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By Jane Kato-Wallace
Originally posted on Oxfam

The unpaid care work divide represents an enduring aspect of gender inequality where men are expected to be the breadwinners while women are responsible for care and domestic work. One of the reasons is because unpaid care work remains stubbornly undervalued and under-recognized. What do we mean by “unpaid care work”? According to the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, it consists of:

“Domestic work (meal preparation, cleaning, washing clothes, water and fuel collection) and direct care of persons (including children, older persons and persons with disabilities, as well as able-bodied adults) carried out in homes and communities, with no financial payment.” 1

The unequal distribution of care work is problematic in that it deeply impacts the lives of women and girls. For girls, the unpaid care burden perpetuates reduced access to social contact, play, education, and financial resources,2 and research shows that women’s household responsibilities and duties have a significant effect on their ability to work outside the home, rest, and engage in leisurely activities. The World Bank has also found that in both low-income and upper-income settings while the gap between the time women and men spend on paid work has reduced, the gap between the time spent on unpaid care work has not reduced nearly as much.3 Even then, women who manage to enter or re-enter the workforce find that they are more likely than men to have lower-paid jobs and part-time jobs, more likely to work in the informal sector, and to earn less than men do.4

Why does the unpaid care divide exist today despite the fact that global discussions on women’s domestic roles date back to the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo? Well, in part, social norms are “sticky,” according to Gary Barker, Equimundo’s Founder and CEO. He states that decades of changes in laws, policies, and practice aiming to protect and empower women and girls have “disturbed men’s sense of entitlement, power and privilege.”5 Such opposition highlights the need to challenge the social norms and institutions that sustain gender inequality. Indeed, Oxfam’s WE-CARE research finds that gendered social norms – among other factors – that view women’s roles in the home as “natural” or “biological” sustain the caregiving divide.6

Fertile ground to shift men’s attitudes

That men and boys should carry out more care work may seem obvious to the hundreds of millions of women and girls around the world. What is seldom discussed is how to create the conditions necessary for men and boys to part of a global effort to value care work, regardless of who carries it out. Promising findings combined with over a decade of evidence on good practice finds that men can, do and want to change. For example, a pilot study implemented in Rwanda by Equimundo and CARE Rwanda called Journeys of Transformation that aimed to engage men as allies in women’s economic empowerment (WEE) shows promise that it is possible to shift men’s gender inequitable norms and practices related to caregiving while also increasing overall family income.7

Watch the short film to see how the Global Mencare Campaign, co-coordinated by Equimundo and Sonke Gender Justice helped changed one man’s attitudes to WEE.

So what are the implications for organizations focused on closing the caregiving divide and increasing women’s economic empowerment? Here are some of our recommendations:

#1 Challenging existing social norms: Discussions focused on closing the caregiving gap need to go beyond recognizing and valuing unpaid work. Instead, organizations should test and implement gender-transformative approaches8 that challenge the social and gender norms that underpin the unequal distribution of unpaid care work in the first place.

#2 Encourage reflection: Encourage men and boys to share their own experiences, motivations, and relationship challenges. Deep reflection often prompts the recognition of personal situations and gives participants the opportunity to develop solutions that work for them and their families.

#3 Engage men as caregivers: Use WE-CARE research data to pinpoint promising entry points to develop and test gender-transformative interventions that engage men as caregivers. Adding activities that involve men both in the form of group education and community-based campaign activism can be relatively easily combined with women’s economic empowerment activities. Check out Equimundo’s Journeys of Transformation methodology and Program P (“P” for “pai” or “father” in Portuguese) for ideas on how to do this.

#4 Start early!: Global research confirms that men who witnessed their fathers taking care of their siblings were more likely to do so when they themselves became fathers9 Focus on spaces of gender socialization such as school where girls and boys learn what tasks are “appropriate” for their gender. For example, efforts should be made to integrate reflections on harmful gender norms and roles within comprehensive sexuality education or “life skills” curricula.

#5 Engaging partners together: Equimundo’s experience has found that efforts to promote men’s involvement and transform gender relations work best when men and their partners participate together in some, if not most of the interventions. Engaging partners together opens up unique opportunities for practicing couple communication, discussing goals, and for men to listen to the voices of women – a rarity in many communities.

#6 Defeminize care work: As WE-CARE’s research shows, having government provided infrastructure and services can greatly reduce workloads. Similar recommendations have often centered on providing government or employer-sponsored maternity leave or childcare services, both of which are extremely important. But more work must be done to defeminize care work and made to reflect the importance of men and boys participation.10 This means developing or improving parenting programs so that both mothers and fathers are given the necessary knowledge and skills to care for children (and creating conditions that de-stigmatize this work for men).

#7 Provide training for service providers: Provide training for service providers across sectors that promotes reflection about their own gender biases around who does care work and why it is important, and that instructs service providers in how best to support the combination of unpaid care work and participation in paid work, whether it is a man or a woman doing it.

#8 Influence policies: Guarantee dignified work and adequate pay to support an equitable work-life balance and financial stability for all caregivers and their children in global and national-level policies. This includes poverty-alleviation and social-welfare measures that; recognize the needs of caregivers. The policies must  avoid reinforcing traditional gender roles, provide for basic needs and encourage men’s participation in family life and care work.

Ultimately, what Equimundo and our partners envision is a world where men are doing 50% of the care work – a shift that would not only positively impact women and girls, but also men and boys. Men stand to gain a lot when they are no longer confined to rigid notions of what it means to be a man. When they are engaged as caregivers, pathways are opened up for them to express empathy and build more positive and emotional connections with their partners and children. This is a vision worth fighting for.

Read more on shifting how care is carried out.

[1] Sepúlveda Carmona M. Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights: Unpaid Care Work and Women’s Human Rights. New York, NY: United Nations; 2013. Cited in State of the World’s Fathers (SOWF) by Levtov, et al., pg 62
[2] Cited in SOWF. Razavi S. The Political and Social Economy of Care in a Development Context: Conceptual Issues, Research Questions and Policy Options. Geneva, Switzerland: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, 2007.
[3] World Bank (2012) World Development Report: Gender Equality and Development, Washington, DC: World Bank.
[4] The World Bank Gender and Development Unit. Gender at Work: A Companion to the World Development Report on Jobs. Washington, DC: The World Bank Group, 2013.
[5]  Barker, G. (2014). A Radical Agenda for Men’s Caregiving. Institute of Development Studies. IDS Bulletin 45.
[6] Karimli, L., et al. (2016). Factors and Norms Influencing Unpaid Care Work. Oxfam. Accessed March 1, 2017.
[7] Slegh, H., Barker, G., Kimonyo, A., Ndolimana, P., & Bannerman, M. (2013). ‘I can do women’s work.’: Reflections on engaging men as allies in women’s economic empowerment in Rwanda. Gender and Development, 21: 1, 15-30.
[8] Gender transformative approaches mean actively questioning what it means to be a man and a woman in society and in challenging inequitable gender norms and power imbalances.
[9] Kato-Wallace, J., Barker, G., Eads, M., & Levtoc, R. (2014). Global pathways to men’s caregiving: Mixed methods findings from the International Men and Gender Equality Survey and the Men Who Care study. Global Public Health: An International Journal for Research, Policy and Practice. 
[10] Barker, G. (2014). A Radical Agenda for Men’s Caregiving. Institute of Development Studies. IDS Bulletin 45.
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