Women's economic empowerment (WEE) is often conceptualised as participation in the labour market. However, our work challenges this individualised notion of empowerment, broadening the concept of empowerment to include both choice and agency in decision-making. Therefore, work on WEE has to encompass both looking at labour market conditions (provision of decent jobs) as well as ensuring support for women's care responsibilities. Support for unpaid care work will:
- Optimise women's economic participation, by enabling them to work without deepening their time poverty, or without them worrying about the amount and quality of care their families are receiving. This in turn will help make it possible for them to choose better-paid and more empowering types of work (access to work and conditions at work place), rather than being forced into low-paid 'flexible' work.
- Share the gains of women's economic empowerment across all females in the family, so that younger girls and older women are not left to carry the burden and become disempowered as a result, and that economic benefits are not eroded because of the cost of substitute care.
- Sustain the gains of women's economic empowerment across generations, by ensuring that childcare arrangements do not deteriorate, but rather improve, as a result of their mothers' paid work.
Despite the importance of the interplay of paid work and unpaid care work in women's lives, there is little evidence of how women in low-income families manage to combine these aspects, and what the relationship is between women's paid work and their unpaid care work. Our research focuses on exploring these relationships, and seeks to propose solutions such that WEE programming can create a 'double boon': paid work that is empowering, at the same time as provision of support for women's unpaid care work responsibilities.
Care forms an integral part of the 'work' package that women engage in daily, in addition to their paid work and unpaid care work responsibilities. Persistent and sticky gender norms mean that across all societies, women and girls undertake the bulk of unpaid care work. This unequal and disproportionate responsibility impedes their economic empowerment in significant ways. Our work therefore explores the linkages between care and WEE, by asking two interrelated questions:
- How do women balance their care responsibilities alongside their paid work responsibilities – what is the relationship between paid work and unpaid care work, and how does this shape the choices that women make about paid work, and about the quality and quantity of care work?
- How can WEE programmes take into account unpaid care work, such that the gains for women are optimised, shared across all females in the family and sustained across generations?
Our upcoming research findings in four countries (India, Nepal, Tanzania and Rwanda) show that women are overburdened in rural areas by unpaid productive tasks such as cutting grass, fetching water and firewood for fuel. In some instances, women's paid work responsibilities resulted in the reallocation of care work to other women in the household. There were also instances of sibling care i.e. older siblings caring for their younger siblings when the woman was engaged in paid work.
The trade-offs of time and energy between unpaid care work and paid work were intensified in the absence of basic public services such as provision of water, small access roads/bridges and electricity. Women spoke about time poverty, and also time stretching, which intensified in different seasons as well, with the ebbs and flows of paid work and care work tasks. Poor access to public services was highlighted as one of the major causes of increasing women's time poverty and unpaid care work burdens. Solutions such as public transport, electricity, safe drinking water, quality pre-schools, accessible health services, access to flour mills – were identified by the women and their families in order for them to achieve a balance between paid work and their unpaid care work tasks. These are echoed in the call for more progressive tax policies that can finance quality-state funded public services. Our Nepal study highlighted the need for state input in reducing the burden of water, fuel and food collection for women.
The policy briefing Balancing Paid Work and Unpaid Care Work to Achieve Women's Economic Empowerment looks at the interactions between the market and the household and the consequences of unpaid care work on the type, location and nature of paid work that women and girls can undertake, thereby impacting their economic empowerment. Further, it outlines policy actions that can help prevent women from being forced into making choices that have negative social, economic and political outcomes.