Valuing Unpaid Work: Women’s Role in Care Economies

Author: Neha Chauhan 
Care work, broadly defined as the provision of physical, psychological, emotional, and developmental support to individuals, plays a pivotal role in society. It encompasses a wide spectrum of activities, from direct and personal care tasks like nursing an ill family member to indirect duties such as cooking and cleaning. Care work is instrumental in nurturing the overall well-being of individuals and fosters the development of human capital, which is crucial for economic growth. This multifaceted field encompasses both unpaid care work, provided by unpaid carers, and paid care work, performed by care workers such as nurses and personal care providers.
Unpaid care work, predominantly shouldered by women, carries immense importance for economies on both direct and indirect levels. It plays a pivotal role in enabling other family members to engage in the labour force, which in turn contributes to economic productivity by maintaining a stable and efficient workforce. Remarkably, this form of care work holds substantial economic value despite being unpaid. If these caregiving responsibilities were to be outsourced to formal, paid providers, the associated economic costs would be considerably high, underscoring the financial significance of unpaid care work in sustaining and enhancing economies.
Women typically spend disproportionately more time on unpaid care work than men. Women bear a disproportionate burden of unpaid care work due to ingrained gender norms that perceive these responsibilities as primarily belonging to females. Across various regions, socio-economic strata, and cultures, women dedicate a substantial portion of their daily routine to fulfilling domestic duties. Reports from the OECD highlight the stark contrast in time allocation for unpaid care activities between men and women. On average, women spend between three to six hours on such tasks, while men dedicate merely half an hour to two hours to these responsibilities.
In India, the 2019 Time-Use Survey revealed a pronounced disparity in unpaid care work between men and women. The survey indicated that Indian women spent approximately 299 minutes daily on housework and 134 minutes on caregiving duties, while men allocated significantly less time, spending only 97 minutes on household tasks and 76 minutes on caregiving. 
The gender imbalance in unpaid care work has direct implications for various labour outcomes, including workforce participation. Women frequently cite the unavailability of others to carry out domestic duties as a key reason for their non-participation in employment. This assertion is particularly evident in the 68th NSS Round, where the predominant reason reported across different age groups, both in rural and urban areas, for women spending extensive time on domestic duties was the absence of other individuals to share these responsibilities. Consequently, the significant role of unpaid housework emerges as a contributing factor in women’s withdrawal from the labour force, reinforcing the intricate relationship between gender roles, household responsibilities, and workforce participation.
Globally, there is a growing awareness of the significance of care work, as evidenced by the Sustainable Development Goal 5 (Gender Equality), target 5.4, which calls for the recognition and valuation of unpaid care and domestic work. This recognition extends to the provision of public services, infrastructure, and social protection policies, as well as the promotion of shared responsibility within households and families. However, despite this global recognition, unpaid care work continues to be undervalued, leading to its often overlooked status in society. This undervaluation of unpaid care work underscores the need for continued efforts to acknowledge and support this crucial dimension of the world of work, which is essential for both economic growth and gender equality.
Increasing Demand
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the world witnessed the dramatic escalation of the demand for unpaid care work. Across the globe, the closure of schools and childcare facilities prompted a significant surge in the burden of unpaid care work, predominantly shouldered by women. The closure of schools and childcare facilities, as highlighted by the OECD’s 2020 Risks that Matter survey, led to a significant increase in the burden of unpaid care work, primarily affecting women, especially mothers. With the closure of workplaces and educational institutions, the transition to remote work and online education, and the absence of domestic services, households saw a surge in unpaid chores. This shift in dynamics significantly affected women more than men, limiting their time for education, employment, and leisure activities, fostering a state of time poverty.
The global population is experiencing a substantial shift toward an older demographic. Increased life expectancies and declining fertility rates across countries worldwide have led to a gradual but significant increase in the proportion of older individuals. In the context of India, the ‘India Ageing Report 2023‘ presents a forecast of a noteworthy change in the age structure of the Indian population. The study predicts that by 2050, the share of older persons will double to 20.8 per cent, with the absolute number at 347 million. With the increased share of older individuals within the population, there arises a pressing need for caregiving, support, and healthcare services to address the needs of the elderly. This demographic shift will significantly influence the demand for care work, as families, particularly women, will face heightened responsibilities in offering care and support to older family members. This demographic transformation in India underlines the growing significance of addressing the care needs of the elderly, particularly within households, impacting the nature and volume of unpaid care work undertaken predominantly by women.
The transformation in family structures, notably the shift from joint to nuclear family settings, has had a discernible impact on the demand for unpaid care work. In 2022, nearly half of Indian households constituted nuclear families, indicating a significant change from the 34% recorded in 2008. This change in family structure has led to a notable change in the distribution of caregiving responsibilities. In joint family setups, where multiple family members share responsibilities, caregiving tasks are distributed among several individuals, significantly reducing the burden on any single person, typically women. These arrangements often involve extended family members contributing to caregiving duties for children, the elderly, or household chores, thereby lessening the load on any individual family member, especially women. In contrast, the transition to nuclear family structures has led to a more concentrated burden of care work on immediate family members, primarily women. 
As climate change continues to influence global conditions, the scarcity and alterations in resources like water have significantly impacted the demand for unpaid care work. Women, often responsible for water collection and household resource management, face heightened challenges due to climate-induced shortages. These changes have escalated the time and effort required to secure essential resources, further contributing to the increased workload of unpaid care work. Moreover, environmental disasters and subsequent community displacement have become more frequent due to climate change. These crises necessitate additional care work within affected communities. Women often shoulder a substantial portion of this responsibility, caring for the vulnerable, elderly, and children amidst these environmental disruptions.
The present scenario demands a comprehensive and reformed approach to address the disproportionate burden of unpaid care work placed on women. In India, the investment in the care economy is relatively low, with less than 1% of the GDP allocated to public sector expenditure on care infrastructure. Women’s unpaid work, valued at 3.1% of the country’s GDP, significantly contrasts with the meagre investment in care infrastructure, including childcare centres and maternity benefits. To alleviate the burden of unpaid care work on women and enable their increased economic participation, the government must actively invest in expanding care infrastructure and enhancing care services. 
Access to essential services such as public health facilities, water, and sanitation presents not only general issues but also significant gender concerns. Women, primarily acting as family caregivers, are disproportionately affected by the lack of access to these services, further complicating their roles and responsibilities. Therefore, there is a need for the government to ensure the access and quality of such services. 
The undervaluation and under-recognition of women’s contributions in schemes like ASHA and Anganwadi reflect the perpetuation of the gendered division of labour. To rectify this, the formalisation of these care work structures is imperative, ensuring fair recognition and remuneration that aligns with the substantial contributions made by these dedicated care workers. Such comprehensive strategies can mitigate the disproportionate burden placed on women, fostering an environment where caregiving contributions are valued equally and fairly.