The amount of time and energy women and girls spend on unpaid care — cooking, collecting water, caring for children — is finally receiving some of the attention it deserves. 

The World Bank announced the global Childcare Incentive Fund on April 29 to generate $180 million in new funding over the next five years, which will support child care in low- and middle-income countries and address the unpaid care burden placed on women.

The White House joined the effort with USAID committing $50 million to scale high-quality child care and early learning. The fund will have additional support from the governments of Australia and Canada, along with philanthropic partners at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Ford Foundation, LEGO Foundation, and Echidna Giving. (Disclosure: The Gates Foundation and Ford Foundation are funding partners of Global Citizen.)

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the care agenda front and center and highlighted the disproportionate amount of unpaid care women and girls perform that takes away from school and work. 

Families globally lack adequate child care options, contributing to high unemployment and limiting women’s earnings. Girls often have to undertake an unfair share of unpaid domestic responsibilities rather than completing their education or having the childhood they deserve. 

Marginalized women are especially vulnerable to falling into poverty when they are forced to perform unpaid care and lack access to child care. Poverty rates by sex and gender are widest for women between the ages of 25 and 34. This is when households typically face increased child care expenses and women have less time for paid work. Women and girls who are the main caretakers at home are less likely to have time to attend a school or secure work. 

Unpaid domestic care work is lowest in developed regions, where women spend twice as much time on such tasks as men, and greatest in Northern Africa and Western Asia, where women spend seven times as much time on unpaid work than men. Climate change is also increasing women’s unpaid work in farming and water and fuel collection. 

Spending more time on unpaid care also means having less time for paid labor, political participation, self-care, rest, and leisure. What’s more, unpaid care work can stunt girls’ self-confidence and personal development through play and socialization.

Expanding access to high-quality child care has the potential for positive multi-generational impacts by improving women’s employment, early childhood development outcomes, family welfare, business performance, and overall economic growth. 

Here are six reasons the public and private sectors must work together to elevate the care agenda.

1. Women performed more unpaid work and experienced more job losses during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before the pandemic, women spent three times as many hours on unpaid domestic and care work as men. During the pandemic, time spent on care work has increased for both women and men, but the increase in this work has been far greater for women. 

While men and women both spent twice as much time on unpaid domestic work and care work during the pandemic, women still spent around two more hours per day than men on these activities. Progress toward achieving gender equality could be reversed due to the increase in women’s household responsibilities. 

In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, women were also nearly two times more likely to lose their job than men. By the end of 2021, men largely regained their pre-pandemic employment levels, but women’s employment failed to pick back up. Before the pandemic, 606 million women worldwide cited child care concerns as their reason for not seeking work, compared to only 41 million men.

Ahead of the Childcare Incentive Fund launch, philanthropist Melinda French Gates penned an op-ed highlighting the need to support women in the informal workforce by investing in child care. 

In 2020, job losses were two to three times higher among informal workers. In India, where 51 million women live in poverty, and 93% of the workforce is informal, access to child care is a major barrier to the majority of the country’s livelihoods. Without access to child care, women globally are less likely to reenter the workforce or start a new business.

2. The rate of women worldwide who stopped work due to caregiving responsibilities increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before the pandemic, girls aged 10 to 14 did an average of 50% more unpaid work than boys. And women and girls were overall more likely than men and boys to face negative socioeconomic impacts from the pandemic, including an increased burden of unpaid care work.

The proportion of women worldwide who stopped work to care for someone has risen by 10%, according to new research that provided the first global evidence of gender disparities across a range of social and economic indicators. The highest rates of income loss were seen in sub-Saharan Africa. 

3. Providing women access to child care could improve the world economy.

Estimates show that 16 billion hours are spent on unpaid care work every day. The International Labor Organization found that if care work was valued the same as other work, it would represent a tenth of the world’s economic output. 

Some governments depend on unpaid work to compensate for public services, further widening the global gender gap. The total value of unpaid care and domestic work is estimated to be between 10% and 39% of gross domestic product. It contributes more to the economy than sectors like manufacturing, commerce, or transportation.

For every dollar invested in early child care, the return is $7. Providing access to child care for women who do not have it could mean an up to $4.4 trillion increase in global GDP at purchasing power parity due to the increase in female labor force participation. 

4. More robust universal child care programs could reduce the gender pay gap.

Globally, women earn on average just 68% of what men are paid for the same work and just 40% on average in countries with the least gender parity.

Increasing universal child care programs would yield a global reduction in the gender pay gap of 8.6%, or about $527 billion globally. More access to universal child care access would decrease the gender pay gap in every region and country income group. 

Poorer countries and those in Latin America, Asia-Pacific, and sub-Saharan Africa would see the largest benefit. In low- and middle-income countries, the average reduction in the gender pay gap would be 18% in sub-Saharan Africa and would result in a 22% reduction in the gender pay gap.

5. Addressing child care barriers could increase women’s labor force participation rate and help caregivers re-enter the labor force. 

The highest proportions of women outside the labor force because of lack of child care are in the Middle East and North Africa, South Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean. Low-income countries and lower-middle-income countries stand to gain the most with increased access to child care.

If policies and funding addressed child care barriers, nearly 15 million women in Kenya,  Nigeria, and South Africa would join the labor force. Paying for child care is the main barrier to the service for families in South Africa and Nigeria.

6. Almost half of the world’s children lack access to child care.

More than 40% of the world’s children under school age did not have regular access to quality care, which is an essential factor for their future development. 

Nearly 350 million children lack quality child care in the world. The child care crisis disproportionately impacts families in low- and lower-middle-income countries, where nearly 8 out of 10 children need care but do not have access.

Editorial

Demand Equity

6 Facts You Should Know About the Unpaid Care Work Crisis

By Leah Rodriguez