Women in low and middle-income countries provided as much as three times more additional, unpaid child care than men during the pandemic, according to a new study from the Center for Global Development.
The study, which aggregates data from the United Nations, the World Bank, UNESCO, the OECD and the Austria-based research collaborative Wittgenstein Centre, estimates that, on average, each woman caring for a child provided up to 173 additional hours in child care from the time schools closed to October 2020, compared to only 59 additional hours from men. In middle and low-income countries, those figures increased, with women providing an average of 217 additional hours while men provided 70. These additional hours spent taking care of children — a consequence of mass school closures — were wholly uncompensated.
Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the CGD, says that although all parents provide unpaid care work in a normal year, school closures added an extra burden of care work that made it particularly difficult for poor families to function.
“In a normal year, this care would be provided by preschool teachers and school teachers,” Kenny says. “And that’s all gone away. The teachers were paid and now suddenly that care burden has switched over to a bunch of people who aren’t paid to do the work. All parents, me included, do unpaid care in a normal year. But this is care that, in a normal year, would be provided by paid providers and is now being provided in addition to the usual care work that poor parents do.”
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Pre-pandemic, women globally provided an average of 4.5 trillion hours of unpaid child care per year, while men provided 1.4 trillion. After the pandemic hit, the study reports that the total number of hours in unpaid child care went up by 12%.
The gender gap in child care is connected to the gender gap in pandemic-related unemployment, but it doesn’t explain it entirely, Kenny says. While female unemployment grew more than male unemployment during the pandemic, this doesn’t entirely account for the gender gap in child care — implying that women are taking on the majority of the additional child care hours, even when they have other commitments.
“More women-owned businesses closed than men-owned businesses, but if you look at those gaps — they’re big and they matter — but they are small compared to the kind of numbers we’re seeing when it comes to the extra child care being provided,” he says. “That suggests that women would just have to juggle even more than usual last year. You may not easily see that in the economic statistics because it doesn’t pop up as a lost job or a closed down business.”
Among the 24 low and middle-income countries surveyed, the study indicates that caregivers in India — one of the worst hit countries in the pandemic — performed the most unpaid child care, amounting to 176 billion hours in additional, unpaid child care across the country. The gendered gap was most pronounced in India, as well, with women performing 360 more hours in child care than they would in a normal year over the course of the pandemic while men only took on 33 additional hours in unpaid child care.
Kenny credits India’s high numbers to a combination of long school closures, its high population, and the presence of pre-existing gendered divides in child care that were only exacerbated by the pandemic.
However, not all low and middle-income countries saw their gender gaps in child care widen. In South Africa, while women still supplied the major share of the additional child care, evidence from the CGD report suggests that during the height of the country’s lockdown, the “distribution of labor may well have been more equal than prior to the pandemic.”
Although low and middle-income countries are more likely to have higher populations of children, wealthy countries are not exempt from the gender gap in child care. While women in low and middle-income countries provide about three quarters of the care workload, women in high-income countries still provide an estimated two-thirds of the child care workload.
In Canada, for instance, although both men and women reported a 39% increase in the number of hours they were providing child care per week, women were already providing over double the amount of hours in child care than men pre-pandemic, according to a report from the National Institutes of Health. Women in Canada in households with children also reported lower mental health scores than men in households with children, the report states.
The CGD report states that the consequences of the pandemic’s increased gender gap in child care will extend beyond schools reopening.
“The emotional toll on families of this last year isn’t something that’s instantly going to go away,” Kenny says. “A lot of people are going to — and when I say a lot of people, I mean mostly women — are going to be feeling burnt out. They are in an unsustainable situation. They’ll have used up a lot of reserves. And, and I don’t think that, you know, goes away, especially in developing countries; one of the things about being in poverty in a low income country is the emotional stress of daily life is always higher.”
Zoya Wazir is a student at George Washington University and a News intern.