Women’s work: mothers, children and the global childcare crisis

Oxfam Economics, Gender


Both women and children are suffering as a result of a global childcare crisis and a lack of policies to address the childcare deficit argues Tanvi Bhatkal, Research Officer at the Overseas Development Institute.

Families around the world are squeezed between the twin demands of work outside the home and that inside it. These conflicting demands have been contributing to a ‘care gap’ with negative impacts on mothers and other carers as well as children. Yet, the care related concerns of children and their parents are almost invisible in the data and in policymaking.

An increasing number of women are entering the workforce out of either choice or necessity – but this has costs.

Children are missing out on quality care

Too often, children receive inadequate care. Our recent ODI report found that there simply isn’t enough care to go around. Household survey data collected by UNICEF from 53 low- and middle-income countries shows that, on average 20% of children under-five were without adult care in the week prior to the survey – left alone or in the care of a sibling under the age of ten. Although these countries represent only 20% of the world’s
under-five population, this amounts to over 35.5 million children – more than the total under-five population in Europe. More children in the poorest countries and from the poorest families are left alone.

there simply isn’t enough care to go around This can be damaging to children as care is critical to child wellbeing, with many studies finding early childhood nurturing impacts cognitive development, schooling and labour market outcomes.

Yet, this is no reflection of the love of their parents. Rather it is often symptomatic of the difficult choices facing parents – mostly mothers – who have to balance caring for their children and earning a living to support their families.

Unequal distribution of care is holding women back

Attitudes towards care and the primacy of the maternal role in its provision remain conservative in many parts of the world. As a result, women – who are primarily responsible for care work – often pay a high price as well. According to data assembled by Jacques Charmes from surveys in 66 countries representing two-thirds of the global population, women (including those who do paid work) spend an average of over three times as much time as men do on unpaid care. Data on time spent directly on childcare
available for 37 countries indicates that women typically undertake three-quarters of childcare.

Care responsibilities… affect the types of jobs women do, how productive they are and how much they earn. The unequal distribution of care sometimes holds women and girls back from advancing in other areas of their lives. And it isn’t just mothers bearing this cost. Often this unpaid care is also borne by adolescent and even younger girls. Evidence from the Young Lives project in Ethiopia suggests that 52% of rural girls between five and eight years old are engaged in care work
compared to 38% of rural boys – and that one-quarter of these young girls spend three or more hours daily on unpaid care.

Care responsibilities not only reduce possibilities for female education and inhibit labour force participation, but also affect the types of jobs women do, how productive they are and how much they earn. In some settings, women are more likely to work part-time, and in others to seek informal employment that may be more readily reconciled with caring responsibilities.

Where women do not work or forfeit more productive opportunities due to care obligations, the cost is immense, in terms of both their potential and the economic cost to society. For instance, a 2015 study values the unpaid work undertaken by women at up to $10 trillion yearly, or about 13% of global GDP.

Policies to address the childcare deficit are needed

It is evident that addressing the childcare deficit is good for mothers and other carers, good for children, and good for society. Yet policy is failing to address these gaps.

Often policies only include women working in formal sector jobs, with labour market provisions that let parents take time off, protect breastfeeding and provide crèches. While important, these don’t serve the vast majority of women who work in the informal sector in the developing world. In India, for example, less than 1% of women receive paid maternity leave. Policymakers and development
partners need to identify ways to extend labour market policies to these women.

In addition, social protection policies should adopt integrated, multi-generational approaches and recognise that income is only one of families’ many needs. Families need wider support for young children, their older siblings, their parents and, where appropriate, their grandparents.

…including men in caregiving agendas requires explicit action. For instance, early childhood care and education (ECCE) benefits both children and parents. But existing programmes are usually centred exclusively on the needs of small children with a focus on school readiness. ECCE could be better leveraged to meet the needs of mothers and other caregivers as well. For instance, programmes could run for hours that align more closely with the schedules of mothers’ work and older siblings’ school. And where full-day
programming is not possible, more recreational before- and after-school care would help.

Although provisioning of quality services is expensive, unless it is subsidised providers invariably receive low wages and facilities may be substandard. Governments and development partners should work to realise the value of paid care and aim to raise the wages of paid caregivers.

Finally, the pervasiveness of gender norms means that including men in caregiving agendas requires explicit action. In this regard, community-based organisations and educational sessions supported by social protection programmes, health clinics and schools could help fathers see themselves as central to their children’s development.

Overall, there is an urgent need to solve the global care crisis. It must start with the day-to-day realities of the lives of children and their caregivers, embedding within policies and programmes an understanding that women’s time is a precious resource that must be used carefully – to benefit themselves, their children and societies as a whole.

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Photo: Pushpa Rawat, lives with her family in Poorvideen Kheda Busti, a colony of 173 households, in the city of Lucknow, India. Credit: Tom Pietrasik/Oxfam

Author: Tanvi Bhatkal
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.