Unpaid care work: facilitating systemic change towards women's economic empowerment

Market systems interventions designed to support women to engage in economic opportunities are often based on assumptions around the elasticity of women’s time. However, they fail to recognise household roles and responsibilities to care for children and others, or the unpaid work that facilitates care, such as providing food or fuel. Where programmes ignore these roles, it can be detrimental for both development outcomes and market activities.

IDS and Oxfam provide, through this research, guidance to practitioners to understand unpaid care and how it interacts with markets, along with tools for analysis and practical examples of programme interventions that target problematic aspects of care through facilitation approaches.


The provision of care is a social good and a valuable activity that is essential for maintaining society, including the functioning of markets. These responsibilities occupy the majority of work hours for rural families, and mostly fall to women. While many women feel empowered, and derive satisfaction from these responsibilities, unpaid care becomes problematic when it is invisible, highly unequal and an extremely heavy burden. This will result in time poverty, poor health and well‐being, limiting women’s mobility and perpetuating women’s unequal status in society. Research shows that heavy care work also impacts overall economic productivity, growth and poverty reduction. For example, unpaid care affects private-sector actors and markets through impacts on: (i) product quality and productivity; (ii) supply chain reliability; (iii) workforce stability; and (iv) customer attraction. Therefore, for programmes that target women’s empowerment, heavy and unequal unpaid care will likely be a system-level constraint. 

To date little has been published to support market systems programmes understanding and address unpaid care work. This research fills that gap by presenting approaches and tools to analyse the interaction between unpaid care work and market systems approaches. It is the first attempt at integrating theoretical insights and practical experiences on unpaid care from the market systems and gender fields. The knowledge is based on the insights produced together with a community of practitioners, donors and experts from both the gender and markets systems fields, and practical programme experiences. The ideas were tested – first, at a peer learning session led by the Institute of Development Studies and Oxfam at the 2015 SEEP conference, and then in the context of an existing women’s economic empowerment programme in Ethiopia. Through this process the report has sought to understand:

  • how heavy and unequal unpaid care work constrains women’s economic empowerment through markets – and how this can be framed within market systems
  • what tools exist to identify and diagnose the root causes of constraints arising from unpaid care work, and how these can be adapted to a market systems approach 
  • what solutions might address these root causes
  • the potential for interventions to be implemented through a facilitation approach.


To receive updates on this research please email Sara.