Taking women’s empowerment beyond the paid economy

Mar Maestre Gender, Women's Economic Empowerment

How can development programmes support women’s economic empowerment while taking into account the burden of unpaid care work? Mar Maestre shares her research findings as part of the discussions taking place this week at the WEE Global Learning Forum 2017.

The advancement of women’s rights and economic empowerment in market systems contributes to the economic well-being of families, communities, and nations.

Market systems programs are increasingly targeting women’s economic empowerment. However, approaches to support women to participate in paid work often assume that women’s time is elastic. They fail to consider roles and responsibilities in the household and the community, and the unpaid labour needed to sustain the households, community and the economy. This can undermine both development outcomes and market activities. For women to fully enjoy their economic rights in an optimized, shared and sustained way, the interlinkages between unpaid care work and market systems approaches need to be understood and addressed.

What is unpaid care work?

Unpaid care work is a group of activities that serves people’s well-being, outside the paid economy. It includes direct care of people; housework; and unpaid community work. It is work because it involves time and energy, and it is shaped by power relations and social norms.

Unpaid care work is a social good. It becomes problematic when it is:

  • invisible, and therefore undervalued or ignored,
  • characterized by extremely heavy care tasks, most notably in poor communities without adequate access to services; and,
  • unequal, meaning that the biggest responsibility falls on women and girls in poor communities.

Good-quality care work sustains society, including markets. It is valuable and essential to supporting the economy, however it is often, overlooked and neglected in policy and programming. Traditional women’s economic empowerment (WEE) approaches will often focus on the paid economy (i.e. that which does not recognize the value of care), ignoring areas that have direct impacts on whether, how, and under which conditions women can access paid work. However, , more often than not, the problematic aspects of unpaid care work are the key variable in women’s ability to engage in economically productive work. Women’s caring responsibilities for elderly family members may only allow them to work in the informal economy, as they need to be close to home.

Research shows that heavy care work can have negative impacts on overall economic productivity and growth. It impacts market actors. For example, an Indian IT company, Infosys, started implementing flexible schedules, to support women working for them. As a result, the proportion of female employees returning to work after maternity leave increased from 59 per cent to 83 per cent in three years.

The Body Shop is working in Nicaragua to introduce a Fair Trade premium that covers unpaid care work. An initial calculation in 2008 found that women’s unpaid labour contributed to 22 per cent of the total input in sesame produced by the cooperatives.

Heavy and unequal unpaid care: a system-level constraint

At IDS, we recently worked with Oxfam to complete research – funded by BEAM Exchange – on interactions between market systems and unpaid care work. These interlinkages are not linear, but we found that for programs that target women’s empowerment, heavy and unequal unpaid care will likely be a system-level constraint. Practitioners must understand how care intersects with the way the market system and its sub-systems work.

Heavy and unequal care responsibilities contribute to time poverty, limited mobility and poor health and well-being. They undermine the rights of women, limit their opportunities, capabilities and choices and often restrict them to low-skilled, irregular or informal employment. Low incomes and irregular employment for women have knock-on effects for families (lower quality of care, impacts on younger women) or the women themselves (health, low skilled jobs).

What can programmes do?

The question is how to more systematically understand this two-way interaction between expectations around women’s roles and the way the market system functions.

This research outlines different pathways for programmes to facilitate changes to address problematic aspects of unpaid care work. Looking at unpaid care is the first step towards change. The diagnosis and research phase can start to facilitate change, as the act of asking questions about unpaid care promotes dialogue and increases both men’s and women’s recognition of care work.

Once the root causes of the constraints are identified combining interventions to directly address unpaid care can be an effective approach. This could include supporting women’s collective action to change labour laws with other actions that support changes in the market to adapt to existing care responsibilities, and changing the time or location of trainings or collection points so that women can attend.

Counting in non-market actors

Finally, programs often require a focus on market and ‘non-market’ actors – government agencies, community organizations, cooperatives and businesses – to identify (and unlock) incentives for positive change where addressing unpaid care constraints will result in increased value. This can involve supporting the market actor to identify the ‘business case’. For example, in Fiji, MDF recently partnered with Mark One Apparel, a garment factory, to co-finance the feasibility study of a company-managed day-care centre for the workers’ children for a subsided fee. The company goals are to reduce absenteeism rates and staff replacement costs and, potentially, achieve higher productivity and income.

Our research provides an initial analysis of the connections between market systems programmes and care, along with guidelines, tools and examples, though it has only explored part of the process. As more market systems programs integrate women’s economic empowerment along with interventions that address constraints rooted in unpaid care work, further learning needs to be taken from these experiences and the outcomes achieved through interventions designed to facilitate change.

This blog was first published by the SEEP network as part of the 2017 WEE Global Learning Forum Blog Series.

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Peta Sandison