Understanding unpaid care in Ethiopia through first-hand testimonies

Rapid Care Analysis discussion group, Oromia, Ethiopia (2014)

In late November 2014, the WE-Care project conducted four Rapid Care-Analyses in the Oromia region of central Ethiopia. The purpose of the Rapid Care-Analysis was to shine a light on the unequal distribution of unpaid care work and how that affects women's lives and rights. Here, Helina Alemarye and Jane Remme explore their findings through the first-hand testimony of the women involved.

"Essat essatwa yegna sira nech"
"All work related to fire is our [women's] work"

-- Areba, a member of a Rapid Care Analysis discussion group

Rapid care analyses

In late November 2014, as part of the Women's Economic Empowerment and Care (WE-Care) project, Oxfam and the Rift Valley Children and Women Development Organization (RVCWDO) conducted four rapid care analyses (RCAs) in the Oromia Region of central Ethiopia. The purpose of the RCAs is to make the heavy and unequal care work done by women visible to women, men and their communities. Unpaid care work - the work of taking care of people - includes housework, direct care of persons and community work. The aims of the analysis were to understand the context specific situation of care and to explore some solutions for a more equitable provision of care.

Through focus group discussions, the RCAs allowed communities in the Oromia region to ask and answer important questions as such: Who provides care? How much time does it take? What are the most problematic tasks? Why are women primarily responsible for unpaid care work? What can be done to bring about positive change for women?

In one discussion group it came to light that Areba and her neighbors had never counted the number of hours they spend on care work. They were surprised by the results: women reported 12-15 hours a day of household work. The extremely long hours women spent on unpaid care were also news to us as Oxfam and RVCWDO staff. If we want women to gain more from our projects, if we want to contribute to women's empowerment, it is essential that we work to reduce the heaviness and inequality of unpaid care work. If the women in communities we are working with spend an average of 105 hours per week on unpaid care work - when will they have the time to take part in a cooperative, an enterprise or a women's group (or, for that matter, sleep)?

Women are expected to do unpaid care work, as Chaltu, a woman in one of the RCA discussion groups explained: "We are born to do this; who will do it if we don't?"

Because care work is often seen as normal or natural, it is not valued or considered as time consuming. A woman named Momina explained, "Our husbands don't understand what care work is. They say, 'why don't you come to the farm rather than staying home with a child doing nothing?'"

Yet, after the first RCA focus group discussions these deep-seated attitudes towards gender roles and the provision of care no longer seemed insurmountable obstacles. RCAs have consistently enabled women and men to recognize how much unpaid care work women do - and that this needs to change.

Challenging gender roles

Men in all four RCA discussion groups were surprised to discover the amount of unpaid care work women in their households and communities do. In comparison with women's 90-105 hours a week of unpaid care work, men reported an average of only 9 hours a week. The reactions from men were very strong and many showed a willingness to help with care and perhaps a realization that gender roles have to change. According to a man named Rufo: "The result of the analysis shows women are over-burdened with work and we men take a lot of time to rest and sleep. This has to change; we should be able to help in the house."

Women too were astounded to see how much time they spent on care work. A woman named Aberash shared: "I never knew how much I used to work; now I realize how much I am doing on unpaid care work. I also think it's important to share the domestic work between family members."

Women said, "we spend less time on paid work, but we work the whole day and the whole night". Norms and attitudes relating to gender roles were highlighted as a major contributing factor in the gendered division of labor. A striking question was raised by an old woman: "Why do boys stop helping in the house as they grow older?" Participants seemed to be puzzled about this until an elderly women sitting at the back of the room said laughingly, "Mankulo, Mankulo", which means 'feminine' in the local language Oromiffa. Boys who help in the house are seen as being feminine and not 'man enough'.

In the last discussion, participants focused on brainstorming immediate solutions that would reduce the heaviness of care work and the unequal way in which it is provided. These included: fuel-efficient stoves to reduce the time women spend gathering wood; access to contraceptives and awareness sessions on their use; sharing household responsibilities between women and men fairly; and awareness-raising across the community.

When we got towards the end of the day, looking worried, one woman jokingly said, "We should go back to our fire, it's waiting for us." Communities can be open to discussion, they can also be open to change, yet we need new approaches so that unequal care responsibilities no longer dictate how women participate and benefit from development.

Jane Remme is Oxfam GB's Programme Coordinator for Women's Economic Empowerment and Care and Helina Alemarye in our Gender Officer in Oxfam Ethiopia.

This blog was originally posted on Oxfam's Policy and Practice Website

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