‘By sharing work we are moving forward’: Changing social norms around men’s participation in unpaid care work in Northern Uganda

In a region where women historically carried out unpaid care work and men provided economically for the family, post-civil war social change is creating opportunities for some men to subtly challenge gendered social norms.

A woman hoeing a field while carrying a child on her back
Photo: Leo Odongo CC BY-SA 4.0

Unpaid care work – from feeding a baby or nursing an ill person, to cooking, cleaning or collecting fuel and water – is essential for personal wellbeing and maintaining society. It underpins all development processes, with Sustainable Development Goal 5.4 promoting recognition of unpaid care and domestic work, and shared responsibility for care at the household level. But unpaid care work is often primarily carried out by women and girls, compromising their health, wellbeing, education and employment, and perpetuating gender inequalities. 

Normative explanations for the gendered division of labour suggest that how we divide tasks is an expression of socially constructed notions of femininity and masculinity. Across the world, gendered social norms – those that define gender-based behaviour – often assign the bulk of domestic duties to women, dictating that women and girls are expected to care and feel fulfilled doing so, and reinforcing men’s resistance to involvement in care and domestic tasks. 

Social norms do not usually change easily, especially if they involve social sanctions for non-compliance. Research suggests that gender norms around domestic roles are among the most persistent. However, even the “stickiest” norms can change, especially during social upheaval. My research explores change in gendered social norms around men’s participation in unpaid care work in post-war Northern Uganda.

Profiling changes in care work and social norms

Uprooted by two decades of civil conflict that ended in 2008, the region provides an interesting context for studying changes in social norms. Since the war, people displaced to camps by fighting have moved home, amid reconstruction programmes run by the government and international donors, often emphasising gender equality. Formal education has increased, and the region is experiencing new cultural and technological influences. As a result, some people who participated in the research believe that their traditional culture has been replaced by new, modern ideas, closely linked to education, economic development and western lifestyles. Gender often features in these tensions between tradition and modernity. 

In this context, I sought to explore whether, how and to what degree social norms around men’s participation in care work are changing. Between 2014 and 2017, I collected mixed-methods data from adults, children and adolescents in Lamwo district, Northern Uganda. Most were low-income farmers in rural areas from the Acholi ethnic group. Using survey questionnaires, focus group discussions, semi-structured interviews, spot phone calls and participant observation with adults, children and adolescents, I explored their use of time and related social norms. 

A woman’s work is never done

As with other research in Uganda and elsewhere, I found women and girls spent more time on unpaid care work and total work than men and boys, who spent more time on leisure and income-generating work. Only about half of men interviewed had spent time on care work as a primary activity the previous day, compared to the very large majority of women. These women spent most of their time awake doing at least one care activity – on average, about 13 hours a day, compared to about six hours for men. “After eating,” said one man, “I just sit, because there is nothing for me to do anymore. I maybe go to the centre to see friends, to drink, to relax.”

The data suggests social norms as a key reason for these gender differences in time-use patterns. Historically, women have been expected to carry out care and light agricultural work, while men’s role was to provide economically for the family. Men’s involvement in care work was perceived by both men and women to contrast with these ideals. Exploring whether these norms are evolving in the context of change, I found that the drivers of social change are having dialectical effects on gender norms, making rejection of care work more important for some men, while creating opportunities for others to challenge social expectations.

Social norms: reinforcement or relaxation 

Studies describe how the Northern Ugandan war disempowered men, reducing their ability to meet traditional expectations of masculinity. For some, this crisis of masculinity makes compliance with social norms that discourage men’s participation in care work more important, reinforcing existing gender norms. Not doing care work can be an easy way to meet ideals of masculinity, where other ways have become increasingly difficult. Furthermore, strong social sanctions for men who took more active responsibility for care made challenging care-related norms difficult.

However, a small minority of men made subtle, sometimes invisible, adjustments to their participation in care work, contributing to a relaxation of norms. Actively participating in unpaid care work, these men expressed three creative ways of justifying their participation without questioning ideals of masculinity:

  • Equipment: Some justified their engagement in care work by citing the increasing availability of equipment, viewing their use of tools such as grinding mills to support meal preparation, or bicycles to fetch water, as an expression of men’s strength and technical competence. 
  • Care as modern: Others emphasised that men’s participation in care work was modern, perceiving gender equality as western and forward-looking, rather than as questioning ideals of masculinity.
  • Financial benefit: Respondents portrayed sharing care work and income-generating work between husband and wife as more efficient, leading to “development” and “progress” for the family. As one man said, “When you feel that your family should grow or move forwards, you join hands.”

Talking to couples who shared care work at different points of time showed that others started accepting their more equal division of care work. A man reported: “People are seeing me as an example because we are having progress in our family … it used not to happen, but they are now changing.”

Fresh views from a new generation 

Over time, these subtle adjustments can shift social norms – especially when coupled with inter-generational differences in views about men’s participation in unpaid care work. Children and adolescents had more positive views than their parents about gender equality and sharing care work equally between husband and wife. Older men often said that they were too old to do care work, but people said that young men and boys were more likely to change. 

“In the African traditional society, cooking was for girls only, but nowadays, the world is changing, anyone can do anything,” explained an adolescent boy. “…In the time of our fathers and mothers, they said boys do their work and girls do their work. But in our time now, when we are grown, when we are old now, we can cook – no problem!”

These generational differences might mean that norms currently contested only subtly will be shaken up more in the future, causing fundamental shifts in men’s participation in care work. 

Further information

Lucia Aline Rost (2023) ‘“By sharing work we are moving forward”: change in social norms around men’s participation in unpaid care work in Northern Uganda’, Oxford Development Studies 49 (1): 39-52

Lucia Rost completed her DPhil in International Development at ODID in 2020 and is now Head of Research at Plan International.

The article on which this post is based won the 2021-22 Sanjaya Lall Prize for the best paper by a student awarded in May this year by Oxford Development Studies.