Women and care work: poor in time, choice, and voice

Emmily (65yrs) drinks at a water point in Mabondo village, Masvingo District, Zimbabwe.

In Zimbabwe Oxfam and Unilever's We Care program finds practical ways to reduce the time women spend on essential care work. Thanks to a solar piped water system Emmily (65) now has access to fresh running tap water close to her home. She used to have to walk 45 minutes and climb down steep banks to collect water from a river. Photo: Aurelie Marrier d'Unienville/Oxfam

For many women the gender gap is bigger than the contents of a pay packet. It is the hours of unpaid labor that are taken as a given before they’ve addressed income and livelihood. This might be caring for children or an elderly relative, or the cleanliness of the house, or spending four hours per day fetching water to meet the household’s basic needs or all of the above and more.

Because they are at home, or their work considered of little value, their voices in the equality conversation are quiet to nonexistent. They simply do not have time to work with their communities, or within their greater societies, to improve the future for themselves, their families, or others in the same situation. 


Freeing up time frees up voices

Since attending We Care seminars with her husband, Rowena, day-care worker and mother, Philippines, has more time to get involved in her community.

Rowena is a day care worker in a school, she is also a housewife. She and her husband never questioned the extra hours she spent fetching water (three to four hours per day back and forth to the river), cooking, cleaning and doing housework on top of her job. But after attending seminars and training through Oxfam and Unilever’s We Care program they now share the work. Even better, the installation of water tanks by Oxfam and SIKAT means that neither of them spend so much time per day just filling their water needs.

These changes have freed up time for Rowena to get involved in community projects. 

With all the work that was assigned to women, we could never catch up with the men in our community. There would always be a gap between women and men – with the amount of money they earned, with the education they got or with the time they could spend on things outside the house.

day-care worker, Philippines

Reducing the labor

Women in rural communities and developing countries can spend up to 14 hours per day doing essential care work because they lack of the kind of time-saving infrastructure many of us take for granted. They are filling the gap left by a lack of public provision of essential services: such as nearby running water.

Not all tasks can be reduced or eliminated, but some can, and doing so would free the hands of women and girls to work, to study, to find other ways to contribute to their livelihoods and communities. Time saving devices (eg. a village water pump, an oven, a wheelbarrow) can make a huge difference to their lives, as can an equitable division of labor. 

Sharing the load and changing minds 

Ulita Mutambo and her husband Muchineripi Sibanda take a break in their corn field near their home in Ture Village, Zvishevane region, Zimbabwe. Photo credit: Aurelie Marrier d'Unienville / Oxfam

After marrying Muchineripi in 2007 Ulita took responsibility for all the household tasks as was expected of her. Once, when Ulita was very sick Muchineripi did go to fetch water — other men in his community laughed at him. He never wanted to do it again.

Muchineripi’s perception changed after he and his wife began the We-Care program which uses training and outreach to change the attitudes and behaviors. It also finds practical ways to reduce labor time and drudgery.

When my son gets married, I want to teach him so that he follows what I do. I want him to help his wife. 

Muchineripi, Zimbabwe

Ulita and Muchineripi received a wheelbarrow through the program making fetching water, firewood, the harvest, and the laundry, easier for them both. Between them, they can farm more land, bring in more money, and have time to help the children with their homework. Muchineripi appreciates these benefits and is happy to contribute to all the tasks.

Sharing the load creates a cascade effect. Children get educated, women are better able to contribute to the household income and their own well-being, men benefit from sharing the responsibility of earning, the education of their children, and the ideas, energy, and knowledge that women add to their communities and wider society.

Women are wealth creators 

This is not just about dividing housework between husbands and wives, sons and daughters, but providing choices. By unlocking opportunities, by building the infrastructure, by valuing the labor, we free women’s time to pursue enterprise and to build their futures. 

Sarah, 37, single mother of six, washing laundry. On top of her two jobs she cooks, cleans, and cares for her children and is also trying to grow some vegetables in the garden to improve their diet. Photo: Islam Mardini/Oxfam

Sarah is a single mother of six. The family fled the violence in rural Aleppo’s al-Sfireh in 2013, but returned in 2018 and have managed to partially fix their home. Sarah works as a cleaner and a farm laborer. Like many other single mothers she feels overstretched. It’s very hard for me to take care of my little children and work for long hours at the same time, especially that my youngest boy suffers from epilepsy - but what can I do when I have no other choice? she says.

This will help me buy what my family needs and take my little boy to a doctor. It’ll help me stand on my own two feet again.

Sarah, working mother of 6 children, Syria

Domestic workers are some of the most exploited in the world, just 10% of them have equal labor rights to other workers, and only around half have equal minimum wage protection. 

Recently, Sarah took part in a homemade food-industry training – a program run by Oxfam. She gained new skills and received a cooking kit –these kits include equipment such as electric ovens, mixers, knives, and saucepans — to enable her to jump-start her career. 

Time to care for carers

From childcare to fetching firewood and water, to cleaning offices and hospitals, women make the world go around, and from birth to death every individual requires care at some point in their lives. It’s time to respect the contribution of carers to our households, our businesses, the economy, our personal wellbeing, the cared for, and everyone else who benefits from their labor, and for corporations and governments to do the same.