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In 2015, the Sustainable Development Goal 5 (Gender Equality) target 5.4 “recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate” calls States to take action and promote equal distribution of paid and unpaid work in households to achieve gender equality and sustainable development. The care economy, which has gained significant attention in political agendas in the last years, consists of both paid and unpaid care work. Care work involves direct care tasks such as caring for dependents – children, family members who are sick, older persons and persons with a disability – as well as indirect care tasks, such as cooking, cleaning, domestic work and the collection of fuelwood and water. While females participation in the labour market has increased in Asia and the Pacific, women continue to spend four times more on unpaid care work compared to men.

This policy brief examines the low rate of female labour force participation in Asia and the Pacific and its correlation with persistent inequalities in the distribution of care responsibilities between men and women as well as the society and the State. The research presented here highlights the critical role of unpaid care work in the promotion of female participation in the labour market. It focuses on a care economy lens to shed light on the benefits that increasing female labour force participation represents for sustainable economic growth in Asia and the Pacific. It concludes with a call for action to invest in the care economy to build a more equal society in which care responsibilities are equally shared in households and care-related policies, services, infrastructure, and employment policies are promoted to positively affect economic growth and GDP in the region.

Three key findings emerge from this policy brief. First, an overview of females’ labour force participation rates shows the relation between low women’s labour participation and gender bias and segmentation in the formal and informal sectors in the region. Second, a care economy lens is crucial for the analysis of gender gaps in labour force participation in the region. Women’s time allocation in unpaid care work is a key source of inequality between women’s and men’s participation in the labour market. And so is the motherhood penalty that women encounter in the labour market and the lack of care-related policies which emphasise cultural and social expectations of women as family caregivers. Third, the centrality of the care economy to enhance female labour force participation is not only significant to redress gender inequalities but also to promote economic growth. Investing in the care economy is a transformative measure to increase female labour force participation while boosting economic growth and GDP. In doing so, the priorities for action should enhance policy measures based on four care-sensitive policy categories: care infrastructure, care-related social protection, care services and employment-related care policies to expand family-friendly arrangements, avoid motherhood penalties, and engage more women in quality jobs in the labour market. 

The strong correlation between promoting labour force participation and investing in the care economy calls into question the effectiveness of past and current care-related policies, social and cultural norms, gender division of labour, and the role of more gendered-economic measures for inclusive and sustainable development in Asia and the Pacific.