Care Work is Work

March 11, 2020by Wanjiku J. Mwangi0

A couple of weeks ago, in my capacity as a blogger, I received an invitation from Oxfam Kenya to attend a breakfast media briefing they would hold on 13th February 2020 to enlighten media professionals on ‘Gendered patterns of unpaid care and domestic work ‘ At first glance, the question that came to mind was “What is care work?” I went to the Oxfam website to try and familiarize myself with the term. There were some articles on the site that descried care work and thus convinced me on the need to attend the briefing.

Breakfast was sumptuous. The spread was loooong and rich. Better yet the event was well organized and the engagement through and from the report presented was very enlightening. The guest speaker for the day Prof. Tabitha Kiriti was such an appropriate choice for the day. Not only from her presentation but her continuous interaction with those present that morning.

What is Care Work?

The Oxfam report on ‘Gendered patterns of unpaid care and domestic work in the urban informal settlements of Nairobi, Kenya’ defined it as follows:

Care work is a sub-category of work that includes all tasks that directly involve care done in service of others. It also refers to those occupations that provide services that help people develop their capabilities or the ability to pursue the aspects of their lives that they value

What is Unpaid Care Work and Domestic Work?

Unpaid Care Work and Domestic Work (UCDW) is care work that is not compensated financially. Unpaid Care Work can either be direct or indirect. Direct unpaid care work includes caring for children (feeding, bathing, clothing, nursing) and the elderly or those living with disability. Indirect unpaid care work includes all domestic work like cooking, cleaning, washing clothes and the list could go on.

UCDW is often differentiated from other forms of work because it is considered to be intrinsically motivated, implying that people are inspired to pursue care work for reasons other than financial compensation.

This narrative can be argued for until one realises that it only applies to the female gender. When the male gender is involved in any care work – direct or indirect financial compensation is expected. When the female gender does the same roles, it is because of their gender and natural abilities and inclination and thus need not be financially compensated. And that is where the wheels fall off the cart.


The report showed that women spend 11.1 hours in a 24 hour day on any care, whereas men spend just 2.9 hours of their 24 hours in any care. This is despite the fact that many of those women also work in other spaces to earn an income. The result is that women end up only spending 5.3 hours in every 24 hours on paid work which is is almost half of the amount of time men spend on paid work: 10.5 hours in every 24 hours.  Logic leads us to the reality where the economic earning power as well as all rounded (mental, spiritual, emotional, social, physical and economic) development of women takes a thorough beating from the dis-appropriate time they spend on UCDW as compared to the men.

It was quite unfortunate to listen and realise some of the reasons why women spend so much time in UCDW on any given day.

Women with access to improved water sources and healthcare facilities spent from 4 to 5 hours less per day on any care

Before we even delve into tackling the monster that is socialisation in sharing the UCDW between men and women, the reality that ACCESS to care services, infrastructure and equipment almost drops into half the 11.1 hours women spend on UCDW was a wake up call. Basic resources like washing basins, water jerrycans, a wheelbarrow, a donkey cart to fetch water would make such a difference in the daily lives of women. Having roads that are all weather, with streetlights that make them passable even at night would make such a huuuge difference. Access to medical facilities that are not hours away from homes nor too busy to attend to one immediately reduces UCDW time and inputs into time women would spend in holistically growing themselves and even earning an income.

ACCESS mostly falls under legislation, policy making and the government structures at large – both National and devolved governments. And that was one of the reasons behind this report. To provide data and facts that can be used to develop and implement policies that will first hand deal with UCDW.


Unfortunately women being the burden bearers of UCDW suffer more than time loss.

Although UCDW is a social good that is necessary for the functioning of society, too much and too heavy tasks can have negative mental and physical health effects

During the breakfast I had the priviledge of leading a conversation with a woman who lost her eyesight from UCDW. A tea flask exploded in her face and some of the particles flew straight to her eyes and she could see much. When she went to hospital, she was handed to students to perform eye surgery and the end result was full and confirmed blindness it’s been 35 years.  Her husband passed away years ago and she now lives with her daughter. Needless to say that the daughter’s unpaid care has increased as a consequence. Her story is just a tip of the iceberg, I know one too many cases of women who have developed back and knee problems from extensive carrying metal water jerrycans and large animal feeds as well as firewood on their backs for years.

From the report:

55% of surveyed women suffered from an injury, illness, disability, or other mental/physical harm due to UCDW

22% of surveyed women suffered from a serious or incapacitating injury due to UCDW


Socialization came forth is one of the greatest contributing factor to how the UCDW data stands as of now.

71% of men have never seen another man wash clothes

62% of men had never seen another man clean the house

38% of men had never seen another man take care of siblings

45% of men had never seen another man prepare meals

Our socialization greatly determines who we become, what we stand for and defend, what we perpetuate, what we hold true and dear.

As if we needed any proof of the data presented, during the breakfast a young man stood to make a contribution. One of the statements he made irked me but also reminded me of why we are where we are. He said in part:

. . .women are breasted . . .

This in support of why the statistics that women spend 11.1 hours in every 24 hours on UCDW as opposed to men spending only 2.9 hours in every 24 hours. The young man was basically repeating what he had been socialized. Women should bear the blunt of UCDW because of their physical makeup.

Social norms and perceptions are a big deal in our socialisation and how that affects our view of UCDW.

There are two important elements in understanding the role of social norms in shaping individual attitudes: what people think others do, and what people think others approve/disapprove of.

It all boils down to acceptance. First, what is accepted or not accepted by the society, while unfortunately disregarding the reasoning behind it. Second is the human innate desire to be accepted and to fit in. So that while some men do think and are convinced that something is wrong with women spending 11.1 hours in a day on UCDW, they would not be caught alive sharing those roles in their households.


The animated, informative, challenging and provocative conversation around the Oxfam report on the morning of 13th February 2020 had me walk away with many reflections.  The reality and the burden of care work for me as a woman hit me hard. I left asking myself questions on how I can become a part of the change narrative as far as UCDW is concerned. As already stated:

UCDW is a social good that is necessary for the functioning of society

The problem is when the burden of UCDW is placed on one gender at the expense of their holistic health and development.

Prof. Tabitha Kiriti spoke well and stated many ‘way forwards’ to the current 11.1 women and girls hours vs. 2.9 men and boys hours on UCDW in every 24 hours.  She brought forth the economic view of UCDW and how women need the playing field to be leveled now more than ever. The reality that 11.1 hours in the daily lives of women is not recognised as a contributor to the country’s GDP was food for thought. Prof. Tabitha stated categorically that “Women hours are not valueless” and that “The opportunity cost for every individual woman is the parameter that should be used to value her unpaid care work.”

The SDG knowledge platform put forth the following facts regarding SDG 5.4, where UCDW squarely falls:

According to recent data from some 90 countries, women devote on average roughly three times more hours a day to unpaid care and domestic work than men, limiting the time available for paid work, education and leisure and further reinforcing gender-based socioeconomic disadvantages.

Prof. Kiriti stated that:

To achieve the SDG 5.4 we need to work on ensuring that women have the same opportunities as men and are also able to take up those opportunities

The Oxfam report echoed the SDG 5.4 in its recommendations on leveling the UCDW field which it refers to as the ‘FOUR Rs’ Framework

1. Recognition 

Involves making visible the contribution of UCDW to society and the economy including through government policies, budget allocation and the collection of quantitative and qualitative data to inform policy responses

2. Reduction

Efforts include reducing the drudgery of time – and labour-intensive UCDW tasks to free up women and girls’ time to participate in education and social, political and economic life.

3. Redistribution

Efforts involve ensuring that the responsibility for UCDW is shared more equitably between women and men, and between governments, the private sector, communities and households

4. Representation

Involves ensuring the meaningful inclusion of unpaid carers in decision making about national, community and household budgets, planning, policy and decision-making processes, to ensure that UCDW is considered in infrastructure and services at all levels,


1. Access

The reality of how much ACCESS to infrastructure eases and reduces on time spent on UCDW was such a wake up call for me.

I have not stopped asking myself why most residential spaces do not have raised washing areas, including the apartment where I currently live. The spiral physical effect on women, including myself, caused by something as seemingly simple as the lack of a raised washing area cannot be ignored. What would it cost to make such a provision? What would it cost to make it a law to have raised washing areas in every residential building?

The fact that ACCESS to water resources would reduce up to 5 hours from the time women spend on UCDW should cause national counties to prioritize water points for households. Provision of fuel, washing related equipment, nearby market places can reduce unpaid care by 3-4 hours of UCWD. Women do not have to spend 11.1 hours per day undertaking UCDW. This can be reduced if they have ACCESS to infrastructure, care services and equipment. And these can be as basic as the number of wash basins or water fetching/storage containers in a household.

2. Socialisation

Another important take home for me was how much socialization has contributed to UCDW being viewed as a female role. As a mother of a son and daughters as well as a teacher to the next generation, I have become intentional in dismantling the social norms which result in women and girls bearing the burden of UCDW. I would urge parents to consciously do the same right from a young age; it’s our responsibility!

And you know what?  The report showed that

households where UCDW is shared between genders recorded stronger bonds, happiness and general well being.

Why would we perpetuate norms that lead us to anything less. In households and social spaces including religious spaces and learning spaces, we need infact we must challenge norms that are not benefiting half of the population and thus denying the entire population ability to derive maximum gains from living.

Change is not easy. Change makers do not always have it easy. But change is necessary. In the words of Ken Walibora in his book ‘Siku Njema’

Mabadiliko ni aushi (change will always happen)

It would do us well to intentionally become the catalysts of the change we envision as far as UCDW is concerned. I am determined to make my contribution, are you?

3.Role of Government and Private Sector

Policy needs to enacted that supports the equitable distribution of UCDW amongst men and women within households. Measures like:

  • adequate maternal and paternal leave (with men being encouraged to support with unpaid care while at home) We all know a man who has used their paternal leave for everything and anything else apart from its intended purpose.
  • access to good roads
  • access to social amenities like schools, hospitals and play spaces near areas of residence
  • access to utilities like water and electricity
  • flexible working hours for both men and women

But for all this to happen the first step is to acknowledge that indeed Care Work is Work. It might not e compensated monetarily but that dues not negate its seat at the work definition table. Here I will echo the first R in the Framework mentioned earlier:

Recognition – . . . making visible the contribution of UCDW to society and the economy

The social good that is UCDW is undeniable. The next step is to work towards having men and women participate equitably in the realisation of this social good while government commits to promote economic and leadership representation.

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