Unpaid Care and Domestic Work isn’t just for women


Women carry firewood at Kunene in Tigania West, Meru County, in 2014. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

It all starts with…it’s a baby girl! With that announcement, the default settings of what it means to be female are configured. For this infant breathing their first, the job is cut out for them; to grow into a woman who will take up the most important yet undervalued job in the world, unpaid care and domestic work.

Failure to which, her value as a woman is diminished and she is perceived to rebel against the unspoken standards and expectations of how to be a good woman or mother.

Unpaid Care and Domestic Work (UCDW) refers to all non-market, unpaid activities carried out in our homes including direct care of persons such as children or elderly, and indirect care such as cooking, cleaning, or fetching water.

Unpaid Care and Domestic Work is the main occupation for mothers, the mother figures in our lives and women. As society continues to hold women and girls responsible for these unrealistic standards of undertaking Unpaid Care and Domestic work, here is why we should all re-define these unwritten rules and push for change.

Unpaid Care and Domestic work are labour that glues societies together; without which economies across the world would crumble.

It is valued at 10 and 39 percent of the Gross Domestic Product and can contribute more to the GDP than sectors like manufacturing, commerce, or transport.

Economic output

According to the International Labour Organization, if care work was valued the same as other work, it would represent a tenth of the world’s economic output. 

Yet, it’s the most invisible, least recognised, and under-valued type of work. Social constructs and socialisation have conditioned us to perceive this work as insignificant as there is no monetary value or measure attached to it. The gender gap in unpaid care work has significant implications for women’s ability to actively take part in the labour market and the type/quality of employment opportunities available to them.

It’s the biggest barrier to women’s economic empowerment and gender equality. Women and girls spend hours daily, performing Unpaid Care and Domestic Work.

It is estimated that 16 billion hours are spent on unpaid care work every day. A study by Oxfam in 2019 revealed that women in the informal settlements of Nairobi spent 11.1 hours on any care compared to just 2.9 hours per day for men.

Quit paid work

The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated these gaps with women spending even more time caring for sick and elderly relatives, as well as children at home due to school closures, not to mention home-schooling. For some, the only way to achieve all this was to quit paid work and take up Unpaid Care and Domestic work as a full-time role. Women shouldn’t have to choose between motherhood and other activities to enable them to live to their full potential as humans.

Unpaid Care and Domestic Work deprive women of invaluable time to engage in other activities including rest.  In Kenya, every minute more that a woman spends on Unpaid Care and Domestic Work, represents one minute less that she could potentially spend on economically productive activities.

However, for as long as the status quo remains, women, especially those that are marginalised and disadvantaged, will be caught in the endless cycle of poverty, trying to live up to the societal standards of a “good woman” by meeting the expectations of their domestic and reproductive roles at the expense of their well-being.

Here is a call to action to all of us this Mother’s Day and beyond, to contribute to the ongoing efforts to recognise, redistribute, and reduce Unpaid Care and Domestic Work; and to ensure that it is represented in key decision-making spaces. 

Honour your mother by nurturing a culture where household chores (cooking, washing, feeding, fetching water or firewood) are shared across all members of the household irrespective of gender.

This will redistribute the work, reduce the amount of time spent on UCDW by the “mother figure” in your life and allow them to engage in other activities.

More importantly, it will transform societies, one household at a time, by re-defining the retrogressive stereotype that care work is a woman’s preserve.

Childcare facilities

In your workplace, advocate for care-supporting services like on-site breastfeeding spaces and childcare facilities. Flexible hours for new mothers and maternity leave provisions go a long way in supporting mothers to live their dreams of contributing to the development of this world and being there for their families.

Invest in affordable time and labour-saving equipment and technology. This includes equipment such as laundry and washing facilities, fuel-efficient cook stoves and transportation devices that have been shown to reduce the drudgery of time- and labour-intensive UCDW tasks, and allowances such as childcare.

Be an active citizen by pushing for the government to develop and implement gender-responsive public policies and budgets that recognise the extent of UCDW in citizens’ lives and the contribution of UCDW to social and economic wellbeing.

This includes investments in care-related infrastructure like water, health facilities, public services, and social protection to reduce long and arduous hours of UCDW for women and the related negative health impacts and opportunity costs.

Next time you are in a decision-making space, demand to have women represented. It is the only guaranteed way of ensuring the inclusion of women in making decisions that will factor care work as a foundational structure of society.

Be an advocate and a champion who highlights how freeing up women’s time allows more women to participate in social, political and economic life, and demonstrates that efforts to reduce poverty will have a limited impact as long as women have almost sole responsibility for UCDW.

Be the voice that resets the default settings of the newly born girl child and allow her to live her life to the fullest.

Happy Mothers’ Day!

Blandina Ijecha Bobson is the Director of Programmes for Oxfam in Kenya heading the Women’s Rights and Gender Justice, Governance and Accountability and Natural Resources programme pillars.