Don’t see the value of care, carers and informal workers? We have some messages that might just change your mind…

Sanika Sawant Influencing, Research, Women's Economic Empowerment

Tired old narratives such as care is not ‘real’ work need to be challenged. Sanika Sawant, Alex Bush, Anam Parvez Butt, Blandina Bobson, Silvia Galandini and Regis Mtutu on new Oxfam research from Kenya, Zimbabwe and the UK that tested new narratives with exciting potential to build government and public support for care, carers and informal workers.

Why are care and informal work, and the women who do most of this work, so undervalued across the globe? And how can campaigners who advocate for valuing women’s work, informal workers and carers appropriately persuade the public and policy makers to see their immense economic and social value?

Oxfam’s new research both analyses and tries to address a fundamental problem: the pervasive, deeply held and unhelpful “narratives” about care, domestic and informal work and those performing it – in other words the stories and beliefs each society has that underpin the way such work, whether paid or unpaid, formal or informal, is thought and spoken about. Such stories directly impact what gets invested in and what doesn’t, who bears the costs, and how this work is shared within societies and economies at large. As Phumi Mtetwa, a South African feminist, puts it: narratives underscore “invisible power“.

The research was carried out in Kenya, the UK and Zimbabwe as part of a wider framing project that identified retrogressive and unfair existing narratives and tested new narratives that could be used to improve public attitudes.

It was critical that research in each country was supported by steering groups and local partners from civil society organisations, embedding this work in movement-building that supported influencing and advocacy efforts already in motion. Creating and promoting such new stories about care and informal work are vital to securing adequate investment and support from communities, traditional leaders and governments, and ultimately for shifting of narratives for positive change.

Tired, old stories: narratives about care and informal work that must be challenged

Our paper – Reframing Narratives Around Care and Informal Work in Kenya, the UK and Zimbabwe: A synthesis of national research – draws together findings from narratives research on care and informal work in Kenya, the UK, and Zimbabwe. The research looked at paid and unpaid care work, domestic work and informal work, with different emphases on each these elements in different contexts

So, what are the old narratives that lie behind societies’ neglect of care, domestic and informal workers? The answers were different for each context – and you can read the full analysis in the paper – but they typically include narratives/ideas such as these:

  • Care and domestic work is not ‘real work’ because it does not contribute to the economy.
  • Women are naturally more nurturing and better suited to care work.
  • It is unmanly for men to do care and domestic work.
  • Much of care work is a personal/private issue, not an issue for the government.
  • Informal workers are tax evaders who do not make a significant contribution to the economy.

A whole new story: fresh messages that offer a route to change

So, what did the research suggest might be fruitful messaging and narratives to challenge such narratives? These varied across countries.

In Kenya, three narrative concepts were identified and tested that had the potential to positively reframe perceptions of unpaid care and domestic work:

  1. A narrative that encourages fathers to engage in unpaid care and domestic work to foster a better relationship with their children (expressed through a vignette featuring ‘John’, a fictional father)
  2. Normalise the role of fathers within the household, to influence behaviour and decision-making  and to reduce the unbalanced workload of women’s ‘double shift’
  3. Foreground the negative impacts of fathers not being involved in providing parental care, such as the increased likelihood of emotional and behavioural problems in children, to encourage appropriately rewarding and valuing care and domestic work.

In the UK, where the research focused on creating a framing toolkit to address paid and unpaid care, researchers made these six key recommendations:

  1. Lead with the idea that caring is a collective activity that holds society together and contributes significantly to the wellbeing of the nations. This can shift people’s perceptions of care
  2. Frame carers as part of a network across the UK to help people see care as more of a ‘system’ or ‘safety net for society’.
  3. Talk about the enormous number of people from diverse backgrounds who carry out caring activities.
  4. Remind audiences about the scope of caring – from caring for the youngest people (children) to the oldest (aged 90 and above), and everyone in between.
  5. Emphasize the emotional benefits that carers bring – human warmth, independence and dignity.
  6. Highlight the negative consequences for society, carers and recipients of care if caring does not receive better support.

Finally, in Zimbabwe, the research focused on unpaid care and informal work (in particular, street vending), looking at audiences including the media, informal workers, and religious and traditional leaders. It identified four narratives with the potential to change perceptions of unpaid care and domestic work/informal work:

  1. Engaging in unpaid care and domestic work can improve the relationship between fathers and their children.
  2. Men and boys supporting unpaid care and domestic work can lead to happier relationships and homes.
  3. Men and women are equally capable of performing domestic and professional duties.
  4. Unpaid care and domestic work are crucial factors driving economic development.

So how do we start to spread the new narratives?

Of course, a huge challenge will be to promote and use these narratives to bring about the desired change. The research suggests tackling narratives deeply embedded in societal norms will demand a range of approaches and communication styles, with clear awareness and tailoring to the intersectional needs of each audience.

Narratives must be also concise and easy to understand – and that will sometimes mean certain elements will need to be left out and some messaging simplified. Here, it is helpful to see the shifting of narratives as a step-by-step approach of crafting a new story around complex issues.

 The importance of movement building

Changing the story about care work will only happen through a broad set of allies in each country who can co-create and disseminate, strong and accessible new narratives to engage wider audiences emotionally to effect change and popularise these through different mediums and channels through the engagement of changemakers. These changemakers, including policy makers, public campaigners, civil society organisations, academics and unusual allies like religious and traditional leaders and the media, form a holistic web of actors who can bring about sustained systemic changes by directly shifting policies, metrics and power dynamics.

We hope our new research can be part of a global effort to boost support for all forms of care, carers and informal workers– and with billions of women still undervalued, underpaid and overworked, that support cannot come soon enough.


Sanika Sawant

Sanika Sawant is Researcher, Valuing Women's Work, at Oxfam GB


Alex Bush

Alex Bush is a researcher on Valuing Women’s Work at Oxfam GB


Anam Parvez

Anam Parvez is the Head of Research at Oxfam GB


Blandina Bobson

Blandina Bobson is director of programmes for Oxfam in Kenya


Silvia Galandini

Silvia Galandini is the Domestic Poverty Lead at Oxfam GB


Regis Mtutu

Regis Mtutu is Gender Justice and Social Norms Coordinator at Oxfam GB.

Read the full paper: Reframing Narratives Around Care and Informal Work in Kenya, the UK and Zimbabwe: A synthesis of national research.

And this new paper focusing on Kenya: Shifting Narratives to Value Unpaid and Informal Work in Kenya.

Also, check out this blog that introduces a new toolkit Oxfam developed last year to help change the conversation about care in the UK.