Unpaid Care Work & Women’s Economic Participation Must Be Bridged

There is a need to recognise care work as work and redistribute the unequal burden from women within families to other institutions. There's evidence that in countries where unpaid care work responsibilities are equally shared, female labour force participation rate is high.

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Unpaid Care work, credit: OECD Development Matters

Image source: OECD Development Work

India will be the only country among the top five G20 economies that will have the largest working-age population by 2030. To make optimum use of this demographic dividend, the country needs to have a skilled and educated workforce, meaningfully contributing to the economy. As per the latest statistics, the labour force participation in the country stands at 57.9% with a significant gender difference. In spite of a steady increase in the female literacy rate and a decline in the fertility rate of the country, female labour force participation stands at an abysmal 37%.


As per the PLFS 2021-22, 60% of women are in self-employment, of whom 53% are unpaid family helpers (helping their male family members in economic activities as helpers). Lack of job opportunities and care responsibilities within families have restricted women from participating in paid work or forced them to look for low-paid part-time employment near their homes.

Unpaid care work involves direct care of children, elderly, sick, and disabled family members and indirect care activities like cooking, cleaning, washing, collecting water, and firewood, among other work. These responsibilities have been traditionally attributed to women all over the world due to patriarchal social norms. With a rapidly increasing nuclear family set-up, women are forced to shoulder these tasks along with their responsibilities to earn money for their families. As per the Time Use Survey of India, 2019, Indian men spend 173 minutes compared to 433 minutes spent by women for unpaid domestic and care work. Women who are socially and economically marginalised are more stretched in terms of time and work burden.

Why are unpaid care work activities not considered economic activities? 

Global warming and climate change exacerbate women’s care burden. As per the World Water Development Report, 2020, about 800 million people (nearly 78% of the world’s poor), most of them from rural areas are adversely impacted by climate change. Due to patriarchal structures, women are more vulnerable. On the one hand, the climate crisis adversely impacts the health of children, the elderly and the ailing, increasing care needs. On the other hand, livelihoods destroyed by global warming increase male migration in rural areas, leaving women compelled to shoulder the entire productive and reproductive work responsibilities. 

Unpaid care work activities are not considered economic activities. Since these tasks primarily take place within the households, it has remained invisible in the public eye. There is a need to recognise care work as work and redistribute the unequal burden from women within families to other institutions. The care diamond approach of Shahra Razavi from the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development identifies four main institutions that are responsible for care – family, state, market, and not-for-profit organizations. Among these institutions, the state plays an important role in providing accessible and quality care support through crèches, and daycare services for young children, persons with disabilities and the elderly. Access to these services reduces unjust care responsibilities on women and leads to equitable social organisation of care.

Why unpaid care work responsibilities must be equally shared


There is clear evidence that in countries where unpaid care work responsibilities are equally shared, the female labour force participation rate is high. A decrease in women’s unpaid care work is related to a ten percentage point increase in women’s labour force participation rate. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has predicted a possible alleviation of 27% of India’s GDP through an equal participation of women in the labour force participation. It is already established that women who focus on their career growth often face ‘marriage penalties’ and ‘motherhood penalties’ as they are forced to withdraw from the workforce during marriage and pregnancy. 

Redistributing care work from families will also create new jobs in the care sector. By 2030,  Asia will need 384 million health workers, 175.37 million childcare workers and  54 million elderly caregivers. It is indeed a large enough number to demand policy priority.  However, creating new care jobs may not help. There is a need to look at the working conditions of care workers. Even in the 21st century, care work remains undervalued both in families and in society. Care workers are not recognised as workers. In India, all care workers lie outside the purview of labour laws (except for domestic workers in some Indian states).  Thus there is a need to prioritise creating decent care jobs for motivating women to join the care economy on the one hand and enabling women to participate in full-time meaningful employment on the other.

The G20 New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration of September 2023 includes a commitment to enhancing women’s active participation in all sectors and at all levels of the economy. The Summit also ended with the vision of ‘women-led-development’. In its journey to become a developed nation, and to realise its social, economic and political goals, India needs to be gender sensitive and ‘caring’ as a nation. 

Authored by Sudeshna Sengupta and Arkja Kuthiala (The authors are members of Forum for Creches and Childcare Services)

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