How do you define unpaid care? Insights from Timor-Leste

Therese Johnson Gender, Research, Women's Economic Empowerment

As in so many places, care roles in Timor-Leste are gendered but, says Therese Johnson, Oxfam research also highlights local differences in what people recognise as “unpaid care” – especially in a subsistence economy with lots of other unpaid labour. This blog is the second in our series around the International Day of Care.

Woman holding baby in field
Umbelina, Teofilo and their young child in their farm in Suai. (Picture Kate Bensen/Oxfam, from the Rapid Care Analysis research report)

“Based on our culture, women should stay home. Long ago, as women, we stay in the kitchen. But now, the time has changed. We want to be away from home… attend meetings in the village together with local leaders. We want to get access to education, and healthcare. I want to access those things.”

This personal reflection from a young woman in Covalima, Timor-Leste was one of many shared during the Rapid Care Analysis that Oxfam in Timor-Leste conducted in six rural communities in the three municipalities of Oecusse, Liquisa and Covalima.

Oxfam in Timor-Leste’s Rapid Care Analysis research report assessed patterns and perceptions of unpaid care work, including household care tasks such as childcare, taking care of sick or elderly family members, cooking meals, cleaning, and collecting water.

‘Various activities thought of in other contexts as “non-care” work were often considered as unpaid care work in this context.’

Global data from ILO shows that 76% of all these care tasks are undertaken by women, more than three times as many as men. However, research in Timor-Leste to date has so far been relatively limited.

The research was conducted in collaboration with three of our local partners, Masine Neu Oecusse (MANEO) and Binibu Faef Nome (BIFANO) in Oecusse and Kdadalak Sulimutuk Institute (KSI) in Liquisa and Covalima. Focus groups with 114 participants explored care roles and relationships; identified women’s and men’s work activities, including care work; and estimated average hours of care per week. The groups also identified gendered patterns in care work; social norms influencing care work patterns; problematic care activities; and proposed solutions.

Farming, childcare, cooking and cleaning

The research found that care roles are clearly gendered, with women responsible for childcare, preparing meals and cleaning. Women were significantly more time-poor than men, because of their productive work in the fields, as well as doing the vast majority of unpaid care work. For example, in three of the target areas, women undertook unpaid care work 57 hours per week on average, compared to 17 hours for men.

The research also found that women operate under strong patriarchal social norms and expectations on unpaid care work, particularly in relation to caring for children and family members, while social expectations for men on unpaid care work were minimal.

But does the concept of ‘unpaid care’ translate easily?

A key insight from the research is that the concept of unpaid care work is not generally widely known or discussed in Timor-Leste, so there were difficulties in translating and understanding key concepts for both the Timorese focus group facilitators and community members.

In fact, various activities thought of in other contexts as “non-care” work were often considered as unpaid care work in this context. Participants and facilitators alike struggled to distinguish between paid productive work, unpaid care work and unpaid productive work.

This also reflected the challenge of defining care work in a subsistence economy. More than 70% of people live by subsistence agriculture in Timor-Leste, where crops and livestock are produced for household consumption, with the excess sold at the market. The prevalence of unpaid work in this largely subsistence economy made it difficult for community members to recognise the significant work done by women working in the fields as well as their unpaid care work.

Raising public awareness

Through this research, Oxfam in Timor-Leste hopes to open up more conversations in our society to recognise, redistribute and reduce unpaid care work, and ultimately empower more Timorese women to take up income-generating economic opportunities.

The launch of our Rapid Care Analysis report coincides with a public awareness campaign to increase recognition and redistribution of unpaid care work in Timor-Leste. The key message of the campaign is: “Relationships are stronger when we work together”. When we commit to sharing responsibility for care work at home, we know we’re working together for our family and each other.


Therese Johnson

Therese Johnson is Gender Justice Senior Program Manager, Oxfam in Timor-Leste

Find out more: You can watch a series of three short videos about this work here, here and here. And you can read the Rapid Care Analysis research report here.

This unpaid care work research and campaign is part of Oxfam in Timor-Leste’s women’s economic empowerment project, Hakbi’it, which is supported by the Australian Government through the Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP).

This is the second in a series of blogs around the International Day of Care and Support on October 29