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 daily in, 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 examines the underlying factors of masculinities and patriarchy, in order to understand and delve into these gender norms, both within the family, and in the paid labour market – in order to come up with viable solutions to counter these gender norms. Another objective of our work is to delineate how involving men and boys in undertaking care responsibilities can promote economic empowerment of women and girls.
Our research findings in India, Nepal, Tanzania and Rwanda show that that across low income families in these countries, unpaid care work remained largely the women's responsibility – with men stepping in only when women were very sick, or when they were unable to do the work, in addition to there being no girl child or elderly woman to shoulder these tasks. However, it is also worth noting that in many families (especially so in Nepal), high incidences of male migration pose problems for the redistribution and reduction of care within the family leading to more acute burdens on women and older girl children.
The stubborn persistence of gender norms was reflected across all our research sites as well. Women's paid work did not necessarily result in reorganisation of care at home with men taking on care work responsibilities, or across their communities. Instead, it mostly resulted in women reorganising their own time and 'fitting in' all tasks by waking up early and sleeping later than usual.
The effect of lack of men's participation in care work was palpably felt by children – both in terms of not receiving adequate care, as well as in taking on care responsibilities in the household. School drop outs (including that of boys and girls), and negative effects on education, health and wellbeing of children were common. This highlights the critical linkages between participation of men and boys and women's ability to undertake paid work, without negative consequences on care receivers, or without deepening the time poverty and pressures on women themselves.