Critical junctures and the redistribution of care work

Martin Walsh Research, Women's Economic Empowerment

Women’s heavy and unequal contributions to care work are a challenge to their participation in social, economic and political life and overall wellbeing. How can project interventions change this? Senior researcher Martin Walsh reflects on the findings of two in-depth studies in Uganda and Ethiopia.

One of the aims of Oxfam’s WE-Care (Women’s Economic Empowerment and Care) initiative is the redistribution of responsibility for unpaid care work more equitably between women and men. To tackle this and related challenges, WE-Care is working to build evidence on unpaid care, develop effective interventions, and influence policy and practice to address care issues as a critical component of women’s empowerment.

Two new studies of the impact of Oxfam projects on gender relations and care work not only add significantly to the evidence that WE-Care is generating, but also provide important insights into how to ensure that our interventions are more effective in targeting care.

First, a quick introduction to the two studies:

  • Transforming Care After Conflict (lead author: Anam Parvez Butt) examines a women’s empowerment project in Karamoja in northern Uganda, and is based on a quantitative impact evaluation (effectiveness review) combined with in-depth qualitative research undertaken by anthropologist Barbara Gärber.
  • Cash Cropping and Care (lead author: Franziska Mager) focuses on a livelihoods project in Oromia in Ethiopia, and combines the results of a quantitative effectiveness review with the findings of research led by James Copestake and Fiona Remnant of Bath Social & Development Research, using their innovative Qualitative Impact Protocol, QuIP.

Both projects predated WE-Care, and neither was designed to have a direct effect on care work. The good news is that both had positive impacts on the redistribution of responsibility for care work, as the following statements from women in Karamoja illustrate:

The teachings of Oxfam are what helped us… Before, work for men was only rearing cattle and sitting under the tree…’;

Men used to be big-headed, they never wanted work, but nowadays when I go maybe to the garden, the man does everything at home, even cooking, preparing breakfast, sweeping, washing, serving you tea in the garden.

How did they do this? The common factor was that the gendered norms and practices of care were already changing in both places. In post-conflict Karamoja, gendered labour relations have been undergoing a profound transformation as the local economy has begun to recover. Men are increasingly taking on agricultural and other tasks that were traditionally considered to be women’s work. This includes helping at home: assisting with childcare, nursing the sick, and doing various kinds of housework.

‘Oxfam was one of several development agencies that successfully piggybacked on existing shifts in gender norms and the distribution of care work’
In Oromia, cash crop development has seen a switch from less profitable and more time-demanding crops. Women’s agricultural labour has become less onerous and family incomes have increased. Meanwhile, gender norms have been shifting towards greater sharing of care responsibilities, especially in younger and more educated households whose members have been exposed to training from different organisations, Oxfam included.

Gender training provided by Oxfam for both men and women also played an important role in Karamoja. In both cases, however, Oxfam was only one of several development agencies that successfully piggybacked on existing shifts in gender norms and the distribution of care work. If care had been integrated into the projects’ theories of change right from the start, then they might have achieved even more than they did.

Ensuring that projects target care work is only a first step. If we can begin with better understandings of whether and how, and why, norms and behaviour are already changing, then we should be able to craft much smarter interventions, incorporating other evidence for what works in different contexts – such as the training and awareness-raising that was effective in these two cases.

Identifying and taking advantage of such ‘critical junctures’ is not only an effective tactic for campaigners, but can be a powerful strategy for the design of programmes that seek transformative change. If we want to achieve the aims of WE-Care, including the redistribution of responsibility for care, then the results of these new studies suggest that we should spend much more time and effort looking for the best opportunities to do so.

Read more


Martin Walsh