2. How can promoting shared responsibility within the household address women’s unpaid care work?

The chapter begins by noting persistent and pervasive perceptions that fuel the social norms underpinning gender differences in time spent on unpaid care work within households. It goes on to describe approaches to promoting shared responsibility – involving men in community discussions, gathering evidence of time use gaps between women and men, and the potential contribution of the media (including the use of champions and role models) are among the examples cited. The focus then turns to lessons learned in the three focus countries, Brazil, Kenya and Nepal (See Annex A for the criteria for selecting the three focus countries). The study highlights specific efforts of non-governmental organisations in these countries as the primary actors in promoting shared responsibility, rather than government. The chapter closes with current attempts to monitor and measure changes in social norms.


An overview of shared responsibility for unpaid care work within the household

Mounting evidence demonstrates that simply “encouraging” redistribution of care and domestic work within the household from women to men is not enough. For women and men to be able to participate more equitably in unpaid care work, they need to both have access to paid work on terms that allow them to do so, and recognise and value the contribution of unpaid care work to their family’s and community’s well-being. This entails having flexible working hours, fair wages, parental leave and other forms of social protection, as well as having services, infrastructure and labour-saving equipment that are accessible and affordable (O’Neill, Chopra and Vargas, 2017[1]; Oxfam, 2018[2]). As the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment suggests, a push for change should be aimed not only at individual behaviour but also at norms that “regulate institutions, structures and policies”, and include gendered social as well as economic norms in order to “address the devaluation of care work and the stigmatization of the informal economy” (UN, 2017b[3]).

The persistent gender gap in unpaid care work: Slow to close

Even if over recent decades men have taken on more responsibility for unpaid care work in many countries (ILO, 2016[4]), women still provide between two and ten times more unpaid care work than men. Socio-demographic and economic factors, such as education and wealth, explain part of the prevailing differences; however, between 50% and 60% of the difference is unexplained (Berniell and Sánchez-Páramo, 2011[5]; Ferrant, Pesando and Nowacka, 2014[6]) and may be related to the fact that “in most societies, working for pay is considered a masculine task, while unpaid care work is seen as women’s domain” (Ferrant, Pesando and Nowacka, 2014[6]).

Where a narrowing of gender differences in time use has occurred, it is primarily due to a reduction of women’s time spent on household tasks – mainly meal preparation and cooking, which slightly increased for men at the same time. Time spent on direct childcare has increased for both women and men (UN Women, 2015[7]). Some studies suggest that when men do engage in childcare, it mostly consists of play, taking children to the doctor and helping with intellectual activities, such as homework (ILO, 2016[4]). Similarly, men’s participation in domestic chores tends to be limited unless they involve a “valued” domestic task, such as preparing a more sophisticated meal (Bruschini, 2007[8]), pointing to the need to change perceptions of the importance of unpaid care and domestic tasks. Other contributing factors to the overall reduction in the time women spend on domestic work are smaller family sizes, increased provision of half-day or full-day school, and women’s increased labour market participation where the additional income has allowed outsourcing of domestic tasks (Bruschini, 2007[8]).

As shown in Figure 2.1, countries with higher levels of discriminatory social institutions generally display higher levels of inequality in unpaid care work, driven by the perceptions that women’s main responsibilities lie within the domestic sphere.

Figure 2.1. Gender gaps in unpaid care work by levels of discrimination in social institutions
Figure 2.1. Gender gaps in unpaid care work by levels of discrimination in social institutions

Note: This graph shows gender gaps in time devoted in unpaid care and domestic work by levels of discrimination in social institutions, as measured by the SIGI.

Source: OECD (2019[9]), Gender Institutions and Development Database (GID-DB), https://stats.oecd.org.

 StatLink https://doi.org/10.1787/888933948492

Evidence suggests that the social norms underpinning gender differences in time spent on unpaid care work are persistent and pervasive: the vast majority of 800 female respondents in Rwanda, United Republic of Tanzania (“Tanzania”), India and Nepal believe men to be better at paid work and women to be better at care work and household tasks (Chopra and Zambelli, 2017[10]). Similarly, 92% of the population in Burkina Faso believe that men’s role is to support the family financially, and 67% view a “stay-at-home” man negatively (OECD Development Centre, 2018[11]). Research across a range of urban and rural communities in 20 countries with different economic, political and social circumstances showed that husbands are seen as “the highest household authority” while wives are expected to be “responsible for all the housework and the care of all members of the household […], held strictly accountable for her domestic responsibilities day in and day out” (Boudet, Petesch and Turk, 2013[12]).

There is some evidence that social norms around unpaid care and paid work are evolving for both women and men. The studies mentioned above also showed a change in norms in younger generations, with “good husbands” increasingly expected to be sensitive to their wives and children’s needs and to participate in family life, including the share of domestic chores (Boudet, Petesch and Turk, 2013[12]). Research has also found that men, particularly fathers, would like to have more time to spend caregiving: a survey in the United States revealed that 63% of fathers feel that they spend too little time with their children (Pew Research Centre, 2018[13]). In a recent ILO/Gallup poll of 142 countries, men and women overwhelmingly agree with women engaging in paid work, while however recognising that balancing this with their family responsibilities remains the biggest challenge (Gallup and ILO, 2017[14]).

More often than not, unpaid care work within households is shared primarily among female household members or between women and children, especially girls (Oxfam, 2018[2]); (Chopra and Zambelli, 2017[10]). On average, girls aged 5-14 spend up to 50% more time on household chores than boys of the same age. This difference increases to 200% in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia regions (UNICEF, 2016[15]). In Ethiopia, Peru and South Africa time use data is available for girls and boys from age ten, revealing that ten-year-old girls spend on average 44 minutes in unpaid care work compared to 24 minutes for boys of the same age. In Peru, 15 year-old girls spend on average around two hours, while boys of the same age spend a little over one hour. Research by Plan International (2017) found similar results: in their study, girls aged 5-9 spend 30% more time on household tasks than boys the same age. The gap widens to 50% for girls aged 10 14 (Plan International, 2017[16]). The girls in the study reported that they were often expected to take on additional care and household tasks, negatively affecting their ability to attend school (Plan International, 2017[16]). More positively, Oxfam (2018[2])finds that in Uganda, Zimbabwe and the Philippines, men whose fathers engaged in care activities when they were children are more likely to contribute to unpaid care work themselves.

The idea of redistributing unpaid care work between women and men is of no relevance to the 21% of single mother households worldwide.1 In some countries, the proportion of households headed by single mothers is much higher: 45% in Botswana, Namibia and the Kingdom of Eswatini (“Eswatini”), for example.2

In view of the ageing population in many countries across the world, understanding social norms with respect to elderly care is also an important topic. According to UN Women (UN Women, 2015[7]), more than 10% of adults aged 50 or older in OECD countries are caring informally for a sick or elderly person and around 60% of these caregivers are women. This number is expected to rise by 20-30% by 2050. Certain evidence indicates that “outsourcing” elderly care often goes against traditional beliefs and expectations (see for example (Chang and Schneider, 2010[17]); (Carreiro, 2012[18]), for evidence from People’s Republic of China [“China”]).

Policy options to promote shared household responsibility for unpaid care work

The focus in this section is on attempts to address gender norms related to unpaid care work, and on how such efforts can be supported by incentives for redistribution in other policy domains such as social protection, public services and infrastructure (see Table 2.1 for an overview).

The past two decades have seen a growing trend of governments and employers supporting men’s involvement in childcare through granting paternal leave, with varying degrees of effectiveness (see Chapter 4 on social protection). A few governments have additionally adopted wider strategies to directly promote redistribution of unpaid care work within households. Also, labour market and social protection policies and programmes such as equal pay, minimum wages, decent work provisions, maternity and paternity leave and investments in infrastructure, among other things, can indirectly support change in gender norms in ways that incentivise redistribution of unpaid care work (see Chapter 4 on social protection, and Chapter 3 on infrastructure).

Table 2.1. Approaches to promoting shared responsibility for unpaid care work across different intervention areas

Intervention area



Transforming gender stereotypes and changing social norms relating to unpaid care work

Gathering evidence, e.g. time use data and/or participatory data collection, diaries, surveys etc. (either standalone or alongside wider programmes) used for advocacy

Oxfam We-Care (Oxfam, 2018[19])

Challenging masculinities and engaging men and boys in domestic activities

Initiatives institutionalising social norm change, e.g. in health systems

Men in Kitchen initiative in Mozambique

Promundo in Brazil1

The role of the media and the private sector: marketing campaigns raising awareness on unpaid care work and gender equality

Australia, Portugal, Slovenia (OECD, 2017[20])

Tanzania TV programme (Kidder, 2014[21])Global campaigns, e.g. UN Women’s HeForShe, Unilever’s #UNSTEREOTYPE

Social protection

Legislative or policy change aimed at encouraging men to take up parental leave; pension credits

See Chapter 4 on social protection


Engaging with men on the design and introduction of household labour-saving technologies

See Chapter 3 on infrastructure

Public or private provision of care-related services

Childcare provision; engagement of men as care providers and users in health sector/antenatal care and provision of childcare

Childcare in China (Oxfam, 2018[2])

Maternal health India, Pakistan, Niger (Levtov, 2015[22])

Health initiatives (Heilman, 2017[23])

See also Chapter 5 on public services

1. https://promundoglobal.org/2017/02/01/promundo-launches-first-report-state-brazils-fathers/.

Transforming gender stereotypes and changing social norms on unpaid care work

One way of promoting a redistribution of unpaid care work is to challenge stereotypes that ascribe specific gender roles such as care work, and gender discrimination more generally at all levels – the individual, relational, community and societal level. This involves working with institutions and stakeholders such as government, the private sector, civil society and grassroots organisations as well as individuals and communities, and an approach that promotes structural change, e.g. by working with the media and organising collective action.

In order to address social norms and in particular shift perceptions about women’s paid and unpaid work and its value, many interventions have focused on gathering evidence of gender differences, such as time use gaps between women and men, and advocated for public investments and policies (O’Neill, Chopra and Vargas, 2017[1]). Many organisations go beyond mere collection of time use data and employ participatory methods with women, men and communities to unravel prevailing gender norms and their meaning in everyday life. For example, Oxfam’s We-Care initiative has shown the need to “use public sector communications channels and education systems to encourage men and boys to take on a more equal share of unpaid care work within their households”, e.g. in school curricula, adult literacy classes and public health campaigns (Oxfam, 2018[19]). Australia pursued a joint public-private campaign to support men with care responsibilities in pursuing flexible working arrangements, and Portugal and Slovenia have implemented public campaigns explicitly targeting the equal sharing of domestic tasks (OECD, 2017[20]).

Some governments have also supported initiatives targeting norms that discriminate against women and girls more broadly, e.g. through development of school curricula that promote gender equality or national (and international) critical discussions and social norms campaigns. For example, in Sweden and Norway, the “modification of gender roles was largely seen as a question of re-education and socialisation: with re-education for parents, and the de-emphasis on full-time work for men, men would devote more time to family and parenting, and new forms of masculinity would emerge” (Nagy, 2008, p. 104[24]). In both countries, specific policies that cast fathers as carers supported these changes, such as paternity leave.

Although there is little evidence on involving men and boys in women’s economic empowerment interventions, identifying and supporting local male gender champions in particular (either as individuals or groups) “to engage with other men and promote gender equality is a powerful way to encourage sustainable change for gender equality” (ILO and WED, 2014[25]) (see Box 2.1).

Box 2.1. Working with male champions

Working with male champions in communities is a very effective tool, as they can serve as role models for more gender-equitable beliefs and behaviours. Male champions could be political or religious leaders, celebrities, artists or notable men in the community. It is important to select men “who truly believe in the benefits of more equitable relationships” and support them emotionally and technically along the way. Inspired by these champions, men can first be sensitised about existing harmful gender norms, and then learn how to transform these norms by making more equitable economic and social decisions. Male champions can also help advocate for more equitable policies with community leaders and within government structures.

Source: (Glinski et al., 2018[26]), Gender Equity and Male Engagement: It Only Works When Everyone Plays, http://www.cartierphilanthropy.org/uploads/media/5acb7ba53fb8f/icrw-maleengagementbrief-webready-v5-150dpi.pdf.

Promundo’s Program P in Rwanda has demonstrably increased men’s time spent on childcare and household chores3 by more than 52 minutes per day (over 60%) two years after having participated 4-5 months in the programme. During Program P men met weekly with peers from their communities (half of the time women joined their partners) and discussed health- and violence-related issues. They also talked about their hopes and fears related to becoming parents, how to improve their relationships with their partners, including communication, conflict resolution and the sharing of caregiving responsibilities (Doyle and al., 2018[27]). Promundo’s work in communities shows that significant change can be achieved after only four to five months.

Some evidence has shown that addressing gender stereotypes associated with unpaid care work through working with men and boys can “‘de-feminise’ caregiving”. This has been shown to increase men’s and young people’s involvement in home-based care services for people living with HIV and AIDS in Zimbabwe and Zambia,4 and strengthen men’s engagement in providing emotional support to their children who then perform better academically in China (Oxfam, 2018[19]).

Engaging men in maternal health processes can lead to better health outcomes for their partners and children (Levtov, 2015[22]). For example, in India and Pakistan, men’s participation in training related to pregnancy health resulted in higher engagement with domestic work and higher levels of willingness to take their wives to doctors and health clinics, while in Niger such training has increased the use of family planning and the use of prenatal consultations. Furthermore, when provided with information and counselling about the benefits fathers will encourage and support women’s breastfeeding as well as influence decisions related to the health and well-being of their children (Levtov, 2015[22]).

Oxfam (2018[2]) showed that men were more likely to engage in care when they recognised care work as a valuable and skilled task, and when informed of the challenges related to mobility, time burden and health impacts. However, the causal relationship between perceptions of and engagement in care work are not fully understood: Oxfam’s research also showed that men’s “perception that others do not approve” is more important than men’s own perceptions about care or willingness to engage in care work (Oxfam, 2018[2]).

Existing initiatives in this area have found that working with both men and boys and women and girls simultaneously or sequentially, in single sex and/or mixed groups is more effective than single sex interventions targeted at only females or only males (Glinski et al., 2018[26]; WfWI, 2007[28]). Oxfam, for example, found that even though men are more likely to participate in care work if their fathers did so, parents often do not want their sons to carry out care work. Mozambique’s Getting Men in the Kitchen programme showed that while some women “were happy to see the transformation” in men, other women “saw their [men’s] newfound enthusiasm for engaging in care work as an invasion of their private space” and/or started questioning their partners’ manhood.5 These findings suggest the need for a more nuanced understanding of how gendered social norms surrounding care evolve to promote an equal sharing of responsibilities within communities, as well as within households.

The role of the media and the private sector

Traditional and social media as well as the private sector are key actors in social norms change in the workplace and at societal level. For example, a daily Tanzanian TV programme that allowed viewers to follow the difficulties women face when becoming farmers and challenged the image of farming as a male role reached millions of viewers and has been replicated in other countries (Kidder, 2014[21]). Unilever promotes gender equality in the workplace through a variety of initiatives, including among others policies relating to their advertising campaigns, the gender balance in their workforce and recruitment processes, and flexible working (UNHLP, 2017[29]). This includes a three-year partnership with Oxfam in the Philippines and Zimbabwe. Part of the programme challenged social norms through communications with communities and through radio, TV and social media campaigns, in addition to infrastructure initiatives and advocacy for public policies.6

Global campaigns, such as UN Women’s HeForShe campaign, reach millions of people worldwide with the aim of evoking discussions about and challenging gender stereotypes. However, evidence on the effect of information campaigns on reducing prejudice is mixed, and evaluation of their impact on changing gender stereotypes has not yet been conducted (OECD, 2017[20]). This may be related to methodological challenges as “interventions designed to work at scale are often expected to achieve maximum reach quickly” (V4C, 2017[30]), which makes establishing a control group for impact evaluation more difficult.

Evidence from Brazil, Kenya and Nepal on how to promote shared responsibility within the household to address women’s unpaid care work

Research in the three focus countries identified a number of different approaches to addressing the distribution of household responsibilities for unpaid care used by various actors (see Annex C). These include awareness-raising campaigns on gender equality (UN Women in Brazil); programmes working with men to challenge notions of masculinities (Oxfam and Femnet in Kenya, and Promundo in Brazil); programmes that include helping women and men in communities understand unpaid care work as part of their wider agenda (ActionAid Kenya); work with the private sector to raise awareness and encourage uptake of parental level and with the public (health) sector to encourage ways of working that incentivise the sharing of care responsibilities (Promundo); and research to bring the issue of care work to policy discussions (Secretariat for Women’s Policies in Brazil).

Almost all of these initiatives target specific sub-groups, either by socio-economic background, vulnerability to violence, or location. UN Women in both Nepal and Kenya and Promundo and the Secretariat for Women’s Policies in Brazil aim to change gender norms at the institutional or societal level, while the other organisations work to achieve change at the community level (three in Kenya and one in Nepal).

Lessons learned in Brazil, Kenya and Nepal on promoting shared responsibility for unpaid care work

Little evidence has been generated so far on how these initiatives have changed attitudes and behaviour towards unpaid care work, because many are very recent and, in some cases, social norm change was not the primary aim.

The unpaid care work programme piloted by ActionAid in Nepal (as well as in Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya) showed that community discussions on that topic and comparative time diary collection with men and women contributed to changing perspectives on unpaid care work and men engaging more with household chores such as collecting water in Uganda and Nigeria (ActionAid, 2013[31]). Most of the organisations interviewed gather primary evidence – for example, through time diaries and rapid care analysis – to identify needs and gaps in their programmes. This highlights the fact that detailed information on time use by women and men to inform programmes and initiatives is often not available or outdated. More information would enable activities to be tailored to local realities or to specific target groups that have been previously underserved or are hard to reach.

Limited government action to engage with men and boys

Few examples were identified in the case studies of government action to address shared household responsibility for unpaid care. This highlights an important gap in capacity related to a key policy area for SDG 5.4. In response, NGOs are using evidence to support advocacy in national and local policy discussions to create space for policy change. For example, work by ActionAid and its partners in Kenya led to development of the Women’s National Charter in 2012 (ActionAid, 2013[31]), which requires that government recognise, quantify and redistribute the work of women in the home, including unpaid work. In Nepal, the Ministry of Women, Children and Senior Citizens is in dialogue with UN Women on care and social norm change. In Brazil, the Secretariat of Women’s Policies, through a working group looking at formalising paid domestic work, commissioned research on changing perceptions about care and domestic work (see Chapter 5 on social protection).

The use of evidence to support advocacy in national and local policy discussions creates space for policy change. For example, work by ActionAid and its partners in Kenya led to development of the Women’s National Charter in 2012 (ActionAid, 2013[31]), which requires that government recognise, quantify and redistribute the work of women in the home, including unpaid work. At the local level, Oxfam Kenya used a “quick scan” version of their rapid care analysis to highlight that women are not able to attend NGO meetings because of their unpaid care work responsibilities. As a result, Oxfam was able to advocate for water and health services more conveniently located for women to be able to attend meetings, appointments, etc. without putting an additional burden or time pressure on them (key informant interview, Oxfam, Kenya).

Careful selection of entry points is crucial when addressing social norms. Many organisations, including some of the key informants interviewed, are working with men and local champions for gender. As mentioned in Section 2.2, this is one of the most promising strategies for social norms change. As a key informant observed, “the men initially most resistant or angered who return to discussion groups, later become the most fervent champions” (key informant interview, Femnet, Kenya). Thus, it is important to have a critical mass of actors for change, particularly where working with men and boys is highly visible, as in small communities. As mentioned in one interview, it “can be very lonely place for men who join – feel of loss of manliness, it needs lots of support from the centre” (key informant interview, Femnet, Kenya).

Promundo uses fatherhood as an entry point to engaging men in care, because experience across several different settings has shown it to be a transformative life cycle event for women and men. At the same time, “a child figure creates empathy – nobody will disagree that a child should be cared for” (key informant interview, Promundo, Brazil). The health sector – antenatal care in particular – has been a key entry point for Promundo’s work with fathers, and has been highly successful both in engaging men and in addressing gender-stereotyping behaviour by health professionals. According to Promundo’s State of Brazil’s Fathers report, 55% of men claim that healthcare professionals exclusively direct their information to their partners (the pregnant women) during consultations. Promundo also encourages health services to implement simple strategies, such as providing two chairs instead of one in their health facilities.7

Different strategies are needed to engage diverse target groups. For example, Promundo engages with men from lower income groups through community or residence associations, schools or health centres, and with higher-income groups through working with the private sector. On the other hand, Promundo works through the private sector to engage men from middle- and higher-income classes in Brazil, which suggests that different socio-economic groups need different approaches. A recent achievement through its work with the National Early Childhood Network was the extension of paternity leave from five to twenty days for public employees and companies enrolled in the Citizen Company programme in Brazil.8 Paternity leave in Brazil is not covered by public financing (social protection) but by the private sector. Thus, much effort is directed at convincing companies to extend paternity leave as well as flexible working hours to fathers, and at working with private sector employees to demand more family-friendly working conditions for both women and men.

An enabling policy environment on gender equality and women’s rights more broadly is also critical; this can evolve but also reverse over time. In Kenya, discussions around unpaid care work are mainly among non-governmental organisations (NGOs), civil society organisations (CSOs) and a limited number of private sector actors, although these actors are working to get this on the larger policy agenda. For example, Safaricom and Village Nut Company are providing on-site childcare (IFC, 2017[32]). The interviews in Nepal also suggested a growing interest in and understanding of unpaid care work issues: while there are no concrete policies in relation to unpaid care work, the Constitution states that household work should be recognised. In Brazil, several key informants pointed out that the policy focus of the government has been more on paid care by domestic workers whereas discussions on policies to address unpaid care work are rare and have been more difficult to introduce.

Actors’ choices of approaches and entry points to address unpaid care are based on identifying common interests, often informed by strategies and experiences from other contexts. For example, UN Women in Nepal collaborated with the Ministry of Women, Children and Senior Citizens to develop their advocacy campaign. ActionAid Kenya’s choice of intervention strategy was informed by their overall global strategic planning framework, based on input from different country offices. Promundo’s decision to work with the private sector to engage men from upper and middle socio-economic groups was informed by learning from the global MenEngage Alliance.

Financial constraints and interests of donors, agencies and governments limit how organisations can frame their work and the level at which they can address unpaid care work. Key informants noted that unpaid care work issues are often not considered as important as other concerns, even when they are closely linked. For example, cook stoves projects in Kenya were motivated by health, energy and environmental concerns but not by unpaid care work. In Nepal, one key informant observed that reproductive health, livelihood programmes and education programmes were usually designed from poverty alleviation perspectives. At the same time, policies and programmes that impact on unpaid care work can be found across ministries that rarely come together to co-ordinate their impact or engagement with men and women.

For smaller organisations in their early stages of operation, decisions on entry points and approaches are often driven by committed individuals or small groups with a common aim. For example, Daayitwa in Nepal designed their programme with a four-person team from local NGOs. Organisations in Brazil and all three Kenyan organisations mentioned the importance of individual commitment, ranging from public officials, responsible actors at policy level or in legal professions, and male champions at the local level. Promundo in Brazil stressed the importance of ensuring that individuals in key implementing institutions participate voluntarily in the programmes; for example, school directors were sometimes interested in implementing Promundo’s work but teachers were not, or vice versa. This underlines the importance of involving front-line “change agents” in designing or understanding approaches before embarking on implementation. The importance of strong local implementing partners and staff was also mentioned, as well as the dedication of staff – particularly by younger organisations.

Approaches to monitoring and measuring changes in social norms related to unpaid care are still being developed. Promundo closely monitors and measures potential impact through focus group discussions and their Gender-Equitable Men scale, following up after a minimum three-month period to ensure at least some impact (key informant interview, Promundo, Brazil). The scale measures attitudes related to sexual and reproductive health, sexual relations, violence, domestic work and homophobia. In testing and developing the scale, the researchers found that more equitable gender norms are related to less violent behaviour and more use of contraceptives by men (Pulerwitz, n.d.[33]). Promundo is currently developing a scale to measure social norms and their change over time (key informant interview, Promundo, Brazil). In addition, ActionAid and Oxfam’s analysis tools can be used for monitoring programmes and identifying change as much as for programme design (see for example (Chipfupa, Kidder and Remme, 2016[34]). Following a pilot and learning process, the NGO Care has also recently developed measurement approaches and tools to capture the influence of social norms on behaviours (Stefanik and Hwang, 2017[35]).

Key findings

The above analysis and insights from documentary evidence as well as from field missions carried out in the three focus countries underline the following key overall findings.

Efforts to promote shared responsibility for unpaid care work within households in the three countries are primarily led by non-governmental organisations (NGOs). This may be because NGOs and CSOs have more experience working on social norm change (Alexandar-Scott, Bell and Holden, 2016[36]; Haider, 2017[37]). In addition, limited evidence on what works to change social norms in relation to unpaid care work and the challenges related to unpaid care work are not yet well understood by policy makers. Often, unpaid care work issues are not seen as “urgent” or priority – unlike for example violence against women, even among women’s organisations. This is particularly relevant given the shrinking space for civil society, forcing organisations to prioritise more “pressing” or “mainstream” issues over others. Thus, while established organisations may be able to include activities that are not donor priority, such as unpaid care issues, this may not be feasible for younger organisations.

Shifting responsibilities for unpaid care and work within households requires a transformation of social norms that is both a relatively new field for policy and research, and one that is particularly sensitive to the socio-cultural context and to donor government relations. Understanding social norm change, in general and specifically related to unpaid care work, is still in its infancy; attempts to measure change in this area, while systematic, are still nascent. They are also hampered by inconsistent data on men and women’s time use across countries and years.

National and local partners rooted in their communities and connected to key institutions are crucial to develop ownership of this issue and avoid backlash based on a perception of “foreign” agenda. A lack of understanding of unpaid care work by professionals or policy actors that are further removed from the “ground” can lead to poorly designed initiatives. These are often persons of higher socio-economic background who can outsource care and domestic work. They are also often the ones making executive decisions on programmes and policies – doctors and directors in health centres compared to community personnel and nurses, or higher-level government officials compared to civil servants involved in project design, planning and management. The private sector and the media have a particularly important role to play here, as do “champions” and role models.

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. A recent summary of the evidence on what works in tackling social norms in relation to violence against women and girls also shows that change of harmful social norms can take many years, particularly if aimed at scale (Alexandar-Scott, Bell and Holden, 2016[36]). Research on value changes towards gender equality and tolerance in 80 countries between 1982 and 2014 confirms this by showing that it takes decades for societies to reach a “tipping point” where different, more gender-equal and tolerant attitudes become new and predominating norms (Inglehart, Ponarin and Inglehart, 2017[38]). What limited evidence there is suggests that social norm change at scale is a long-term process and more likely to be achieved through a combination of legislative or policy incentives or investments, along with social marketing and/or public campaigns and face-to-face engagement, or influencing through peer networks and community dialogue.

Shared household responsibility for care is not just about changes in gender roles; it also concerns norms on intergenerational care responsibilities. This is a pressing issue for many societies where adult women need to work, or where demographic changes mean that women are simultaneously responsible for the care of elders as well as children. Instead of a more equal redistribution or reduction, care responsibilities may be passed onto more vulnerable younger or older household members, most often girls and older women. Finally, the sharing of responsibilities in the household sphere is only part of a wider “redistributive” agenda on unpaid care and work, which also requires both the state and the market to intervene. The role of the state is particularly important for households where there is only one parent or for poor households where men, like women, are caught between work in the market to meet basic needs, and the care needs of their children or vulnerable family members.


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[26] Glinski, A. et al. (2018), Gender Equity and Male Engagement: It Only Works When Everyone Plays, ICRW, Washington, D.C., http://www.cartierphilanthropy.org/uploads/media/5acb7ba53fb8f/icrw-maleengagementbrief-webready-v5-150dpi.pdf.

[37] Haider, H. (2017), Changing gender social norms, attitudes and behaviours, Institute of Development Studies.

[23] Heilman, B. (2017), State of the world’s fathers: Time for action, Promundo, Sonke Gender Justice, Save the Children and MenEngage Alliance.

[32] IFC (2017), Tackling Childcare: The Business Case for Employer-Supported Childcare, International Finance Corporation..

[4] ILO (2016), Women at Work: Trends 2016, International Labor Office.

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[21] Kidder, T. (2014), Meaningful action: Effective approaches to women’s economic empowerment in agriculture.

[22] Levtov, R. (2015), State of the World’s Fathers: A MenCare Advocacy Publication, Promundo, Rutgers, Save the Children, Sonke Gender Justice, and the MenEngage Alliance.

[24] Nagy, B. (2008), Challenging the male norm of employment: Evidence from Sweden, Norway, and Hungary, Routledge.

[9] OECD (2019), Gender Institutions and Development Database (GID-DB), http://oecd.stat.org.

[20] OECD (2017), Dare to Share: Germany’s Experience Promoting Equal Partnership in Families, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264259157-en.

[11] OECD Development Centre (2018), Burkina Faso-SIGI, Burkina Faso country study, Social Institutions and Gender Index, OECD, Paris, https://www.genderindex.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/BurkinaFasoSIGI-20x20-EN-web.pdf.

[1] O’Neill, M., D. Chopra and A. Vargas (2017), Unpaid care and women’s empowerment: Lessons from research and practice – Policy brief, International Development Research Centre, https://idl-bnc-idrc.dspacedirect.org/bitstream/handle/10625/56369/IDL-56369.pdf?sequence=2 (accessed on 30 November 2018).

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

[13] Pew Research Centre (2018), Combined final topline, http://www.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Timechild_topline_checked.pdf (accessed on 30 November 2018).

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← 1. Median percentage. For comparison, the median percentage of lone fathers is 3%.

← 2. Although households headed by women are most common in North America, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean – with 47%, 37% and 34%, respectively – only a small percentage of them are lone mothers.

← 3. This is in addition to lower rates of intimate partner violence and violence against children; greater use of contraceptives; improved involvement of women in household decision making; and higher attendance rates of women in prenatal health facilities.

← 4. www.whatworksforwomen.org/Sections/23-Care-and-Support/sections/71-Women-and-Girls/evidence #s-521.

← 5. http://menengage.blogspot.com/2016/08/men-seeing-themselves-as-full-partners.html.

← 6. https://insights.careinternational.org.uk/development-blog/how-business-can-tackle-social-norms-which-hold-back-women-s-economic-empowerment.

← 7. Promundo’s Program P Manual provides ideas and tools to create open spaces for fathers in antenatal and postnatal clinic settings and services that provide health care to children up to 4 years of age; guidance on how to carry out gender-transformative group education with fathers and their partners; and tips to promote community engagement around fatherhood, maternal care and childcare, child protection and gender equality (https://promundoglobal.org/resources/program-p-a-manual-for-engaging-men-in-fatherhood-caregiving-and-maternal-and-child-health/).

← 8. https://promundoglobal.org/2017/02/01/promundo-launches-first-report-state-brazils-fathers/.

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