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Unpaid care work still falls on women: seven steps that could shift the balance

Boy helping man prepare food in kitchen
Men did more unpaid care work during COVID-19 lockdowns. Shutterstock

A recently released report highlights how societies could move closer to a more gender equal distribution of care work in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

One of the key findings of the report is that – at the current rate of change – it will take another 92 years before unpaid care work is shared equally between men and women. Globally, women do three times as much of the unpaid care work as men do, and make up over 70% of the paid care workforce.

In light of the work done by the State of the World’s Fathers report, East and Southern Africa countries have produced their own reports.

The State of the World’s Fathers report shows that there is some good news about men’s participation in unpaid care: it has increased due to COVID-19 lockdowns, based on surveys with men and women from 47 countries. But women’s participation in unpaid care also increased, thereby maintaining the unequal division of labour between men and women.

Women and men generally received assistance from their spouses or partners during the pandemic. But both men and women throughout the East and Southern Africa region indicated that they received more help for unpaid care work from their daughters than from their sons.

Finding a way to increase the participation of men and fathers in unpaid care work would have an important influence on a more equal distribution between women and men.

The State of the World’s Fathers report suggests seven actions that can be catalytic in this regard. These include policy initiatives, like paid parental leave, and changing the health sector to promote fathers’ involvement from the beginning during pregnancy.

The solutions

These are proposed as structural solutions:

  • Put in place national care policies and campaigns that recognise, reduce and redistribute care work equally between men and women.

  • Provide equal, job-protected, fully paid parental leave for all parents as a national policy.

  • Design and expand social protection programmes to redistribute care equally between women and men, while keeping a focus on the needs and rights of women and girls.

  • Transform health sector institutions to promote fathers’ involvement from the prenatal period through birth and childhood and men’s involvement as caregivers.

  • Promote an ethic of male care in schools, media and other key institutions in which social norms are created and reinforced.

  • Change workplace conditions, culture, and policies to support workers’ caregiving – and mandate those changes in national legislation.

  • Hold male political leaders accountable for their support of care policies, while advocating for women’s equality in political leadership.

Encouragingly, the report lists some advances that have been made in East and Southern Africa.

As an example of action that’s been taken, the report cites recent improvements to South African labour law. This aims to provide equal, job-protected, fully paid parental leave for all parents as a national policy. The law also provides 10 days of partly paid parental leave to parents who do not qualify for maternity leave and benefits.

Read more: Ghana's fathers: maternal health services must do more to help them get involved

When it comes to changing workplace conditions, culture and policies to support workers’ caregiving, the report reflects on a recent survey that showed that almost 90% of men and 83% of women were in favour of expanded paid leave for fathers. However, respondents were concerned that private companies would not be supportive.

Reports show some progress in other countries too. The recent scoping review on the State of Uganda’s Fathers report highlighted strides in creating equality in unpaid care, through ensuring a robust policy framework and increasing policy interest to optimise parenting influence. But it also noted that there were still large gaps in nationwide research on the contribution of fathers to care work.

The media form an important platform in upholding or influencing social norms. In Tanzania, child rights and gender equality advocates hosted multiple training and awareness campaigns on harmful cultural norms and traditions around parenting, gender-based violence, and violence against children. Mass media, religious institutions and even celebrities were used to push these messages.

Knock-on effects

The structural solutions indicated by the State of the World’s Fathers report could result in fathers’ increased time spent on unpaid care in other East and Southern African countries too.

The solutions suggested could also have a valuable effect on encouraging men who are not biologically related to children to take up care work.

Fathers’ contribution to care is important. But all men, especially those who are members of extended households, can contribute more to a fairer distribution of care work among caregivers.

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