Unpaid work, poverty and women’s human rights

At the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly (October 2013), the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona, submitted a report concerning unpaid work, in particular unpaid care work and women’s human rights.

Unpaid care underpins all societies, contributing to well-being, social development and economic growth. It involves domestic tasks (such as meal preparation, cleaning, washing clothes, collecting water and fuel) and direct care of persons (including children, older persons and persons with disabilities) carried out in homes and communities. It is estimated that if unpaid care work were assigned a monetary value it would constitute between 10 and 39 per cent of GDP. However, it is generally unrecognised and under-valued by policy-makers and legislators.

How societies address care has far-reaching implications for gender relations, power relations and inequalities, as well as human rights enjoyment. The costs and burdens of care are unequally borne across gender and class: care is predominantly done by women and girls, and research shows that the time and difficulty of engaging in unpaid care work are linked to levels of poverty.

Heavy and unequal care burdens may curtail the enjoyment of human rights by women and girls, including their rights to education, work, social security and participation, as well as to rest and leisure. Systematically unequal distribution of care work and household chores between women and men also raises concerns in terms of the right to equality and non-discrimination and the obligations of States in this regard. Inadequate State policies and practices regarding unpaid care may also undermine or violate women’s rights to the highest attainable standard of health and an adequate standard of living. In addition, when care work is not adequately recognised or supported by the State, the rights of those who rely on care provision for their health, life and wellbeing may also be violated.

Despite considerable research on care, emanating largely from the disciplines of feminist economics and social policy research, the subject has rarely been tackled from a human rights perspective. The Special Rapporteur’s report will ultimately aim to develop a normative framework based on human rights. The objective of the report is: (1) to analyse the effect of unpaid care on poverty, human rights and women’s economic empowerment; (2) to clarify the human rights obligations of States with regard to unpaid care; and (3) to provide recommendations to States on how to recognise, reduce and redistribute unpaid care work, with a view to realizing the human rights of women and tackling their disproportionate vulnerability to poverty.

The Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Magdalena Sepúlveda, invited States, United Nations departments and agencies, national human rights institutions, civil society organizations, individuals living in poverty and social exclusion and other relevant stakeholders to send contributions to the report in the form of research studies, reports and examples of relevant policies or programming.

The questionnaire that was sent by the Special Rapporteur to States can be accessed here in English, French and Spanish:

  • To see the responses received from States click here (we have not received any State responses as yet)
  • To see the responses received from civil society click here
  • To see the responses received from National Human Rights Institutions click here

On 13 and 14 May, 2013 the Special Rapporteur convened an expert meeting in Geneva with the support of UN Women, on unpaid care work, poverty and women's human rights. The meeting brought together a small group of experts from civil society, grass roots organizations, UN agencies and academia working in diverse fields including economics, social policy, development and human rights. Participants at the meeting analysed the impact of unpaid care on poverty and human rights, in particular gender equality and women’s economic, social and cultural rights and discussed the human rights obligations of States in developing a human rights framework with regards to unpaid care. The meeting was used to inform the Special Rapporteur's report to the General Assembly in October 2013.

Biographies for those who participated in the meeting can be accessed though the following link