3. How can infrastructure address women’s unpaid care work

This chapter examines physical infrastructure’s potential for reducing and redistributing the time and effort women spend on unpaid care work in different intervention areas. Examples are furnished of time use data serving to guide investment decisions (water access); of how investments are context-dependent and might not always save time (electrification); of the effectiveness of gender-sensitive planning (transport); and of one factor behind a greater engagement of men in care and household tasks (labour- and time-saving technologies). Few programmes benefiting women actually have the explicit aim of reducing the drudgery of unpaid work or monitoring time use; initiatives undertaken by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the NGO Helvetas are introduced as rare exceptions. The chapter concludes by describing the benefits of having women engaged in project design and investment decisions, and the pitfalls of scaling up through market based solutions.


Connecting infrastructure and women’s unpaid care work

Whereas the provision of social infrastructure primarily addresses the direct care of persons – such as children, the elderly, and people who are sick or have disabilities – investment in physical infrastructure has a more direct impact on domestic work, namely through provision of water and fuel, food processing, cooking and washing. It can also indirectly contribute to better access to social infrastructure, such as childcare facilities. Most of the recorded time decrease in unpaid work for women between the 1960s and 1990s was achieved through a reduction of time spent on meal preparation and cooking (UN Women, 2015[1]). There is evidence of this for the United States, where the introduction of labour-saving technology such as washing machines, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners and other devices reached the majority of households (Greenwood, Seshadri and Yorukoglu, 2005[2]).1

The gendered impacts of poor infrastructure

Physical infrastructure has a direct link with the time use and physical hardship related to domestic work. In low-income countries especially, the lack of basic physical infrastructure such as water, sanitation, roads, transportation and time and labour-saving technology contributes to a significant increase in time spent on domestic work (ILO, 2016[3]). That work, given prevailing gender divisions and social norms, is primarily carried out by women and girls. However, both absolute levels of time use and gender differences in time used for household chores vary widely across countries, reflecting different demographic profiles, levels of development and investment in infrastructure, as well as varying social norms. For example, whereas the average time spent on routine household tasks across OECD countries is 163 minutes per day for women, it is only 73 for men – ranging between 95 minutes for women in Sweden and 273 for women in Mexico; and 14 minutes for men in Japan and 114 minutes for men in Slovenia.

Water collection for domestic use is a particularly time-consuming task for women and girls and to a lesser extent for men and boys, in many low-income countries. In 53 out of 73 countries worldwide where data are available, women are primarily responsible for collecting drinking water (WHO, 2017[4]). Data from sub-Saharan Africa in 2012 show that the collection of water used for cooking, washing and drinking costs women collectively at least 15 million hours each day (Fontana and Elson, 2014[5]).

Comparing access to drinking water across regions illustrates the correlation between the level of infrastructure development and time spent on accessing safe water. Households in developed countries almost universally have access to at least basic drinking water, compared to only 82% of households in small island developing states and 62% of households in landlocked developing and least developed countries (WHO and UNICEF, 2017[6]). For doing laundry alone, women in Zimbabwe and the Philippines make four and five trips of six and thirteen minutes three times a week, respectively, which is equivalent to two hours per week collecting water – again, just for laundry – using heavy 20-litre buckets or containers (Oxfam, 2018[7]).

Apart from water collection, other time-consuming tasks that could be alleviated by infrastructure include fuel collection, washing and cooking. In Ethiopia, 54% of women spent seven hours per day collecting firewood in 2010 (Ferrant, Pesando and Nowacka, 2014[8]). In Ghana, cooking, fetching water, collecting firewood, washing clothes, washing dishes and running errands take up about 36% (almost 5 hours) of women’s 13 hours paid and unpaid work per day (Ferrant, Pesando and Nowacka, 2014[8]). In Ethiopia, Peru, and South Africa, rural women spend more time on routine housework than women in urban areas do (39, 42 and 24 minutes respectively) (Ferrant and Thim, 2019[9]). Recent research in Burkina Faso found that women do at least 80% of the work collecting fuelwood and water (OECD Development Centre, 2018[10]). On average, a woman in Africa carries 20 kilograms of fuelwood five kilometres per day (UN Women, 2018[11]).

Unpaid care work is often linked with poor infrastructure, and can have severe health consequences for women and their families. Lack of access to clean energy for cooking means that around 3 billion people worldwide cook with solid fuels and kerosene, mostly in low- and middle-income counties. This has harmful cumulative health effects manifested in respiratory infections, lung inflammation and cancer, low birthweight, cardiovascular problems and cataracts (UN Women, 2018[11]). The household air pollution linked to cooking with solid fuels killed almost 2.6 million people worldwide in 2016, mostly in South Asia (1 million), East Asia (around 645 000), sub-Saharan Africa (around 520 000) and Southeast Asia (215 000) (Roser, 2018[12]).

Illness or disability of household members also affects the time and effort required for domestic work, as well as the impacts of lack of provision. For example, the need for water increases when small children or ill family members need to be cared for (Fontana and Elson, 2014[5]). Without accessible transportation, people with disabilities and their caregivers are more likely to suffer social exclusion (Agarwal and Steele, 2016[13]).

Domestic work needs to be less time-consuming and less hard physically and mentally. Large differences exist between rural and urban locations and among income groups in relation to access to water, fuel, sanitation, and basic services – both across countries (Figure 3.1) and within countries. For example, in Colombia, 76% of indigenous women and girls in the poorest rural households lack access to clean cooking fuel, compared to 0% of women and girls in the richest urban households. In Pakistan, access to water and clean cooking fuel differ vastly between poor and rich populations in urban and rural areas: more than 99% of women and girls from the poorest rural households lack access to clean fuel, compared to 1% of those in the richest urban households (UN Women, 2018[11]). However, in some countries access to basic services and infrastructure is low among both rich and poor alike. In Nigeria, for example, 89% of even the richest urban households lack access to clean cooking fuel, as do all of the poorest rural households (UN Women, 2018[14])

Figure 3.1. Differences in time spent on unpaid care work in rural and urban settings
Figure 3.1. Differences in time spent on unpaid care work in rural and urban settings

Source: OECD (2019[15]), Gender Institutions and Development Database (GID-DB), https://stats.oecd.org.

 StatLink https://doi.org/10.1787/888933948511

Poor or gender-blind transportation may also increase the amount of time women spend travelling for care and domestic responsibilities. Women’s daily travel patterns are often more complex than men’s are, with usually shorter but more frequent trips and “trip chaining” (combining multiple purposes and multiple destinations within one trip), most often off peak (EBRD, 2011[16]). Typically, transportation plans have prioritised the movement of private cars, even if most people – and women in particular – do not tend to use these to get around cities (ITDP and WEDO, 2018[17]). Women more often rely on buses as they offer more flexibility in terms of short trips and are more accessible than metros or rail. Women in low-income countries are also more likely than men to use intermediate modes of transport and local services (e.g. rickshaws, shared taxis, bicycle taxis) because they can carry items and travel with children and the elderly more easily.

Infrastructure options to address unpaid care work

Investments in physical infrastructure such as electrification, improving access to running water, safe and dignified sanitation services, cleaner energy and efficient public and private transport can reduce the time and physical effort required for domestic care tasks and increase the time available for attending school and paid work (UN Women, 2018[11]). Fontana and Natali (2008) estimated that as of 2006, more than 10 million hours could be saved per year in the United Republic of Tanzania (“Tanzania”) with improvements in infrastructure (Fontana and Natali, 2008[18]). The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that households relying on biomass for cooking spend 1.4 hours each day collecting firewood on average, in addition to several hours cooking with inefficient stoves. Clean cooking for all would then save more than 100 billion hours of women collecting and hauling fuelwood over a year, which would in turn “free up the equivalent of a workforce of 80 million people, while reduced household air pollution would prevent 1.8 million premature deaths per year” (IEA, 2017[19]).2

Different types of infrastructure investment have different impacts on women’s time poverty (ADB, 2015[20]). Table 3.1 summarises physical infrastructure investments and their relationship with unpaid care work and women’s empowerment outcomes.

Much of the existing literature on infrastructure investments and time use relates to experiences in rural areas. However, women in urban areas face disproportionate burdens through their responsibility for unpaid care work alongside engagement in paid work, mostly in low-paid formal and informal sectors. In addition to usually higher costs for accommodation, food, water and transport, poor urban women are exposed to environmental hazards and high levels of violence and crime, and need to cover large distances to reach health services and schools (Tacoli, 2012[21])These challenges are particularly stark in slum settlements (UN-Habitat, 2013[22]), where service delivery is usually particularly poor and insecurities higher (ADB, OECD, UNDP (2016), 2016[23]).

Unfortunately, recent evidence shows that new cities tend to lack development strategies that include low-income residents, and thus “increasingly cater for higher income groups, creating a periphery of low-income neighbourhoods” (ADB, OECD, UNDP (2016), 2016, p. 106[23]). Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI) have used participatory approaches to engage women in the stocktaking of transportation and public service provision, as well as the planning of slum improvement programmes and new urban settlements. Such initiatives can contribute to reductions in women’s drudgery and time spent on unpaid care work, thereby supporting women’s livelihoods and economic empowerment (Mohun, 2016[24]).

Table 3.1. Approaches to promoting infrastructure options to address unpaid care work across different intervention areas

Intervention area



Access to safe water

Reducing time spent on housework and increasing labour force participation

Reducing time spent on domestic work and multitasking; increasing time for leisure, social activities, sleeping and studying

Increasing school attendance of girls

Increasing rural enterprise activity of women


Uganda, Zimbabwe,


Yemen, Morocco, Uganda, Rwanda, Malawi, Madagascar, India, Nepal, Pakistan


Access to electrification

Increasing female labour force participation

Increasing wage work, non-agricultural businesses and higher-status jobs (not women-specific)

Increasing use of labour-saving devices with: reduced but some mixed effects on time use in household work; some evidence of greater equality in time use on domestic work

Increasing leisure/reading

South Africa; various studies from (Buvinic, Furst-Nichols and Pryor, 2013[25]).

Ghana: (not women-specific)

Zimbabwe, Uganda, Nicaragua; various countries in (ADB, 2015[26])

Philippines (Oxfam)

Roads and transportation

Increasing access to markets, reducing times to buy food

Reducing time to reach services (e.g. health facilities, banks, schools)

Bhutan (IFAD)

Nepal – Building Back Better (not women-specific)

Labour-and time-saving technology (for water collection, food processing, storage)

Reducing drudgery

Redistributing of domestic tasks (water collection) from women to men

Philippines (Oxfam)

Access to clean energy technologies (LPG/clean cook stoves; solar energy light etc.)

Reducing time and drudgery on fuelwood collection; reduced cooking times

Saving from reduced costs of purchasing fuel and benefits to women as agents for promotion and sale of clean energy

India; Energia (various)

Energia (various); Kenya (see Section 3.3)


Source: (ADB, 2015[20]); (Akpandjar and Kitchens, 2017[27]); (Dutta, Kooijam and Cecelski, 2017[28]); (Energia, n.d.[29]).; (Ferrant, Pesando and Nowacka, 2014[8]); (Fontana and Elson, 2014[5]); (Grogan and Sadanand, 2013[30]); (IFAD, 2016a[31]); (Oxfam, 2018[7]).

The following sections provide further insight into the different approaches in these sectors and their potential benefits for reducing or redistributing unpaid care work.

Access to safe water

Many experiences demonstrate the positive impacts of improved access to water on women’s lives (Table 3.2). The potential impact of water infrastructure provision on times-s5avings for women depends on the type of water access prior to the improvement. For example, recent OECD analyses show that Ghanaian women whose water source is surface water spent most time on water collection compared to Ghanaian women who collect from tube wells, boreholes, public tap standpipes, protected wells, or women with drinking water piped into their house, garden or the neighbour’s garden (Table 3.2). Thus, providing better water access to women who collect surface water will be particularly effective in terms of time-savings – even more effective than providing access to electricity (Ferrant and Thim, 2019[9]). Other sources suggest that providing access to electricity to power water pumps can lead to a significant impact on women’s time use reductions (Dutta, Kooijam and Cecelski, 2017, p. 2[28]) citing Winther, 2008).

Table 3.2. Access to water and women’s time use in Ghana


Drinking water is piped into the house, the garden, or the neighbour’s garden

Drinking water is collected from public tap or standpipe

Drinking water is collected from a tube well or borehole

Drinking water is collected from a protected well

Drinking water is collected from surface water

Prevalence rate amongst Ghanaian women






Time use for collecting water (all women respondents) in minutes






Time-use for collecting water (women participants only) in minutes






Source: (Ghana Statistical Service, 2009[32]), Ghana Time-Use Survey (GTUS) http://www.webdeploy.statsghana.gov.gh/nada/index.php/catalog/53/sampling. Table 3.2.

This analysis illustrates the value of detailed time use data in understanding where infrastructure investments can be more effectively targeted. Investments to extend access to safe water also need to be planned and designed based on understanding of the socio-cultural context and of women’s own priorities; otherwise, they risk having unforeseen negative consequences. For example, in some villages in Africa, Veolia, a water and energy infrastructure company, found that introducing access to drinking water at home substantially reduced gathering opportunities for women outside the home (see the Summary Report of OECD Policy Dialogue on Women’s Economic Empowerment, 20183). While this reduced the time women spent on the task, there was a loss of important opportunities for networking that were highly valued by women in a context of social norms that restricts women’s mobility.

Access to electrification

Recent research has also shown the impact of electrification with regard to improving living conditions and economic indicators. Rural electrification led to a 9% increase in female labour force participation through a reduction in the time women spent on housework in South Africa (Ferrant, Pesando and Nowacka, 2014[8]).

However, a few studies show that increased access to electricity is not always associated with a reduction in time spent on care and domestic work. Oxfam’s recent research in the Philippines (2018[7]) found access to electricity to be positively related to a reduction of women’s time spent on care and an increase in leisure time along with a more equal division of care between men and women (Oxfam, 2018[7]). In Zimbabwe and Uganda, however, the same study found that increased availability of electricity meant domestic tasks were being carried out later in the evening, leading to less sleep. It found a similar result for Nicaragua (Oxfam, 2018[7]). While it is not clear what explains these differences, they reflect that impacts of infrastructure investments are context-dependent and might not always lead directly to a reduction in time spent on care or the domestic tasks of women, even if they have benefits for other aspects of women’s economic empowerment.

Roads and transportation

The construction of roads and provision of safe transport can reduce the time needed for children to reach school and for household members to reach health services and access markets and employment (Gammage, 2010[33]); (Tacoli, 2012[21]). Given women’s greater reliance on walking, investments that prioritise local tracks and feeder roads are likely to have greater impacts on their workloads. For example, in Bhutan, the construction of feeder roads opened community access to markets and considerably reduced shopping times by easing transport of goods and enabling more shops to open in rural areas (IFAD, 2016a[31]). Similar to the effects of other infrastructure investments, the impact of improved transport on time poverty can be complex due to the new opportunities created (ADB, 2015[20]).

In recent years, policy makers and planners have been developing approaches to gender sensitive transport planning. Solutions involve, among other things, more services during off-peak hours, flexible fare structures, and strategic planning of bus stops around key services such as schools and health centres (EBRD, 2011[16]). Furthermore, the time spent in cars and buses as well as intermediate modes and local services very much depends on effective traffic management, as traffic jams drain both time and energy. As well as using sex-disaggregated time use data and information about travel patterns to inform transport planning, gender-transformative approaches to urban transport planning also address issues of safety and security that affect women’s mobility as well as take-up of transport facilities (Jobes, 2017[34]). In middle- and higher income countries, ride hailing mobile applications such as Uber are increasing women’s mobility and allowing them to reach previously inaccessible locations and travel more easily with children or dependents. However, this solution is costly and issues of safety remain (IFC, 2017[35]).

Intermediate means of transport – donkeys, wheelbarrows and carts as well as bicycles, bicycle trailers and hippo water rollers – have also been used especially in some rural contexts to address mobility and transport challenges, particularly among poorer communities and households (IFAD, 2016b[36]). These can be of particular significance for women who have traditionally had fewer opportunities to use motorised and non-motorised modes of travel and transport technologies. Further, where intermediate means of transport are made available, there is some evidence that men are more likely to engage in water and fuel collection (Carr and Hartl, 2010[37]).

Labour- and time-saving technologies

As well as the potential of infrastructure to reduce unpaid care and particularly domestic work, (Oxfam, 2018[38]) identified potential redistributive effects of introducing time- and labour-saving technology on the time spent by women and men in care and household tasks (Oxfam, 2018[7]). For example, men spent more time on water collection where households owned more water-related equipment, and more time on primary care if the household had more fuel-related equipment (see Box 3.1). However, it is unclear to what extent this relationship is causal, i.e. does the introduction of such equipment lead to men spending more time with it, or do households where men take on a more equal share of such tasks spend more money on such investments? It is necessary to have a better understanding – of the social norms and perceptions around care and domestic tasks, their relation to such equipment, and how the equipment might be used to promote the redistribution of care work (Oxfam, 2018[7]).

Box 3.1. Combining infrastructure improvements with changing social norms through NGO-private sector partnerships

In late 2016 Oxfam and Unilever’s Surf brand launched a three-year partnership that aims to recognise, reduce and redistribute the amount of time spent by women and girls on unpaid care work. This programme is providing better access to water and laundry infrastructure with new or improved communal laundries, household laundry facilities and water systems/centres to communities in Zimbabwe and the Philippines to reduce the time women and girls spend on collecting water and laundry as well as other chores. Alongside this, the initiative is seeking to change harmful social norms that currently mean women bear the brunt of household chores through a communications programme. The strategy involves local agents and household visits, local radio, TV and social media campaign, and engaging evidence based advocacy for policy change with women’s organisations and leaders.

Source: (Oxfam, 2018[7]) Infrastructure and equipment for unpaid care work: Household survey findings from the Philippines, Uganda and Zimbabwe, https://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/infrastructure-and-equipment-for-unpaid-care-work-household-survey-findings-fro-620431.

Access to clean energy technology

Clean, energy-saving cooking stoves have the potential to reduce time used for firewood collection as well as meal preparation times. A handful of initiatives are currently focused on market-led approaches to expand access to these technologies, some targeting women as entrepreneurs (Energia, n.d.[29]); (Dutta, Kooijam and Cecelski, 2017[28]). However, financing is a challenge: many households lack the ability to pay the upfront costs for the improved stoves, and even where these are subsidised there is not always a readily available and cheap supply of fuel in rural areas. Thus, affordability remains an issue for poorer women, and each these initiatives are still only reaching, at most, a few million consumers and a few thousand women entrepreneurs (see also Box 3.2 in the next section for further discussion of the challenges of these programmes).

Evidence from Brazil, Kenya and Nepal on how infrastructure can address women’s unpaid care work

Of the specific initiatives identified for analysis in Kenya, Nepal and Brazil, only two undertaken by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the NGO Helvetas recognised women’s unpaid care work as an issue and directly aimed at reducing it. These projects have both been implemented in Nepal. In Brazil, key informant interviews suggest an understanding of the issue of gender equality more broadly and the need to economically empower women. For example, both the Agua para Todos programme and the Bolsa Familia social protection programme (see Chapter 4 on social protection), which identify women as their main beneficiaries, aim to “empower” them financially. However, while there has been policy focus on paid domestic workers´ rights, less attention has been given to unpaid care work. In Kenya, there has been limited focus on unpaid care work but there is some scope for non-governmental organisations to bring the topic onto the table, alongside other gender equality issues.

In Nepal, Helvetas’ work on the Strengthening Women’s Leadership in Climate Change Adaptation programme used the Reflect methodology4 to work with communities. Alongside wider discussions about climate change, women and men were encouraged to think about how this has affected their respective workloads, and to identify what measures could be implemented to strengthen resilience to the impacts of climate change. The ADB Nepal Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women project explicitly recognised women’s time constraints by dedicating one component of the programme to “increased availability of time and improved opportunities for poor rural women to pursue both personal and community development (social empowerment)” (ADB, 2015[26]).

On the other hand, in Brazil, Agua para Todos’ access to water and food security components has not been designed with the intent to decrease women’s time to collect water. Nevertheless, drawing on past experiences of the implementing organisations, unpaid care responsibilities are taken into account: during the collective training activities in the communities, a space is provided for childcare so that women can participate in the training. Indeed, that was now “one of the priorities [we] put in call for proposals explicitly” (key informant interview, Ministry of Social Development, Brazil). So far, the programme has equipped more than 1 million families with cisterns and more than 5 000 schools with water access, and more than 200 000 families have benefited from the second project component on home production of food. At the moment, the programme is expanded to work in the Amazonia region with 4 000 families and 1 000 schools (key informant interview, Secretariat for Food Security, Health and Nutrition, Brazil).

Luz para Todos, a rural electricity grid expansion programme that reached over 3.3 million households after 10 years in large parts of Brazil, is estimated to have injected around USD 2 billion into the household appliance market through beneficiaries’ buying electrical appliances. Seventy-one per cent of families have bought refrigerators (da Silveira Bezerra and al., 2017[39]), and whereas only 10% of beneficiary households had washing machines in 2009, 46% owned one in 2013 (MDA, 2013[40]). There is no empirical assessment of the impact on time used or the reduction of drudgery; however, 93% of households reported that their quality of life had improved (MDA, 2013[40]).

Lessons learned in Brazil, Kenya and Nepal on addressing unpaid care work in infrastructure

As previously noted, few of the identified infrastructure programmes recognise unpaid care work as an issue or have the explicit aim of reducing the burden of unpaid work or monitoring their impact on women’s time use. When monitoring systems have been put in place (as in the Helvetas and ADB projects in Nepal), interventions have been shown to be effective in reducing time burdens and drudgery related to unpaid care and domestic chores, and have also led to some redistribution of such work to men. However, while evidence on time-saving through labour-saving technology and infrastructure are measured, “drudgery” – even if mentioned – typically is not. The lack of documentation of these effects is perhaps due to a lack of common definition or established methodologies to measure them.

Where women are collectively engaged or consulted in the design of projects or decisions on investments, time-saving infrastructure or labour-saving technologies are more likely to be prioritised. For example, in Helvetas’ programme, through time diary analysis and climate change discussions, communities themselves identified alternatives to current practices that were more impactful and “women-friendly” (Helvetas, 2017[41]). For some of these outcomes, women had to lobby to obtain financial support, e.g. to install new or more modern power lines for the grinding mills. The design of active engagement, including Reflect discussions and leadership training, had more general positive impacts on women’s empowerment than expected. With the confidence gained during the programme, women also lobbied for childcare centres, “talked with local government and took out citizenship in their own name ... gave their candidacy in local elections […with…] support from their family” (key informant interview, Helvetas, Nepal).

Similarly, identification of the priorities in the ADB Nepal Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women project was the responsibility of women, who were organised into savings and credit co-operatives that provided platforms for networking and collective actions, in addition to access to finance. These findings reflect wider evidence that women and men have different preferences regarding sanitation and water issues, with women more concerned with privacy and safety than men (ICRW, 2005[42]). Other examples include the Urban Partnerships for Poverty Reduction programme in Bangladesh: women played an essential role in the community development committees responsible for deciding on how available funds were to be invested. Furthermore, the definition of “improved” sanitation agreed upon by the beneficiaries incorporated the critical measure of “whether women enjoyed sufficient privacy and felt secure using the facility” (Key informant interview, Nepal).5

Improved access to transport and water services, and the introduction of labour- and time-saving technology, have strong potential to impact on women’s use of time and reduce drudgery.6 The introduction of some adaptive, labour-reducing technologies in communities in Nepal through Helvetas’ Strengthening Women’s Leadership in Climate Change Adaptation programme, such as electric grinding mills, water taps and biogas plants, has facilitated women’s unpaid work. Women started cooking with gas instead of firewood, which used to take four hours to collect (Helvetas, 2017[41]). Finally, through the ADB Nepal Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women project, more than 3 500 small community infrastructure projects were carried out between 2009 and 2013. Most of these addressed water, sanitation, transportation and time- and labour-intensive food production technologies, e.g. wooden bridges, culverts, foot trails, grinding mills, hand pumps, irrigation canals, drains and toilets. The water taps alone reduced women’s daily time spent on household chores by 41 minutes on average, “while freeing them from heavy physical burdens” (grinding mills were also mentioned as a large contributor to reduced drudgery). Reportedly, 67% of households that saved time due to the use of community taps have used this time for income-generating activities (ADB, 2015[20]).

In general, the ADB Nepal Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women project seems to have benefited from strong co-operation among different actors; the capacity building of women’s organisations and public institutions; policy consultations dealing with mainstreaming gender equality; and joint project monitoring. The Nepalese Government’s counterpart funding showed strong commitment to gender mainstreaming and women’s empowerment, as mentioned in the completion report (ADB, 2015[26]). In addition, the report mentioned the importance of experienced staff, resources, support facilities and the staff’s dedication in the implementing agencies, despite limited capacities and given that “involving the women themselves constituted a new approach for the executing agency” (ADB, 2015, p. 7[26]).

The Building Back Better programme of the World Food Programme (WFP) rehabilitated water systems and trails in the central and western regions of Nepal. The programme has the potential to benefit women as it makes accessing services easier (schools and hospitals), as well as making journeys easier for those with small children or who are elderly” (Key informant interview, Nepal) – all known to reduce time and drudgery in relation to care and domestic work activities. Therefore, even if any successes in terms of reduced unpaid care work have been “unintentional”, displaced households could return, children could go to school, and housing could be reconstructed because of water access.

In Brazil, the Agua para Todos programme provides access to safe water and supports the production of food; however, the reduction of drudgery and time used on unpaid care work was not the primary intent of the project, or even a particular focus. Nevertheless, through the provision of access to safe water the initiative has allowed women to spend more time in other activities, has reduced drudgery (from collecting water) and has had an overall positive impact on family health through reductions in child mortality and in water-related diseases (Rasella, 2013[43]).

The Agua para Todos programme in Brazil changed its approach to project administration and procurement, and the move has led to a cost reduction. In the past, organisations working on the ground for this initiative had to follow a very bureaucratic and expensive process to account for expenditures. The reporting has now been redesigned: the organisations are given a lump sum for each cistern to be built (based on technical requirements) and can hire less expensive local labour instead of having (non-local) companies bid and coming in to deliver. These changes to management processes have not only reduced spending by about 50% (according to the interview), but also supported local economic development.

Labour-saving technologies have tremendous potential to reduce the effect of drudgery and free up time; however, scaling up through market-based solutions can be a challenge. For example, the promotion of improved cook stoves in Kenya failed to convince users to adopt and maintain the stoves on a sufficiently wide scale (HEDON, 2014[44]). Lack of investment and working capital for producers, and lack of information and awareness for consumers as well as their cultural barriers, have been identified as general obstacles to large-scale adoption and sustained use of clean cooking stoves and fuel by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) (Ekouevi, 2013[45]). More recent programmes have adopted a market systems approach – sometimes combined with community-based methods for implementation – but continue to experience challenges (see Box 3.2). While the market oriented approach may be a key to sustainability, even if gender-sensitive, its success in a given case depends on potential customers’ actual or prospective ability and willingness to pay. Women in poorer and more remote households have fewer resources and, in these areas, market opportunities tend to be more limited.

Cook stoves and other small-scale, clean energy projects in Kenya are seeking ways of enhancing their social and gender contribution. Based on previous learning, The Green Mini Grid Facility of Kenya recommends baseline community consultations to inform gender mainstreaming as part of the funding application procedure. Meanwhile, according to an informant interview, gender-mainstreaming guidelines are expected to be applied in the evaluation of the first round of interventions in September 2018.

Only one infrastructure-related project identified (Helvetas) explicitly addressed the redistribution of unpaid care work from women to men. Women and men were encouraged to fill in and discuss time diaries in order to track progress over the course of the programme and monitor unpaid care workloads and participation in climate change-related discussions and actions. Two of the other projects organised and consulted with or engaged women and communities in decisions or management of investments in infrastructure. Positive outcomes have been observed in all three, but Helvetas’ participatory action learning approach allowed for structured learning and the discourse of women and men that went beyond mere supply of basic services, to challenge existing gender divisions.

Similarly, for the maintenance of smaller infrastructures in the ADB Nepal Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women project, a small fund from women’s savings groups is kept aside on a monthly basis. The involvement of local users in maintenance work can enhance the sense of ownership, but also presents difficulties and needs to take into account the institutional context (Mansuri, 2013[46]). Such approaches can also increase pressures on women’s (voluntary) unpaid labour if not designed carefully, because management and maintenance require time that could be used for other purposes, which creates opportunity costs for women if they are solely responsible for carrying out these tasks.

Box 3.2. Market-based distribution of clean cook stoves in Kenya

The Developing Energy Enterprises Project (DEEP – East Africa), active between 2008 and 2013 in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, supported the development of micro and small energy enterprises providing improved cook stoves and other energy-efficient services affordable to “bottom of the pyramid” consumers in rural and peri-urban areas. The market-oriented approach assumes, first, that sustainability of impact depends on local market actors – producers and distributors – operating commercially in the cook stove sector; and second, that progress rests on consumer demand backed up by ability to pay.

According to the final evaluation, the project supported the evolution of hundreds of “artisans” into commercially viable entrepreneurs who, over five years, sold products (cooking stoves and more energy-efficient fuels such as briquettes) to more than 240 000 households in Kenya. This enabled an estimated 1 210 535 “men, women and children” to access energy products and services from supported energy enterprises (Aitken, 2014[47]), more than double the original target.

The project design recognised the health hazard from indoor pollution as a key problem, but did not include any gender targeting among the beneficiaries despite women’s higher exposure to indoor pollution. Nor is there any analysis in the project documentation of the social impact of project activities. An end-of-project customer survey of 212 households in the three countries reveals some possible biases in project delivery in this respect. The single main reason given by customers for purchase of a cook stove (55%) was “saving money”. The second reason given (by 14%) is “better cooking”. Only 16% of beneficiaries undertook extra income-generating activities because of their purchase (Aitken, 2014[47]).

These results indicate that purchasers did not see value in reducing women’s time burden or lessening exposure to pollution. They also suggest that the majority of beneficiaries previously purchased cooking fuel, as opposed to gathering wood for free; the project was therefore of lesser benefit to households that did not purchase fuel, most likely because they were either too poor and/or remote for this option. Thus, it seems likely that the “bottom of the pyramid” population was not well served by the project, nor women in households where the unpaid care workload (UCW) tends to be the highest.

Source: Key informant interviews, Kenya; (Aitken, 2014[47]), Terminal evaluation of the developing energy enterprises project in East Africa, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/305442688_Terminal_Evaluation_Developing_Energy_Enterprises_Program_-_East_Africa.

Key findings

Infrastructure investments have an untapped potential to reduce women’s unpaid care work

Improved access to safe water and sanitation, clean energy, and the introduction of labour-and time-saving technology, as well as gender-sensitive approaches to transport and urban planning, have strong potential to improve women’s use of time. All can lead to a reduction in drudgery and significant progress on women’s economic opportunities, health, education, leisure and well-being. There is also huge, as-yet unrealised potential for infrastructure to be a “‘game changer’ for women’s economic empowerment” (Mohun, 2016[24]) and – specifically – to play a more intentional and expanded role in relieving women’s time poverty by reducing drudgery.

Currently, few infrastructure programmes set out explicit aims to reduce – and even fewer to redistribute – women’s unpaid care work. Even those that have these aims do not systematically monitor their impacts, or monitor them in a disaggregated way. Thus, while reducing drudgery and negative impacts on women’s health and well-being is a priority alongside reducing time poverty, particularly for poorer women and girls in rural areas, there is little evidence of a consistent practice or attempts to capture impact on unpaid care work. However, where women are collectively engaged in consultative processes in the design of projects or decisions on how infrastructure investment funds are used, time-saving infrastructure or labour-saving technologies are more likely to be prioritised.

Despite the potential for infrastructure to greatly reduce the time and effort needed for unpaid care work, there is no guarantee it will make a difference for women. The infrastructure sectors remain heavily male-dominated, making it difficult to design systems and investments that are inclusive of diverse user needs. Context-specific gender analysis is critical to ensure that investments are based on an understanding of the socio-cultural context and of local women’s own priorities. If not, they may risk having unforeseen negative consequences on other dimensions of women’s economic empowerment and potentially causing harm. Restrictive gender roles and lack of necessary skills may curtail women’s and girls’ ability to benefit from labour-saving technologies.

While labour-saving technologies have tremendous potential to reduce drudgery and free up time, scaling up through market-based solutions can be a challenge. This is particularly true for poorer households in contexts where existing social norms undervalue women’s labour or markets are not sufficiently developed. Public financing and subsidies can mitigate these issues, and should be complemented by access to these technologies as well as information and awareness campaigns that highlight benefits and incentivise household investments.


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← 1. For the spread of household devices, see https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/technology-adoption-by-households-in-the-united-states?country=Dishwasher+Freezer+Household%20refrigerator+Refrigerator+ Vacuum+Washing%20machine.

← 2. https://www.iea.org/newsroom/news/2017/october/universal-energy-access-by-2030-is-now-within-reach-thanks-to-growing-political-w.html.

← 3. https://www.oecd.org/development/gender-development/OECD-Policy-Dialogue-WEE-Summary-Note-Jan-18.pdf

← 4. Regenerated Freirean Literacy through Empowering Community Techniques (REFLECT) holds a fusion of the major ideas of Paulo Friere and Robert Chamber. It is a participatory tool/methodology, which helps adults to understand both the world and word. Word as there is literacy component and world as with critical discussion over power, why one is in the position where they are and what are the root causes of poverty, injustice and structural discrimination and how power plays a role in it. Thus, it is the sustained process which is for both conscientisation and to break the culture of silence. Several organisations who work on the issue of social norms change use REFLECT methodology. See: https://www.actionaid.org.uk/sites/default/files/doc_lib/190_1_reflect_full.pdf.

← 5. In addition to whether and when sanitation was being used, how convenient it was to use, and whether or not it flooded during the rainy season. The importance of safety in urban shelters and services in relation to women’s paid and unpaid work has also been stressed by (Tacoli, 2012[21]), as indicated in Section 4.2 on infrastructure options to address unpaid care work.

← 6. There are however numerous methodological challenges to rigorous measurement of these impacts, drudgery in particular.

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