Executive summary

Around the world, women undertake the bulk of unpaid care work – a fact that has had a considerably negative impact on their ability to participate fully in the economy. The development community has recently stepped up its commitment to women’s economic empowerment, recognising it as a lever of inclusive, sustainable growth. Yet progress on that agenda remains slow, due to the structural and social barriers blocking women from accessing labour markets and economic opportunities. These barriers are especially high in developing countries, where they are more likely to be in informal employment, public services and infrastructure may not be well developed, and women’s unpaid care responsibilities are the heaviest. Indeed, as care needs continue to grow globally throughout ageing societies, women will continue to be disproportionately impacted by the lack of social and physical infrastructure necessary for care.

This report aims to shed light on how governments, donors the private sector and civil society actors – among others – can design policies to support both those who need care and those who provide care. Emphasising the links between unpaid care work, gender equality and women’s economic empowerment, the report brings together existing knowledge of policy options for unpaid care work across regions, in four policy areas: infrastructure, social protection, public services and promotion of shared responsibility within the household. Insights from a review of existing literature are combined with findings of field missions in three countries – Brazil, Kenya and Nepal.

Key findings

Promoting shared responsibility within the household

  • Efforts to promote shared responsibility for unpaid care work within households in Brazil, Kenya and Nepal are primarily led by non-governmental organisations (NGOs). National and local partners rooted in their communities and connected to key institutions are crucial to develop ownership of this issue and to avoid backlash based on a perception of a “foreign” agenda.

  • Shifting responsibilities for unpaid care work within households requires a transformation of social norms, a field particularly sensitive to the socio-cultural context and to donor-government relations.

  • The strength of social norms determines the time it takes to challenge them at scale and to reach a critical mass of men and women to change them. In addition, shared household responsibility for care is not just about changes in gender roles; it also concerns norms on intergenerational care responsibilities.


  • Improved access to safe water, sanitation and clean energy – along with the introduction of labour- and time-saving technology and gender-sensitive approaches to transport and urban planning – could well have a positive impact on women’s use of time.

  • Despite the potential for infrastructure to greatly reduce the time and effort needed for unpaid care work, there is no guarantee it will be realised. The fact that infrastructure sectors remain heavily male-dominated may make it difficult to design systems and investments that are inclusive of diverse user needs.

  • Currently, few infrastructure programmes set out explicit aims to reduce – and even fewer to redistribute – women’s unpaid care work.

  • While labour-saving technologies have tremendous potential to reduce drudgery and free up time, scaling up through market-based solutions can be a challenge.

Social protection

  • As they comprise the majority of unpaid carers, women in low-income countries rely heavily on social protection yet have reduced access to benefits that are less adequate to begin with. While there have been some advances, particularly in a few middle-income countries, there is insufficient investment in social protection to extend coverage to those providing unpaid care.

  • Social protection programming largely targets women in their role as mothers or carers. While the intent is to increase welfare outcomes and so reduce poverty, this approach risks reinforcing existing stereotypes of women as “natural” caregivers.

Public services

  • Governments have a key role to play in redistributing unpaid care from the household to the state and the market, and some governments and donors have made important advances in subsidising early childhood care.

  • A childcare transition is under way in developing countries, with an evolving and growing spectrum of service provision by market, third-sector and public actors.


  • Design development policies and programmes that work for women and address unpaid care work. Donors and governments can, for instance, incorporate the reduction of women’s unpaid care work as an objective from the onset of the programme cycle, and ensure that policies and programmes include elements that aim to transform negative masculinities at different levels.

  • Increase awareness raising and advocacy for greater recognition and redistribution of unpaid care work. To that end, donors and governments should for example consider media campaigns and engaging local or national leaders, celebrities or artists to become gender equality champions.

  • Develop social protection programmes that support caretakers, through for example non-conditional cash transfers that avoid reinforcing gender stereotypes and potentially creating additional care-related burdens for women.

  • Undertake relevant programme analysis, monitoring, evaluation and data collection to better understand the impacts on women’s unpaid care work. National statistical offices could, for instance, measure social norm change at different levels to gain a better qualitative understanding of national and local contexts, interests and policy discourses.

  • Engage with a diversity of actors for greater reach and more sustainable funding, for instance ensuring that women and women’s rights organisations are represented throughout the programme cycle and continue afterward.

  • Work with the private sector to provide services and technologies and transform social norms related to paid and unpaid care for women and men, for example by developing working environments conducive to family responsibilities.

  • Invest in research and data to further strengthen the development community’s understanding of what works to address unpaid care work – for example by supporting further research on men’s engagement in care, in order to understand how wider social norms on masculinities constrain their engagement and may even cause women to push back against their involvement.

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