25 Nov - 1 Dec 2016 #834

Who cares?

Women do the bulk of unpaid work in the household cleaning, cooking, washing, collecting firewood and caring for children and the elderly
Sangita Thebe-Limbu
Shreejana Shrestha


In recent times, gender glass ceilings have endured some severe cracks, but they remain intact and formidable. Hilary Clinton’s defeat in the US presidential election has shattered the immediate possibility of the first female American president. The recent appointment of Portugal’s Antonio Guterres as the next UN secretary-general was made amidst growing call for the organisation to select its first female top diplomat.

Closer to home, the picture is comparatively positive with Sushila Karki appointed as the first female Chief Justice following the selection of Bidya Devi Bhandari as Nepal’s second President and former guerrilla Onsari Gharti Magar as the Speaker of Parliament. Yet, at the ministerial level and across Nepal’s civil service, civil society and media, the gender gap remains stark.

Substantive representation of women in political, social and economic spheres is an important agenda, but the politics of everyday life within households is commonly overlooked. This is particularly the case for unpaid care work, which underpins the functioning of every household and contributes in reproduction of labour force and the market economy. But it remains undervalued by society and policymakers alike.

Unpaid care work includes all household activities carried out by family members without pay such as cleaning, cooking, washing, fetching water, collecting firewood and caring for children, elderly, sick and/or family members with disabilities. While care is fundamental to our well-being, in most societies care is perceived predominantly as ‘women’s work’ regardless of caste, class, ethnicity or religion.

Based on extensive surveys in 65 countries, an International Labour Organisation (ILO) report concludes that the vast majority of unpaid household and care work is performed by women. In developed countries, women spend an average of 4 hours and 20 minutes on unpaid care work while men spend 2 hours and 16 minutes per day. In developing countries, women spend 4 hours and 30 minutes per day on unpaid care work compared to 1 hour 20 minutes for men. The higher gender gaps in lower income countries can be attributed to lack of time-saving infrastructure and technologies, limited or non-existent social care services, or inability to outsource domestic work.

The unequal distribution of care work within households results in ‘time poverty’ for women and girls, where there aren’t enough hours in a day for productive activities such as education, training, paid employment or leisure. Women spending disproportionate amount of time in unpaid work also affects the quality of employment as more women tend to concentrate in part-time, informal or precarious work.



In Nepal, the female labour force participation is very high. It was at 80.7 percent in 2008 -- the highest in South Asia. It can be attributed to increased male migration, poverty where work is not an option, variations of socio-cultural norms, and in particular collection of goods for own consumption (example firewood) is included under the definition of work in Nepal.

However, of the working women, 84.3 percent are engaged in mainly subsistence agriculture. Meaning there is a double burden of responsibilities where women are engaged in economic activities and they also perform the bulk of unpaid care work, which negatively affects their well-being and engagement in wider socio-political structures.

Much of the unpaid care work remains under the radar of labour market analysis whether in calculating Gross Domestic Product or formulation of economic growth policies. Even when it is recognised, how to measure it and its contribution to growth and productivity accurately remains a challenge. However, there are initiatives like ‘time use diaries’, which are being used as a tool to make unpaid care work visible and demand for policy change.

In a 2013 report, Action Aid showed that in Nepal women on average spend 268 minutes per day in housework (includes cooking, cleaning, washing, shopping) in comparison to 56 minutes per day by men. In contrast, men spend 101 minutes per day in socio-cultural activities (includes socialising, attending external events) as opposed to 24 minutes per day by women, which draws attention to the common social dichotomy of public as male and private as female space.

Care work is central to our everyday lives and crucial to our well-being. It forms the foundation of our society and the economy. Hence, the focus is not to undermine the importance of care but to put the spotlight on carers and unequal care work distribution. The prevailing social model of male as breadwinners and female as caregivers need to be challenged to demand for more equitable redistribution of care responsibilities and power balance within households.

Further, care work can be redistributed widely between the household and the government through social protection schemes (such as childcare support grant, early childhood education schemes) to support carers, effective public healthcare provision, and investment in inclusive and gender sensitive infrastructures and services. But the first step of course is to recognise that providing care is an important work in itself.

Read also

Justice-in-chief, Binita Dahal

The right to have rights, Sangita Thebe Limbu

Power to women, Bineeta Gurung

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