The unpaid work burden: how women can protect themselves financially

The stark reality is that, in South Africa, the burden of unpaid work is still largely shouldered by women. And for as long as this status quo prevails, women will struggle to achieve true financial freedom.

Defined as labour that doesn’t involve any direct remuneration, ‘unpaid work’ generally encompasses household duties, such as cooking, cleaning, childcare, food and water collection, and more. Says Nonzaliseko Phamane, Senior Technology Leader at Metropolitan, “Although the South African constitution promotes equality, the African continent has deep-rooted patriarchal structures that see women responsible for the bulk of unpaid work.”

According to the United Nations (UN) Women: “From cooking and cleaning, to fetching water and firewood or taking care of children and the elderly, women carry out at least two and a half times more unpaid household and care work than men. As a result, they have less time to engage in paid labour, or work longer hours, combining paid and unpaid labour.

“Women’s unpaid work subsidises the cost of care that sustains families, supports economies and often fills in for the lack of social services. Yet, it is rarely recognised as ‘work’.”

“Unpaid work has a considerable impact on the literacy and ultimately employment levels of women in South Africa, with female unemployment currently residing at 33% versus male unemployment, which is pegged at 29%,” says Phamane.

South African women are often the primary caregivers at home, with mothers, sisters and grandmothers raising the children while the male family members go in search of employment. Even young girls are often viewed as caretakers or ‘family helpers’, increasing their likelihood of dropping out of school.

“Women all too often find themselves in a position where they must balance work and earning an income with the unpaid time and effort required to take care of a family, raise children and run a household. This can result in them seeking informal opportunities to earn some form of income, while not neglecting those who matter most to them.”

Another Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) paper highlights the link between unpaid work and the disparity between male and female earnings, arguing that “the gender gap in unpaid care work has significant implications for women’s ability to actively take part in the labour market and the type/quality of employment opportunities available to them. Time is a limited resource, which is divided between labour and leisure, productive and reproductive activities, paid and unpaid work. Every minute more that a woman spends on unpaid care work represents one minute less that she could be potentially spending on market-related activities or investing in her educational and vocational skills.”

Phamane says that there’s no doubt that being financially independent offers more freedom of choice.  “Ideally, in an equal society, women would have the same opportunities and resources as men, but the reality is that they don’t. For women doing a significant amount of unpaid work – which impacts their earning ability – they need to be able to advocate for themselves financially.

“Have open and honest conversations with your partner about the roles both of you play within the family as well as around your dreams, and how you can support each other in reaching these goals.  Discuss what reasonable rewards would be for both of you, she suggests.

“Watch out for state or privately sponsored programmes for women and take advantage of them. There is a focus on gender equality in South Africa and the awareness of programmes that specifically support females.” Phamane says that starting a side hustle will also assist in bringing in additional funds.

Phamane adds that if a woman is in a relationship or situation where she is doing ‘unpaid work’ while her partner earns the bulk of the income, she needs to protect her lifestyle by ensuring that she can survive should something happen to the breadwinner.

“This is where risk cover is particularly important,” says Phamane. She says that women in this position should strongly consider three types of cover:

  • Funeral cover: should the breadwinner pass away, will there be money to bury them? Funeral cover pays out quickly (usually within a day or two) to ensure that there’s immediate access to funds.
  • Life cover: should the breadwinner pass away, will there be money to pay rent or the bond?  Will there be money to pay for school fees or studies?  Will there be money to pay for daily needs?  Life cover pays out a larger amount of money that can be invested or used to pay off debt.
  • Critical Illness and disability cover: this cover will provide for the care of a loved one, should they fall ill or become disabled and lose their ability to earn an income.

Phamane says that these products will help ensure that a woman can continue taking care of their family without having to worry about where the money to survive will come from.

“In addition, making sure you or you and your partner have a will in place will also help save time, clear up uncertainty and speed up the process of wrapping up an estate after a breadwinner passes away.

“If a woman is doing a large portion of unpaid work and is not the breadwinner – either because she is a stay-at-home mom, a caregiver, someone who works part-time or earns inconsistently, or perhaps works full-time but still earns significantly less than her partner –  it is especially vital that she advocates for herself and ensures that she is protected financially should something happen to the breadwinner,” she concludes.


About Momentum Metropolitan

Momentum Metropolitan Holdings Limited (, formerly MMI Holdings Limited, is a South African based financial services group listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) in South Africa and on the Namibian Stock Exchange in Namibia.

Through our client-facing brands Metropolitan ( and Momentum (, with Momentum Multiply (wellness and lifestyle rewards programme), and our other specialist brands, including Guardrisk, Exponential and Eris Property Group, we exist to help businesses and people from all walks of life to achieve their financial goals and life aspirations.