Care work matters – public services and infrastructure can make a difference

Thalia Kidder Gender, Women's Economic Empowerment

Thalia Kidder and Claudia Canepa explain why unpaid care work matters in tackling poverty and gender inequality, and discuss what can be done to recognise, reduce and redistribute the work load.

Sustainable Development Goal 5.4 mandates that governments ‘recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility’, as one means of empowering all women and girls.

But how should governments invest? What’s the evidence that investing will reduce and redistribute the heavy workloads of unpaid care and domestic work, and empower women and girls? The topic is wide, but here are some answers building on Oxfam’s research.

Why unpaid care matters

Poor women do more unpaid care work, and it keeps them poor

‘Heavy and unequal care responsibilities are a major barrier to gender equality… and, in many cases, condemn women to poverty’ wrote the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, Magdalena Sepulveda, in 2013.

Sepulveda’s research confirmed the role of the state in addressing the challenge of unpaid care work: ‘the amount, intensity and drudgery of unpaid care work increase with poverty’ and ‘inadequate state provision of key infrastructure such as energy and water and sanitation has a disproportionate impact on poor women and girls living in rural areas of developing countries’.

Thus, the problem of economic empowerment is not only to get women ‘into decent work’ – since around the world, women and girls are already working long hours and longer hours than men and boys – it’s that so many of women’s working hours are unpaid care work.

In Oxfam’s Household Care Research rural women surveyed in five developing countries spent an average of 5-6 hours per day on care and domestic work, and up to 11-12 hours per day on care when time spent supervising dependents was included: time when their mobility and choices were constrained.

Care work impacts on women’s wellbeing

Long hours of domestic work without adequate infrastructure lead to increased risks of injury and illness for low-income rural women. Oxfam surveyed women in two districts of Uganda and in six districts of Zimbabwe, and asked if they suffered any injury, disability or other harm as a direct result of their unpaid care and domestic work in the past year; 33% and 38% (respectively) reported that they had. More than half of these women said the harm they suffered had a long-term effect.

A recent report from the Institute of Development Studies documents women’s physical and emotional depletion from heavy paid and unpaid workloads.

Increasing reliance on ‘volunteers’ has knock-on effects

When governments reduce spending on public care services, carers are forced to increase hours of unpaid caring, which costs women and the economy. Recent research by showed that globally, 57 million unpaid workers are filling in the gaps caused by inadequate healthcare provision. The majority are women who have given up employment to carry out this role.  And in some countries, austerity has led governments to devolve care provision to armies of ‘volunteers’, adding to women’s unpaid community work. 

When governments reduce spending on public care services, carers are forced to increase hours of unpaid caring

What can be done to recognise, reduce and redistribute unpaid care?

Investment in childcare and elder care is not enough

Accessible and affordable people-care services are vital, but may not resolve long hours of unpaid care work, especially in poor, rural communities. Since many women carry out domestic tasks and caring simultaneously, providing one people-care service – such as child-care or elder-care – may only reduce multi-tasking, and not reduce the total number of hours a carer spends on unpaid work.  People-care services combined with improved water, sanitation and energy infrastructure can give women and girls more choice over their time.

Improving public infrastructure can reduce time spent on care  

Recent research on access to improved water systems in selected districts of Uganda and Zimbabwe shows important results for reducing women’s hours of unpaid care; 2 hours less a day in Uganda and 4 hours 17 minutes less in Zimbabwe.  Girls’ and boys’ time use also showed positive changes with access to an improved water source: girls were sleeping longer (in the Uganda sample) and studying longer (in the Zimbabwe sample). Access to electricity was associated with boys in the Uganda sample spending 1 hour 7 minutes less on care work and 41 minutes more on studying.

Investments over time work best

Budget allocations of single capital investments get critical infrastructure in place. However, for sustainable positive change, investments are needed for operation and maintenance. Too often, overstretched municipalities without ongoing budgets end up with inoperable infrastructure. Poor women are no better off.

Redistribution of care is needed, as well as reduction:

Oxfam’s research suggests that access to public services does not automatically lead to more equitable distribution of care work between men and women. Public sector communications can contribute to shifting gendered social norms about care roles.

Engaging men in the design and delivery of the public service is associated with more gender equitable distribution of care work. For example, Promundo’s Men and Gender Equality Policy Project (MGEPP) showed how promoting men’s participation in maternal and child health services (prenatal care and during childbirth) has impacted on men’s increased engagement as fathers and caregivers. Oxfam’s WE-Care programme also involved men in the design of cooking stoves; suggestions to raise stoves off the ground greatly changed men’s attitudes towards and time spent cooking.

Better data makes for better policies

Research into public services often focuses on the important outcomes of health, children’s development or mortality. More research is needed to explicitly evaluate the impact of the access to care-related infrastructure and the design of public services on women’s, men’s and children’s time use and unpaid care. Over 85 countries have conducted time use surveys, however these are rarely linked to ministries’ policy-making and budgeting. Achieving sustainable improvements in paid work for women requires policies that support all of women’s work.


Austerity policies that reduce government spending on public services and infrastructure are considered savings for government, but they are in essence a transfer of costs from governments to mostly women.

Addressing the gaps in care-related services and infrastructure would have a disproportionately positive impact on the lives and livelihoods of poor women and girls. We therefore call on governments to increase investment in public services and infrastructure in ways that engage men in the design of such services and are recurring to ensure that the infrastructure is properly maintained over time and that it leads to redistribution of care work within the household, not just reduction in women’s hours of work.


Rachel Roger