Meal prep and cooking. Collecting water. Caring for children. The amount of time spent on chores and caring for others might not always seem like a lot. But eventually, it adds up — especially for women and girls who live in poverty and are from marginalized groups.

This phenomenon is referred to as unpaid care work. Unrecognized and undervalued, this invisible labor becomes mothers’ and daughters’ responsibility. The percentage of men performing it is much lower than the percentage of women carrying out similar tasks. 

Unpaid work is essential for households and economies to function, but it's valued less than paid work. Unpaid care and domestic work make a substantial contribution to countries’ economies. 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.

But unpaid labor rarely receives as much recognition. 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, widening the global gender gap further. 

Here’s everything you need to know about unpaid care work and why redistributing it is necessary to achieve gender equality. 

What Is the Unpaid Care Burden?

Unpaid care work includes household duties such as cooking, cleaning, water and fuel collection, child care, or elder care. These domestic duties are essential to a well-functioning society and economy — and they are often overlooked. Women and girls bear more of the burden for these duties than men and boys. 

Before the COVID-19 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 of this work has been far greater for women. Progress toward achieving gender equality could be reversed as a result of this increase in women’s household responsibilities. 

Women and girls who are the main caretakers at home are less likely to have time to attend school or secure work. This makes it even more difficult to escape poverty. 

3 Key Facts to Know About Unpaid Care Work

  • Around the world, 42% of women can’t secure jobs because they’re responsible for caregiving.
  • Women and girls undertake more than 75% of unpaid care work in the world. 
  • In 89% of households, women and girls perform the majority of household chores. 

How Many People Are Affected by the Unpaid Care Burden?

Women and girls in countries around the world, regardless of socioeconomic status, perform a disproportionate amount of unpaid care work. For many women, these duties are in addition to their paid jobs, creating a “double burden” of work. 

And many women saw a rise in unpaid child care in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In poorer Latin American, Asian, and African countries, the increase in unpaid work has been more noticeable compared to wealthier countries. 

Who Is Most Affected by Unpaid Care Work, and Why?

Pervasive gender norms and stereotypes reinforce the belief that women and girls’ roles are limited to the home. Because of school closures and the uptick in working from home during the pandemic, household chores have become more difficult. Girls and women have been left to pick up the slack by taking care of sick family members and children.

Unpaid domestic care work is lowest in developed regions, where women spend twice as much time on such tasks as men. It’s greatest in Northern Africa and Western Asia, where women spend seven times as much time on unpaid work. Globally, women spend on average about 38 more minutes per day on paid and unpaid work than men. And they do the majority of household chores in 89% of households.

Men and women both spent twice as much time on unpaid domestic work and care work during the pandemic. But women still spent around two more hours per day than men on these activities. 

Lack of infrastructure and inadequate technology makes it difficult for communities living in poverty to access basic needs like water and firewood. Climate change is also increasing women’s unpaid work in farming and water and fuel collection. Worldwide women and girls already spend an estimated 200 million hours daily collecting water. In sub-Saharan Africa, where the majority of the world’s poor live, only 55% of households are within 15 minutes of water. Women and girls do 70% of the water collection. 

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

How Does the Unpaid Care Burden Relate to Ending Extreme Poverty?

Unpaid care is a barrier to women having full access to their human rights, particularly for women living in poverty. When girls and women spend more time on unpaid care work than men, they have fewer opportunities to receive an education or secure a paying job.

One study found that poverty rates by sex and gender are widest among women between the ages of 25 and 34. This is when households typically face increased childcare expenses and women have less time for paid work. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, women were less likely to be in the workforce. And the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed an estimated 28 million women over the age of 25 to leave the labor market. This puts them more at risk of financial dependence and living in poverty. According to the World Economic Forum, 47 million women could be pushed into extreme poverty in 2021, and poverty gender pay gaps are only expected to widen. 

Who Are the Key Players Tackling Unpaid Care?

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action listed unpaid care work as a major barrier to gender equality in 1995, and it remains a major roadblock today. Organizations around the world are continuing to fight for women’s economic empowerment to uplift communities.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is working to further understand unpaid care work and support proven strategies to break down the barriers women and girls face. The foundation has teamed up with partners to collect and analyze data, create and test policies, and support governments in enforcing changes to promote gender equality. 

The Gates Foundation has found that policies that allow more work flexibility — like working from home or nontraditional schedule options — allow women to participate in the workforce and earn a living wage. The foundation is also advocating for COVID-19 recovery plans to address child care to advance gender equality. 

The United Nations’ gender equality agency UN Women has presented policy agendas to prevent poverty among women by addressing unpaid care. The agency has pointed out how paid maternity and parental leave, childcare, transportation, and basic infrastructure can reduce poverty by providing income security. The organization also created an unpaid care work interactive explainer to help people assess their domestic workload. 

What Action Can We All Take Against Unpaid Care? 

Women’s rights advocates around the world are pushing for the recognition of unpaid care and domestic work. They want to raise visibility on the issue and provide the time and resources for men and women to share household tasks. There are many ways to help make a difference: counting unpaid care work in statistics, acknowledging its place in the economy, compensating women for their contributions, and considering unpaid care work when making policy decisions. 

Governments and the private sector have an opportunity to start valuing unpaid care work properly. Global Citizens can call on world leaders to introduce and enforce policies to reduce and redistribute unpaid care work. Creating additional employment opportunities, improving access to social protection, and making it easier for girls to stay in school will help promote women’s and girls’ economic advancement. You can support Global Citizen #ActForEqual to redistribute unpaid care here

Disclosure: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a funding partner of Global Citizen.

You can join the Global Citizen Live campaign to defeat poverty and defend the planet by taking action here, and become part of a movement powered by citizens around the world who are taking action together with governments, corporations, and philanthropists to make change.

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Unpaid Care Work: Everything You Need to Know

By Leah Rodriguez