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  • Writer's pictureAlex Dye

COVID-19 recovery: Why childcare must be part of the plan

This article was originally published in Business Fights Poverty. Read the article here.

Written by Martha Melesse, Senior Program Specialist, Canada’s International Development Research Centre and Alex Dye, Development Manager, Kidogo Innovations

Dinnah, a mother of two living in one of Nairobi’s informal settlements, is among the millions of informal workers hit hardest by COVID-19. Before the pandemic, Dinnah earned a few dollars a day selling fruits and vegetables in the streets – barely enough to meet her family’s needs. After dropping her seven-year-old daughter off at school, she would leave her two-year old in a low-quality informal childcare centre – the only place she could afford with her meagre income. When COVID-19 hit, schools closed. The childcare centre closed. Lockdowns were imposed. With no savings or social protection, stuck at home with young children, Dinnah borrowed from neighbours and friends just to stay alive. Since restrictions have eased, she has struggled to resume business with two young children in her care. Despite the risk of infection or accidents, she often brings her girls to work.

Dinnah is not alone. A recent study by the Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) network in 11 cities on five continents reveals the toll the pandemic has taken on informal workers across different occupations. In each of these cities, it’s clear that COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on women’s livelihoods, straining the assets and endurance of informal workers. Findings from Accra, Durban and Nakuru show that, for those with young children, the stakes are even greater, with low earnings increasing food insecurity for working mothers and their children.

As countries struggle to address the economic and health costs of COVID-19, finding solutions for mothers like Dinnah will be important. Governments, donors, and businesses will need to invest in care — and will need to know what works and what doesn’t in reaching the most vulnerable families.

The crushing burden of unpaid care

According to the World Bank, nearly 350 million preschool children around the world lack access to quality care. The COVID pandemic has brought the world’s childcare crisis to a tipping point, as highlighted in a recently published evidence review that documents the steep costs of inaction.

Even before the pandemic, women did the lion’s share of care work, mostly unpaid. In 2018, the International Labour Organization estimated that over 600 million women of working age were not available for employment due to unpaid care responsibilities, compared to just 41 million men. Without affordable, quality childcare, millions of women cannot take paid work, or are pushed into insecure jobs that offer little income and no social protection. And where they don’t have access to piped water, electricity and other infrastructure, there is compelling evidence that women are physically and psychologically exhausted from working long hours, with little time to rest.

The pandemic has deepened this uneven burden on women, as school and childcare service closures create even more unpaid care work. In so doing, it has laid bare an unavoidable truth: childcare is essential to women’s economic empowerment and must be an important part of pandemic recovery. In most countries where data is available, women are currently spending more than 30 hours per week on childcare — nearly the equivalent of a full-time job.

The childcare payoff

Numerous studies in Europe and North America have shown that investments in childcare can have a direct impact on women’s employment and earnings. While there has been less research in low-income countries, evidence from an informal settlement in Nairobi has shown that subsidizing quality childcare can increase mothers’ wages and their free time.

In Kenya, the social enterprise Kidogo offers one model of how to provide affordable, safe spaces where children are nurtured. Set up in 2014, Kidogo is currently the largest childcare provider in Kenya — serving over 10,000 children and their families through a hub-and-spoke model. It partners with “Mamapreneurs” who offer informal childcare services in urban slums, helping them improve the quality and profitability of their businesses. During COVID-19 lock-downs, Kidogo provided over 60,000 early child development play packs to stimulate learning at home, and monthly conditional cash transfers to over 600 families in greatest need throughout its network. As the economy re-opens, Kidogo is helping working mothers like Dinnah regain their livelihoods.

Kidogo is learning from its work and how to build on its success through evaluation research. This effort is one of nine action research projects in East Africa supported by the multi-funder Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW) initiative that aim to help women secure better employment and reduce and redistribute their unpaid care burden.

Three takeaways for tackling the care crisis

Since the early months of the global pandemic, GrOW has worked with childcare experts in low-and middle-income countries to document and analyse the impact of COVID-19 on women’s lives and opportunities, and identify practical solutions to strengthen their livelihoods. If we are to scale up programs that make a real difference in the lives of women and their families, there needs to be widespread recognition that:

  • Childcare is not a women’s issue – it is a societal concern and needs to be addressed as such. The COVID pandemic has provided a unique opportunity to influence social norms around care. A strong policy response — and business leadership — can help build on positive innovations, contribute to women’s economic empowerment, and encourage more men to participate in unpaid care work.

  • Care work is an essential investment, not an “expense”. Investment in care — by companies, governments, and international donors — must be a priority despite calls for austerity measures.

  • More evidence is needed – including from the private sector on models that work for low-income women. Some businesses are showing the way, with family-friendly workplace policies and arrangements to support employees’ childcare needs. But informal workers don’t benefit from these arrangements. While learning from these experiences, we need bold innovations to reach those with few social protections.

Affordable, quality childcare is not a silver bullet to addressing the gender inequalities that the COVID pandemic has exacerbated. But it must be central to a broader strategy to build back better. The pandemic offers an opportunity to rethink our childcare delivery models and revisit our assumptions about whose job it is to provide care. If we are to seize this opportunity to build a better future for generations to come, data and evidence must play an important role in guiding our investments.

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