Today, women and girls are responsible for over 75% of all unpaid care and domestic work (UCDW) globally, contributing over three times more labour than men. Despite growing recognition from international organisations and the private sector that this issue needs to be tackled, interventions often fail to recognise the role of gender norms or are still unsure how to address them.
Individual action to foster collective change such as the #EachforEqual campaign is clearly important, but on International Women’s Day we cannot forget how unequal gender norms continue to shape and constrain women’s agency. If the development community is serious about its SDG 5 commitment to “recognise and value unpaid care and domestic work” by 2030, we need better designed programming that places gender norms at the heart of its approach.
How can programmes influence or change gender norms?
While most interventions around UCDW focus on technical fixes such as new infrastructure and time- and labour-saving technologies, which do reduce the domestic workload for women, they are not enough to address the discriminatory gender norms that underpin and exacerbate gender inequalities and are therefore less likely to support sustainable change.
ODI research has shown that gender norms are complicated and in constant flux, while changing them can take considerable time and risks backlash. But greater exposure to new ideas and practices through formal (e.g. legislation) and informal channels (e.g. conversations, role models, the media) can lead to norm change.
We found this to be true in our review of Oxfam’s WE-Care programme, which aimed to increase women’s and girls’ agency over how they spend their time, while also increasing the participation of men and boys in unpaid care activities. The largest initiative of its kind in the world, WE-Care combined advocacy with interventions to improve laundry infrastructure, provide household equipment and promote positive gender norms around UCDW in the Philippines and Zimbabwe.
What our research found
Our final evaluation of the programme showed that having a household member participating in any gender norm activity (which aimed to increase awareness and promote shared responsibility for UCDW) significantly increased the time men spent on care work. For example, men in the Philippines (who often initially believed that UCDW lessened their masculinity or was a sign of disrespect, lack of love, or mockery) on average increased their time spent on UCDW tasks by 50% after participating in the relatively brief two-and-a-half year programme.
It should however also be mentioned that some men cited improvements in infrastructure as a reason to reduce their own time spent on UCDW, arguing that women or children now required less help for physically demanding tasks. This unintended negative consequence highlights the importance of sustained male participation and understanding of gender norms activities if similar programmes are to achieve their goals.
Five recommendations for influencing gender norms
Based upon lessons learned from the WE-Care programme, here are five key recommendations for future projects to influence gender norms:
1. Use interactive approaches to foster reflection
The use of interactive and participatory workshops, community and household dialogues or communication tools encouraged reflection amongst community members and were far more effective than directive messages that simply ‘tell people what to do’.
2. Messages must be shared regularly and through a range of channels
The media campaign was a key component of the WE-Care programme and reinforced messages from community engagement, but participants often struggled to recall the messages or the different formats used. Future projects need to ensure that messages are repeated, regular, cannot be one-off and are tailored to different target groups (e.g. youths, elders, religious and local leaders, etc.). This should also be complemented by different approaches (drama/ street theatre, conversations, posters, leaflets, training, community-based dialogues, public events, etc).
3. Identify and work with members and role models from the community
Working with community members (known as care champions in WE-Care) and local leaders that are trusted, respected and know how to approach different individuals is highly effective as they can serve as role models to share new messages. However, implementers need to make sure that the information they receive is not forgotten, diluted or unintentionally changed, as was the case with some of the care champions that were part of the programme.
4. Engage men but recognise that big changes happen in small steps
Although men may agree about the importance of sharing UCDW, some may not change their behaviour through fear they will be mocked, questioned, or have their authority undermined. Making sure that men participate regularly, while breaking down change into small and easy actions, can be more effective than setting ambitious short-term goals.
5. Support long-term change through policy reform
Ultimately, programmes achieve better results when they advocate with government at different levels through institutions. In the Philippines, the involvement of institutions boosted the recognition of UCDW and resulted in government-led action including policy reform.
Thus, beyond infrastructure and household provision, long-term change on UCDW will only happen when interventions also include strategies to address the gender norms that place disproportionate responsibility for care work on women and girls. To do this, programmes need to allocate more resources to gender norms activities, while targeting men and boys through multiple approaches like those used in the WE-Care programme.