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  • Writer's pictureRachana Kadikar

How To Tackle Gendered Unpaid Labor Disparities in Developing Countries

One of the largest issues that burdens women around the world is the unequal division of unpaid labor. Unpaid labor is a broad spectrum of household work that one performs without the goal of compensation or benefits. This could include routine housework such as washing the dishes or laundry, shopping for necessary goods, taking care of children and the elderly, and other economically invisible unpaid activities related to maintaining a household. I will explore policy options to redistribute the gender disparities in unpaid labor for those in less developed economic, social, and political conditions.


In the past century, the use of family planning has increased exponentially. Family planning is defined as controlling the number of children a family has either artificially through contraception and sterilization methods or naturally through abstinence and as a result of cultural views about the use of family planning methods. Family planning and labor force participation for women are closely intertwined. A study done in India shows that in rural villages, being visited by a family planning public worker leads to women being more likely to participate in the labor force, a method even more effective than government policies that supported household income and promoted employment. A reason why previous government policies in South Asian countries haven’t been as effective in increasing job and earning opportunities as alternatives is because they tend to preserve existing social stereotypes by providing work in traditional care-based work and part-time work.

Family planning can help reduce poverty in developing areas, as pregnancy and childcare pose hefty costs to families, especially when they aren’t ready for it. Around 218 million women annually worldwide turn to unsafe alternatives to avoid pregnancy due to lack of information or lack of support from communities, often with hopes of being able to still work. Investments that destigmatize family planning, as well as raise awareness about it, like the social workers in India, can help propel those in developing countries toward gender equality and away from constraining traditional gender roles. An important step towards achieving gender equality, especially in unpaid labor, is increasing the use of family planning methods so that women can devote their time to more paid and productive endeavors than be forced to spend their time pregnant or taking care of children whose families cannot sustain financially.

In sub-Saharan Africa, research has shown that the current conditions of child-bearing without adequate family planning resources reduces the growth rates of the economies, with the hardest-hit members within them being women. When contrasting data from Southeast Asia and Africa, studies link higher growth levels and lower poverty levels to investment in family planning. Women with access to family planning are more likely to gain an education, marry later, live healthier lives, have more economic opportunities and higher amounts of family assets in the long-run, and raise daughters who are better educated and more likely to work. When assessing the direct impact that family planning has on reducing gender disparities at work, research shows that every additional child a woman has makes the woman less likely to engage in paid work. Especially in developing countries, women are likely to engage in a majority of the unpaid childcare work, while the men in heterosexual relationships spend more of their time working to financially sustain the rest of the family. With family planning, couples will likely have kids later and will be more likely to only have them when they can financially sustain them, keeping families out of poverty and away from continuing the positive feedback loop that keeps women in restricting traditional roles.


Equal access to education opportunities remains an issue, with almost 5 more million girls globally never entering a classroom than boys, and significantly fewer girls moving onto a secondary school than boys, especially in regions like Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Parents might be less motivated to send their daughters to school, believing it’s not a good investment, and over 15 million underage girls are instead put into child marriages. These practices remain due to notions that women are inferior to men, and that women’s value comes from motherhood and caregiving. The lack of education for many young women directly correlates to performing higher levels of unpaid labor in their futures and other gender inequalities due to education being a “multiplier right”. When women gain an education, they can also obtain other rights such as working, owning property, voting, and reproductive rights (among others); they are also less likely to be restricted within abusive households.

Eliminating school fees can increase enrollment significantly, as demonstrated through several African countries: Ghana’s enrollment increased by 12%, Kenya’s enrollment increased by 18%, Ethiopia’s increased by 23%, and Malawi’s increased by 51%. By wiping out the cost of attending school, parents will be less likely to prioritize their sons’ educations over their daughters’, and more girls will receive an education instead of spending their childhood years in unpaid labor. Once women begin getting an education, they can perform more paid work, a cycle that ensures that their subsequent daughters will also be likely to gain an education, which overall leads to an increase in women’s labor force participation in the long run. This is a valuable goal for countries who struggle with low literacy rates and high poverty rates, especially if the gender disparity in school attendance is significant. Similarly, simply educating parents on the potential benefits of putting their children in school can produce significant results, as demonstrated by Madagascar, in which providing children with information about the value of school can result in benefits six hundred times the cost of $2.30 it takes to educate the parents of each child. After this generation enters school, they won’t need to understand the benefits of education and will likely put their children into school without additional persuasion.

Not only is enrolling girls in school important, the length and quality of education of these children who are attending school are also valuable components to address. Many parents with limited resources to send their children to school believe that the returns of education operate in an s-curve, in which there are lower returns from primary education than secondary and later education. Therefore, they tend to invest in an education for only one or a few children, thinking they’ll get the most returns from this method. In reality, there exists more of a linear return of future earnings to education, indicating that putting all children of a family for the same amount of years can yield similar, if not better results for the financial progression of families. With the former mentality guiding parents’ decisions on how to send their children to school, parents would likely prioritize sending their sons to school over their daughters. As previously discussed, sending girls to school poses major benefits in their futures, as well as for promoting gender equality in future generations. The most effective policy is likely one that simply shares this information with families and encourages people in countries that tend to send only a few of their children to school to send all their children to some kind of school.


Much of our morals and world-views are based on what we were exposed to as children. Therefore, younger generations are a valuable group to target to achieve significant change in societal mentality in the long term.

In countries with relatively high dropout rates, especially with major gender disparities in secondary school dropouts, it’s incredibly important to reduce stereotypes that women should do more of the household tasks and chores. A study of over 3000 children in India demonstrates that secondary school dropout rates are 47% higher for those who spend over three hours on household chores than those who don’t. With women ultimately doing the vast majority of the unpaid household work, especially in countries like India where women are spending 300.1 more minutes daily on unpaid work daily, it is vital to reduce the stereotypes about who should be doing the unpaid work in the home.

Mexico began an income support program known as Prospera that provides cash payments if parents send their children to school and they are regularly attending. As a result of this program, the amount of unpaid work girls were doing was reduced by one hour a week, and school enrollment for girls increased by 20%.

Policies like WE-Care — an integrated Oxfam initiative — target individual norms and have demonstrated highly promising results for reducing disparities in unpaid labor, especially when they target both parents and are in high contact for 6–18 months. WE-Care worked to change norms and technology to save time on unpaid labor. Eventually, the female to male ratio increased by 300% in Ethiopia, and paid hours increased by 8 hours a week. Individual norm policies are especially useful for countries that have cultures that highly emphasize the practice of girls and women doing household work, as educating them and individually speaking and working with these families and communities have shown to make great differences just through the means of information. These policies have a high impact in changing attitudes around gender roles, with boys and men participating more in housework and childcare afterwards. Although somewhat difficult to scale due to diverse audiences and relatively expensive, targeting individual norms has high potential to change the way families approach parenting their sons and daughters, creating long-lasting change in gender stereotypes.

Zimbabwe initiated a project in an attempt to de-feminize caregiving and shape gender norms to hopefully lead men to assume more and equal caring responsibilities. This project began with hopes of redistributing some of the burden that women were facing of having to care for HIV and AIDS patients. Zimbabwe, a relatively patriarchal society, used Africare to promote the idea that men should pridefully take on prevention, care, and supportive roles. In general, policies that attempt to change population-wide norms, such as ad-campaigns and commercials, have shown promising results, with increased labor force participation rates for women, increased awareness about men sharing responsibilities, and increased childcare institutions.

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