By Sharon Atieno

The world marks the first International Day of Care and Support on October 29th following a landmark United Nations Declaration that recognises care and support as cornerstones for sustainable development and accelerators of equality.

Globally, women and girls take on a disproportionate share of the unpaid or undervalued care work. Unpaid care work includes unlimited household chores or duties, childcare, cooking, cleaning, fetching water and firewood, and even caring for the elderly, persons with disabilities, and the sick in communities or homesteads.

According to the United Nations, the purpose of this day is to create awareness about the importance of care and support activities, demonstrate the advantages of advancing gender equality, promote healthy aging ideals, and ensure sustainability of our societies and economies.

This first International Day of Care and Support serves to rally national governments, international organisations, and development agencies to take actions and renew commitments to create systems that promote the acknowledgement of care and support work. Similarly, organisations are called to make commitments to advance the rights of care givers, care workers, and those receiving care.

In marking this day, the national governments, international community, and development agencies ought to create resilient, gender-responsive, disability-inclusive and age-sensitive care and support systems. Moreover, they ought to develop policies that promote the achievement of gender equality and empowerment. These policies should alleviate the burden of unpaid care and support work that is largely borne by women, especially in developing countries.

According to a report published in 2018 by the International Labour Organization (ILO), women perform three-quarters of unpaid care work, dedicating on average about three times more time to this work than their male counterparts.

This limits the time that they can invest in income-generating activities and thus quashes their participation in the labour market and related opportunities for economic empowerment. Thus, the widespread gender inequalities and the inadequate policy responses impact negatively the economy.

According to the ILO report entitled: “ Care work and care jobs for the future of decent work”,  unpaid care work is the main barrier to women’s progress in the labour market.

To cure this, there is need to recognise, reduce, and redistribute unpaid care and domestic work within households and communities. Further, there is need to provide appropriate public services and establish social protection policies and infrastructure that supports care activities.

Already, efforts are underway to develop policies that support and help alleviate the burden of unpaid care work on women including by international organizations like UN Women and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

In the Eastern Africa region, IDRC is supporting a programme titled Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW)-East Africa. This initiative provides funding for research to generate evidence that spurs transformative changes to promote women’s economic empowerment.

The programme is jointly funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and IDRC, and supports 15 projects including evaluative research and policy support projects. While the projects are not yet complete, there is already evidence demonstrating that alleviating the burden of unpaid care work from women unlocks their capacity to participate in more economically progressive initiatives and improves their wellbeing.

For instance, in Uganda, the Economic Policy Research Centre (EPRC) through a project titled “From Promises to Action: shifting gender norms and Public Perceptions about Unpaid Care Work in Workplaces and Families in Uganda,” is influencing positive social change among communities in the research districts.

Through use of a specialized model to raise awareness against negative gender practices and retrogressive social norms that contribute to women’s burden of unpaid care work, the organization has been able to reduce the burden of care work on women as some men are now helping with these activities. Cases of gender-based violence in the districts have also decreased.

ChilFund-Ethiopia’s project “Reducing women’s care burden and improving their economic wellbeing through establishment of community-based childcare centres” has resulted in the establishment of 16 early childhood development (ECD) centres across three regions in Ethiopia including Addis Ababa, Adama, and Debre.

In Ethiopia, most ECD centres are privately owned thus making them unaffordable for most women. Through multi-stakeholder engagement, the organization received resources to help set up as well as expand government funded ECD centres which are housed in schools across the regions. This has given women ample time to engage in other economic activities which helps to improve their earnings.

In Kenya, the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) was funded to investigate how the Kidogo model could be replicated and scaled in other parts of the country ensuring that quality and affordability are maintained. Kidogo is a social enterprise that trains informal childcare providers called “Mamaprenuers” on responsive caregiving, learning through play, positive discipline, child nutrition and running the childcare centre as a micro-enterprise.

The study evaluated the effectiveness of the Kidogo model in enhancing the economic outcomes of women living in low-income communities in Nakuru County. Findings from the study have led to establishment of a technical working group between the researchers and county government of Nakuru to engage on issues of childcare within the county.

Each project highlights how the economic opportunities available to women increase when the burden of care and support activities does not fall entirely on their shoulders. Promoting this type of research to provide evidence for policy change and gender equality in the care sector is an important initiative promoted through IDRC and many other international organisations.

At the global level, increasing attention is given to recognizing efforts in unpaid care work with Prof Claudia Goldin of Harvard University receiving the 2023 Nobel Prize for economics. Her research has advanced the world’s understanding of women’s labour market outcomes. She uncovered key drivers of gender differences in the labour market including the birth of the first child.

With conditions of unpaid care work impacting how women enter and remain in paid work, urgent action needs to be taken at all levels both community, federal, and regional levels to reduce, recognize, and redistribute unpaid care work.