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Childcare for Working Mothers: why is it not prominent on the international development agenda?


Development Pathways

Increasingly, developed countries are recognising that free childcare needs to play a prominent role in employment and social protection policy. For example:

  • From August this year, all German children will have the right to a place in day-care to enable their mothers to take a job (see article). Germany has realised that, as its population ages and its labour force shrinks, it needs to encourage more women into work.
  • recent study in the UK has indicated that placing children into childcare while their mothers work has no negative impacts on children: they have the same emotional and cognitive development as children whose mothers stay at home.
  • The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s recent analysis of social security reforms in the UK indicates that the provision of free childcare significantly increases incentives for mothers to take employment.
  • In a recent Pathways’ Perspectives, we explained how free childcare is one of the main reasons for lower child poverty in OECD countries. Working mothers add substantially to the family income, thereby lifting many families above the poverty line. Childcare is particularly important for single mothers. In fact, it is likely that free childcare has a greater impact on child poverty than cash benefits.

So, why does childcare receive so little attention in international development? Many children in developing countries would clearly benefit if their mothers could return to work after giving birth. In fact, in India childcare was recognised by the 2002 Commission for Labour as one of the three main issues causing insecurity for poor women. The absence of childcare services in developing countries can cause significant harm to children. In Bangladesh, for example, many women employed by factories are forced to leave work when they give birth, just at the point in their lives when they need more cash to care for their children. Few factories in Dhaka provide childcare for their female employees and government provision – while it exists – is minimal and probably captured by the better off. The same situation occurs in other countries where garment factories are prominent. 

However, in the absence of childcare services, many women have no choice but to return to work. Yet, this has consequences for others. Some mothers are forced to withdraw their older daughters from school to care for their younger siblings while others seek support from the children’s grandmothers. While grandmothers with pensions are in a better position to provide care, the reality is that, across developing countries, most older women are still without a pension. If they provide care, they themselves may have to leave work, placing the overall extended family in a worse financial position. 

Few international development agencies have recognised the importance of providing childcare. AusAID is one exception and, in its Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Strategy, it commits to looking for innovative solutions for the care of young children, as a means of supporting women’s economic empowerment. However, I’m not yet aware of practical examples of formal childcare being implemented by international agencies, at least not at scale. It would be useful to hear of any.

Childcare for working mothers needs to rise up the development agenda, in particular in urban centres within developing countries. It needs to be part of a continuum of care for children that includes Early Childhood Development centres – which should be provided full-time and not just for half days – through to school. Greater investment in childcare will help both national economies and working families. 

Childcare services may even partially pay for themselves. The increased incomes of women in work will provide governments with taxes – even through indirect taxation such as VAT – which can be reinvested in childcare services themselves. Indeed, another additional benefit will be the jobs provided to those women employed as carers, a form of social “public works” which is likely to have more sustainable benefits than much of the infrastructure built by workfare programmes.

At the very least, in our work advising agencies and governments, Development Pathways will continue to promote greater investment in childcare. You never know, one day we may even convince the right people of its value and begin to see some real change.