How improving access to water can help reduce care work

Lucia Rost General, Research, Women's Economic Empowerment

Changes to infrastructure and equipment can make a real difference to time spent on care work . Lucia Rost and the WE-Care team share research from the Philippines, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

Everyone needs care, but in many countries, it is mostly women who are responsible for providing it. Heavy care work responsibilities can restrict women’s opportunities for education, employment, political engagement and leisure, and affect their wellbeing and their ability to overcome poverty.

Since 2013, Oxfam’s Women’s Economic Empowerment and Care (WE-Care) initiative has worked on producing new methodologies and evidence about unpaid care work, including caring for people and domestic work. In 2017, we carried out a Household Care Survey (HCS) to get an overview of the distribution of care work in the Philippines, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

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As in previous WE-Care research from 2014 and 2016, and other Oxfam publications about unpaid care in Uganda and Ethiopia, the recent study finds that gender inequalities in care work are widespread and they can negatively affect women’s lives in many ways. Here are some of the key findings.

Women spend up to 12 hours a day on care work – much more than men

The research confirmed our expectations that women do more hours of care work than men. We find that to capture the full spectrum of women’s care work, accounting for secondary care work and responsibility for looking after children and dependent adults is important: Women’s average hours of any care responsibility—including primary, secondary and supervision care — can reach 11 to 12 hours a day!

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interventions that help reduce care workloads can create space for women and children to explore different interests, e.g. pursue further education or engagement in community activities.
Long hours of care can limit women’s mobility, choices and productivity. The same is true for boys, and especially for girls, who both spend a high number of hours on unpaid care. This can have implications for the time they have for schooling, training, public activities and play. The differences between caring expectations for boys and girls can lead to gender inequalities later in life.

Our research suggests that interventions that help reduce care workloads can create space for women and children to explore different interests, e.g. pursue further education or engagement in community activities.

Heavy care work can affect women’s and their family’s wellbeing

Care work is hard work and can affect women’s wellbeing. A large number of women said they had experienced harm from their unpaid care work. In Uganda and Zimbabwe, more hours of care work are associated with women reporting injuries linked to their caring tasks. The most commonly reported injuries were backache (70% in the Philippines, 57% in Uganda and 61% in Zimbabwe) and headaches (47% in the Philippines, 20% in Uganda and 28% in Zimbabwe).

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In this year’s report, we also find that heavy care work can affect women’s families: the more care work a woman has to do, the more likely she is to leave dependants alone. One in ten women said that they had recently left a child under six or a dependent adult alone, knowing that there was no one else looking after them.

What can be done to reduce women’s and girls’ heavy care workloads?

The findings suggest that public infrastructure – especially infrastructure that guarantees improved access to water – make a real difference to the amount of time women spend on unpaid care work. Children also benefit from it: in households in Uganda and Zimbabwe, improved access to water is associated with boys and girls spending more time on leisure. The findings clearly show that government, private sector and development actors have an important role to play in addressing women’s and children’s heavy care workloads by investing in water related infrastructure. Ownership of time and labour saving equipment can also encourage men to participate in care activities.

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However, our findings also emphasise that providing access to infrastructure or equipment for any single task (e.g. improved laundry points, improved cooking stoves) cannot necessarily be expected to reduce the overall hours that women spend on care, especially when women engage in several care activities at the same time. Women might also simply use freed up time from one care activity for another care activity if social norms related to care work are not addressed. This implies that investments in infrastructure and equipment alone are not enough to address unpaid care work inequalities. In order to reduce women’s workloads, we also need to take into account social norms that determine what people can and cannot do when it comes to unpaid care.

Social norms and perceptions

fathers’ attitudes towards unpaid care work can influence children’s behaviour later in life
We believe that to redistribute care work within families, engaging the community to promote positive social norms, perceptions and attitudes about unpaid care work is essential, especially when it comes to increasing the commitment of men and boys to share care work. Our findings show that fathers’ attitudes towards unpaid care work can influence children’s behaviour later in life and indicate that communities can play an important role in supporting shifts on prevailing social norms related to unpaid care work.

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Finally, we find that many women and men approve of mocking men for doing care work or harshly criticising/beating women for ‘inadequate’ provision of care. Acceptance of gender based violence is associated with an unequal distribution of care work within the household. This suggests that addressing social norms and practices related to care work could not only help to redistribute care work within the household, but could also contribute to a more positive environment for change in the area of gender-based violence.  More research on the linkages between gender-based violence and care would help us to mitigate risks of gender-based violence more effectively, and contribute more purposefully to transformative change.

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Overall, our latest research suggests that if we want to sustainably address care issues as a critical component of women’s empowerment, we need interventions that provide the means to reduce unpaid care workloads (e.g. water infrastructure, equipment) at the same time as they support change in how people think about care work.

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The We-Care programme is supported by Unilever, the laundry brand Surf and Hewlett foundation.


Bethan Cansfield