide care:
    • The State can provide, for example, paid care in a public hospital, public infrastructure related to water and energy, care-friendly policies, and supportive labour regulations.
    • Private sector (market) care, for example, private daycare centres. Private sector care provides employment, innovation, and investment in various caregiving sectors and ensures that care workers are protected and have adequate benefits. (15, 17)
    • Not-for-profit community services, for example, clinics run by health-related NGOs.
    • Families and households.
  • Care work is a co-responsibility and should be treated as such, in line with the care diamond. A more equitable sharing of responsibilities for unpaid care work needs to be created, with governments in particular taking more responsibility for providing care.
  • Four ways to redistribute unpaid care work in line with the care diamond are:
    • ensuring adequate public investment in care services to meet regional care needs;
    • making public care services available and ensuring essential infrastructure;
    • emphasizing the role of public and private sector employers in adopting care-friendly workplace policies; and
    • transforming attitudes, including those of traditional and religious leaders, to promote men’s increased involvement in unpaid care work.

See documents 16 and 17.


The 5R approach

Global Affairs Canada’s reframing of the International Labour Organization’s 5R approach promotes the following kinds of solutions to the inequalities associated with unpaid care:

  • Recognizing the value of unpaid and poorly paid care work;
  • Reducing drudgery and hours spent on unpaid care work;
  • Redistributing responsibility for care work more equitably, both within the household and outside it;
  • Ensuring unpaid and paid care workers are represented and have a voice; and
  • Responding to the rights and needs of unpaid and paid care workers. (1)

See also documents 4 and 5.


Contributed by: Ouabouè Bakouan, Journalist at Global Média Burkina

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


Sources of information

  1. Government of Canada, undated. Canada’s feminist approach to addressing unpaid and paid care work through international assistance. https://www.international.gc.ca/world-monde/issues_development-enjeux_developpement/priorities-priorites/fiap_care_work-paif_prestation_soins.aspx?lang=eng#a5
  2. International Labour Organization, 2022. Care at work: Investing in care leave and services for a more gender equal world of work. https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/documents/publication/wcms_838653.pdf
  3. International Labour Organization, 2021. Volunteer work measurement guide. https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—stat/documents/publication/wcms_789950.pdf
  4. International Labour Organization, 2018. Caring work and care jobs for the future of decent work. https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/—publ/documents/publication/wcms_633135.pdf
  5. Inter-réseaux Développement Rurale, 2023. Analyse de controverses – Travail de soins non rémunérés en Afrique de l’Ouest. https://www.inter-reseaux.org/publication/analyse-de-controverse-travail-de-soin-non-remunere-en-afrique-de-louest/ (only available in French)
  6. Marcus, R., and Harper C., 2015. Social Norms, Gender Norms and Adolescent Girls: A Brief Guide. Research and Practice Note. London: Overseas Development Institute. https://cdn.odi.org/media/documents/9818.pdf
  7. OECD Development Centre, 2018. Étude Pays SIGI-Burkina Faso. https://www.oecd.org/development/gender-development/ETUDE-PAYS-SIGI-BURKINA-FASO.pdf
  8. OECD Development Centre, 2014. Unpaid Care Work: The missing link in the analysis of gender gaps in labour outcomes. https://www.oecd.org/dev/development-gender/Unpaid_care_work.pdf
  9. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2023. Gender equality in times of crisis: SIGI Global Report 2023. https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/4607b7c7-en/index.html?itemId=/content/publication/4607b7c7-en
  10. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2021. SIGI 2021 Regional Report for Africa, 2021. https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/a6d95d90-en/index.html?itemId=/content/publication/a6d95d90-en
  11. Oxfam, 2018. Gender Roles and the Care Economy in Ugandan Households: The case of Kaabong, Kabale and Kampala Districts. Final report. https://oxfamilibrary.openrepository.com/bitstream/handle/10546/620532/rr-gender-roles-care-economy-uganda-130818-en.pdf?sequence=4
  12. UN Women, 2024. The Care Agenda: A Regional Perspective for East and Southern Africa. https://africa.unwomen.org/sites/default/files/2024-01/esa_care_framing_final_2b_3.pdf
  13. UN Women, 2023. Measuring and Valuing Unpaid Care and Domestic Work in Mali. https://africa.unwomen.org/sites/default/files/2023-06/20230505_UN%20Women_Policy%20brief%20Mali_ENG_web%20pages.pdf
  14. UN Women, 2023. Why women earn less: Gender Pay Gap and Labour-Market Inequalities in East and Southern Africa. https://africa.unwomen.org/sites/default/files/2023-10/gpg_regional_report_un_women.pdf
  15. UN Women, 2022. A Toolkit on Unpaid and Paid 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
  16. UN Women, 2015. Economic Growth and Social Reproduction: Gender Inequality as Cause and Consequence. Discussion Paper #5, September 2015. https://www.unwomen.org/sites/default/files/Headquarters/Attachments/Sections/Library/Publications/2015/gender%20inequality%20as%20cause%20and%20consequence.pdf
  17. UN Women, undated. Redistributing Unpaid Care and Sustaining Quality Care Services: A Prerequisite for Gender Equality. Policy Brief No. 5. https://www.unwomen.org/sites/default/files/Headquarters/Attachments/Sections/Library/Publications/2016/UN-Women-Policy-brief-05-Redistributing-unpaid-care-en.pdf
  18. UN Women HeforShe website. https://www.heforshe.org/en
  19. UNICEF, 2020. Technical note on gender norms. https://www.unicef.org/media/65381/file/GP-2020-Technical-Note-Gender-Norms.pdf
  20. World Bank. Gender data portal. https://genderdata.worldbank.org/regions/sub-saharan-africa/



Kambou Géneviève, housewife, Dano, Burkina Faso

Sidonie Somé, midwife, Dano health centre, Burkina Faso

Jacques Ouedraogo, sociologist, Centre for Advanced Development Studies, Dano, Burkina Faso

All interviews conducted in December 2023.


This story was produced as part of the “UCARE – Unpaid Care in Sub-Saharan Africa” project, which aims to strengthen gender equality and women’s empowerment through a commitment to a fairer and more equitable distribution of unpaid care and domestic work within households and families in Sub-Saharan Africa. This project is implemented in partnership with Farm Radio International (RRI), UN Women and the African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET), with funding from Global Affairs Canada.