Transforming Unpaid Care Work: Using evidence to mobilize change

February 17, 2023

Care work is vital to the functioning of society, yet it is largely performed with no pay and is hugely undervalued. It includes domestic chores and the care of young children, the elderly and the sick.

Gendered social norms perpetuate the view that women should take responsibility for unpaid care work. As a result, they spend on average two to three times more on this type of work than men. This work is typically not economically quantified or valued. Addressing the unequal distribution of unpaid care work should be at the heart of efforts toward gender equality and requires multi-pronged approaches. Unpaid care work needs to be recognized, reduced, and equitably distributed within households and among families, communities, and private and public sector actors.

At a Gender Café on care work co-convened by Global Affairs Canada and Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in November 2022 in Nairobi Kenya, researchers, civil society organizations, policy makers and funders reflected on how the lack of affordable and quality childcare holds back poor working mothers in Kenya. The discussion drew on emerging evidence from an evaluative and action research spearheaded by the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) as part of the Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW) East Africa initiative to spur transformative change to advance gender equality in the world of work. The discussion also stems from Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy, in which Canada has explicitly committed to taking a feminist approach to helping address unpaid care work issues and the disproportionate proportion of care shouldered by women and girls around the world. At the Generation Equality Forum in 2021, Canada committed $100 million in new funding for stand-alone programming to address issues in unpaid and paid care work in low- and middle-income countries in which Canada provides international assistance.

Dr. Patricia Kitsao-Wekulo sharing insights on affordable childcare from the research APHRC has conducted in informal urban settlements in Kenya – Photo by Dr. K. Toure/IDRC

The discussion was timely because the Government of Kenya, under the State Department for Gender and Affirmative Action, is in the process of drafting policy guidelines on unpaid care and domestic work. The Government has established an interagency technical working group to assist with the policy drafting process. The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics recently concluded a Time Use Survey, building on the 2019 Census, to generate evidence on the contribution of care work to the national economy. There are also efforts by the government to build the capacity of departments at national and county levels as well as civil society organizations on unpaid care work and its integration into budgetary allocations for Kenya’s Medium-Term Plan of Vision 2030.

The discussions at the Gender Café highlighted five insights that can inform these and other ongoing initiatives of the Government of Kenya that lay the foundation for future investments.

Provision of quality and affordable care services: The evidence in Kenya and elsewhere is clear that when resources are invested in childcare services during the early years, there are positive outcomes for women and the overall development of the child. Most childcare services across the country are provided through privately run centres. The Nairobi City County Childcare Facilities Act (2017) provides quality guidelines for childcare service providers, but many facilities in informal settlements struggle to meet the standards. The policy needs a review to harmonize quality with accessibility based on what families can afford. There is also a need to develop a contextualized quality assessment tool to enable childcare centre providers to identify areas for improvement in service delivery.

Fostering collaboration in government and across sectors: Addressing the question of unpaid care work calls for a multisectoral approach, which necessitates intentional collaboration among various stakeholder groups – government, civil society, private sector – and sectors including the Ministry of Planning and Finance (e. g., for budgetary allocations), and the Ministries of Health, Education and Gender and Social Services. At the county level, issues of childcare services cut across departments, and none has the overall mandate for the provision of childcare services. For instance, while the Department of Social Services participates in discussions on the provision of childcare services, its mandate is limited to institutionalized children. Policy guidelines could better articulate roles and responsibilities to empower the responsible departments, including through adequate budgetary allocations. Coherence across different government departments is equally important. For instance a 2021 judiciary ruling on the equal sharing of matrimonial property is an example of how decisions across different sectors can benefit families and communities. The ruling noted that raising children, cooking, and cleaning are full-time jobs that families pay for, and hence the contribution of a woman in this sphere should be considered important.  However, a 2023 ruling that married couples are not, by default, granted the right to share matrimonial property equally, in case of divorce could stifle these gains, emphasizing the need for research and advocacy for sustainable change around the rapidly-evolving care work ecosystem.

Supporting women entrepreneurs and care workers: Local entrepreneurs, predominantly women, provide childcare services that meet the needs of low-income women. Public and private investors can support these services in different ways. For example, through the Kidogo model, women entrepreneurs are trained in running childcare centres efficiently. Kidogo is a social franchising enterprise that seeks to improve access to quality and affordable care for children between the ages of 6 months and 6 years. The entrepreneurs receive mentorship on responsive caregiving, learning through play, positive discipline, child nutrition, and running the childcare centre as a micro-business. Kidogo supports over 200 childcare centres in eight counties across Kenya. The centres are designed for low-income women, with relatively affordable charges. They are located within the neighbourhoods and have flexible operating hours, between 6.00 am and 7.30 pm. Service providers conduct daily quality health checks, promote hygienic practices, and involve the parents, thus fostering in them a sense of trust and peace of mind that their children are safe. Through this model, women and men providing care services have a source of income and gain self-confidence and leadership skills because of the training sessions. A pilot study of the Kidogo model in Nakuru County is ongoing with support from GrOW – East Africa. The research is investigating how such a model could be replicated and scaled in other parts of the country ensuring that quality is maintained.

Exploring a variety of care models: There is a need to explore different care models, particularly for children aged 0 to 3 years, adapted to specific contexts and diverse ways of life in urban and rural areas. For example, in Samburu County, a community-based model is used, where parents in a village provide childcare services on a rotational basis and consequently embed care work in society. The model is believed to be cost-effective and involves fathers as well. Childcare services could also be integrated into livelihood activities such as beadwork among pastoralist communities. In addition, models that involve energy-saving technology and infrastructure in easing the burden of care work could be explored.

Care services as a continuum: The provision of care services should be seen along the care continuum, including long-term care for older persons. Policy support and guidance are required on how care options can be adapted to the changing needs of individuals and families over time. In the absence of affordable and accessible childcare options, the case of grandparents (who themselves require some level of care) taking care of children is on the rise. There is also the phenomenon of the Sandwich Generation, in which people whose aged parents need care are simultaneously taking care of their own young children. One aspect for further investigation is how to change ingrained perceptions on care for older persons, for example, that the establishment of homes for the elderly is “unAfrican.” Furthermore, with changing kinship ties, there is need to explore what care for older persons should look like in contemporary African contexts.

In conclusion, responding to the challenge of unpaid care work and attaining sustained change calls for the engagement of all stakeholders. Data and research are important to guide investments and evidence-based advocacy to transform the care economy. They can address questions to which policy makers and practitioners are seeking answers. For example, how can climate-smart technology be used to reduce the burden of unpaid care work? How do different care models such as the provision of childcare services at the workplace (including breastfeeding stations) impact on a company’s productivity? What initiatives enhance male engagement in unpaid care work? How do we tackle entrenched gender norms and stereotypes so that unpaid care work is redistributed in the society?

The Gender Café elicited dialogue and underscored the need for evidence and ongoing engagement across sectors to inform care policy developments and their effective implementation.


Authors: Patricia Kitsao-Wekulo, Elizabeth Muriithi, Florence Sipalla, Kagure Wakaba and Margaret Nampijja.