Understanding Unpaid Care Work to Empower Women in Market Systems Approaches

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It is widely recognised that successful efforts to promote women’s economic empowerment not only impact incomes but also build self-confidence, enhance women’s agency, and contribute to improved education, health and security outcomes for families. Nevertheless, interventions designed to support women to participate in productive or paid work – either as business owners or employees – are often based on assumptions around the elasticity of women’s time. They fail to disaggregate household roles and responsibilities, or to recognise care responsibilities outside the paid economy.

To date there is little published material available to support market systems programmes to understand and address unpaid care work. This document lls that gap by providing guidance to practitioners on approaches to diagnose constraints related to unpaid care; provides tools to carry these out; and outlines with real examples how programmes have designed interventions to target problematic aspects of care provision based on facilitation approaches using systems thinking. The knowledge is based on the insights produced together with a community of practitioners, donors and experts from both the gender and markets systems fields, and practical programme experiences.

The provision of care is a social good and a valuable activity that is essential for maintaining society, including the functioning of markets. It includes direct care of people, such as child care, and the domestic work that facilitates caring for people, such as cooking, cleaning or collecting water. While the features of their lives vary enormously across contexts, it is women and girls who perform the majority of these activities. Many women feel empowered, and derive satisfaction from these responsibilities, nevertheless, unpaid care becomes problematic when it is invisible, highly unequal and an extremely heavy burden. This will result in time poverty, poor health and well-being, limiting women’s mobility and perpetuating women’s unequal status in society. Research shows that heavy care work also impacts overall economic productivity, growth and poverty reduction. For example, unpaid care affects private-sector actors and markets through impacts on: (i) product quality and productivity; (ii) supply chain reliability; (iii) workforce stability; and (iv) customer attraction.

Therefore, for programmes that target women’s empowerment, heavy and unequal unpaid care will likely be a system- level constraint. By understanding how programmes’ interventions interact with existing care work and responsibilities, they can use the potential of systemic responses to improve both market operations and livelihood outcomes. When programmes integrate this understanding throughout the project cycle, they can facilitate system changes to, for example, support the reduction or redistribution of care work.