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Unpaid care work - the burden on girls

Unpaid care work – the burden on girls

Our study, Real Choices, Real Lives, tracks the lives of 142 girls across nine countries from their birth until the age of 18.

It shines a light on the girls’ opportunities, choices and realities – placing our understanding within an appreciation of their broader contexts. As such, we are able to explore how their life paths and outcomes are influenced, providing valuable evidence to inform policy and programming.

We know that women across diverse contexts carry a disproportionate share of unpaid care work responsibilities.

In 89% of households, women and girls do the majority of household chores. Yet girls’ experiences of unpaid care work have often been considered alongside (or subsumed within) those of women.

In 2017, the girls in our cohort study turned 11. At this critical point in their lives – when they are gaining both increased responsibilities, as well as increased autonomy – we turned our attention to understanding how unpaid care work at home impacts on their lives both within and outside the home.

Here we share some key findings from our recent report, launched at the Commission on the Status of Women in New York in March this year.

‘Women’s work’ and being a ‘good’ girl

We observe that girls grow up surrounded by expectations that they will undertake certain activities. From as young as five, they are taught chores, often defined by gendered roles and divisions within families and communities. These become more pronounced during early adolescence.

Men don’t do domestic work, only women do this… As an example, my mother always draws the water and my father has never done it, because the women cannot stand by and watch the men doing it.

Alice, Benin

Indeed, the domestic sphere is ‘women’s work’. Girls support their mothers within the home: cooking, cleaning, looking after siblings and collecting food. They learn that doing these things is what being a ‘good’ girl means.

A good girl is well-behaved at home, and well-dressed. She must be good for everything and can help do all housework. A good boy should be the same. He should help us, but he should not do much housework.

Sothany’s father, Cambodia

To be a good daughter, I should do housework and do what my parents want. Good girls behave well at home and do everything they are told to do. My parents make me and my sisters work much harder than my brothers and my sisters and I think they’re right.

Reine, Togo

Filling the gap: too much work at home, too little time at school

Every single girl in our study reported spending time on responsibilities. They find it difficult to ‘fit everything in’, and are left with limited time to play (an important aspect of childhood development), to do homework, and/or to rest.

Although aspirations for girls’ futures and educational achievements are high, these are constrained by the realities of the contexts in which they live.

Often, the need for girls to undertake responsibilities is linked to wider strains experienced by households. Poverty and disadvantage drive mothers and other family members to undertake paid work away from home. Health shocks and challenges are a burden.

In the absence of alternative options, unpaid care falls to girls to ‘pick up’. And, because of this, girls are frequently missing school and families are forced to make difficult decisions about supporting their education.

Sometimes, my mother asks me to be absent [from school] in order to take care of my younger siblings, because she is busy harvesting rice.

Nakry, Cambodia

Sometimes I have to take care of mommy if she’s sick. Sometimes I can do something for her, like if she can’t get up. That is why I hardly go to school.

Valeria, El Salvador

When they are at school, girls undertake different responsibilities than their boy counterparts, finding it difficult to escape ‘female’ roles of cleaner and carer. Nearly all of the girls said they have more responsibilities than male pupils – with implications for their learning potential.

Overall, girls consistently report spending more time on unpaid care work compared to their families’ reports. Twice as many girls said they have more than two hours of unpaid work a day than their parents.

Building equality at home: progress and challenges

Whilst gendered expectations are embedded early in girls’ lives and are often unquestioned ('it’s just the way it is'), there are indications of resistant attitudes amongst girls and their families.

Female household members especially spoke about sharing responsibilities and raising children to undertake work equally. Even though they often reflected limitations in being able to make this a reality, it was important and something to aim for as ‘progress’.

I think it is not fair. When [boys] grow up and have families, they should help each other. I don’t know how to make changes…

Lina’s mother, Cambodia

I say, you have to learn, my son. Because when you go away, nobody’s gonna do this for you. Yes, I always tell the boys they have to do the same things – it’s no shame.

Natalia’s mother, Brazil

Yet, despite this, in describing the actual division of responsibilities, female household members reported that the majority are still undertaken by women and girls.

Whilst attitudes towards gender equality within households are changing, there is a way to go still in bringing about concrete changes in behaviour.

Looking to the future

Despite signs of change and resistance, we see that gendered expectations surrounding girls’ lives are already defined by the time they reach adolescence, with wider community influences holding these firm.

The impacts of missed schooling are likely to have lasting effects on their lives – limiting them not only academically, but in terms of their future job prospects as well as their self-confidence. And having limited time to play and socialise is significant for girls’ development.

Combined, these phenomena risk ‘confining’ girls to certain life trajectories which are likely to reinforce gendered divisions and responsibilities into future generations, unless challenged.

There is need to ‘intervene’ much earlier in childhood, and to build on significant progress to date in order to recognise, reduce and redistribute unpaid care work through policies and programmes.

This blog was originally published on 26 April 2018.