Policies and programmes to support childcare and women's employment

Policy precedents set by now-affluent countries are not well suited to current trajectories of development in developing countries. The slow growth of formal employment and the large size of the informal sector are particularly problematic. A recent report sponsored by Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) titled “Our children do not get the attention they deserve” asks how women working in the informal economy negotiate childcare (Alfers 2016). Its findings draw from interviews and focus groups with 159 female informal workers (90% with a child under six) in six WIEGO-associated member-based organisations across five different countries.

Like the GrOW-supported IDS research summarised above, this study emphasises feedback loops that reinforce low earnings and long total workdays: women need flexible jobs in order to provide family care, but these jobs tend to be insecure and poorly paid. Mothers constantly worry about possible trade-offs between additional income and quality childcare, and they face difficulties paying for organised childcare (particularly in South Africa, where private paid services predominate), synchronising schedules (centre-based hours seldom completely coincide with their working hours), and transporting children to and from centres.

Women make use of a wide range of childcare centres (public, non-profit, pri- vate/informal, and early education centres attached to schools) and their responses clearly indicate that the type and quality of care matter as much as the quantity. The preponderance of informal sector employment highlights the limitations of employer-provided childcare programmes. The WIEGO report (Alfers 2016) recommends establishing good quality, affordable public childcare centres that meet the needs of informal and formal sector workers, with convenient locations, opportunities for parental and community-based participation, and decent working conditions for the care workers that it employs.11

While this might seem like an unrealistic wish list, additional research by WIEGO singles out several promising public childcare models (Moussie 2016). In

India, with financial support from the state, the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) established childcare cooperatives that enrol children under six at a nominal cost, providing both nutritious meals and educational activities. The municipality of Belo Horizonte, Brazil has set up a successful daycare centre in response to the demands of the local waste-pickers cooperative.

Several national childcare systems in Latin America also stand out. In Chile, for example, the government-supported Crete Contigo programme offers daycare centres for children between one and three years of age, and home-based services for those under one. In Mexico, the federal government subsidises up to 90% of the cost of daycare for children eligible through the Estancias programme. Among women bene- fitting from the programme, 18% more are now employed, working on average six additional hours each week. Estancias also provided training and employment in childcare for more than 40,000 women. " Separate research offers evidence that the Mexican programme has improved child outcomes, while increasing women’s participation in paid employment (Calderon 2014; Perez-Escamilla 2017).

Childcare provision need not be based on a single model; employer-led initiatives can both supplement and inspire public provision. A recent report published by the World Bank builds the business case for firm-level provision (Niethammer et al. 2017). In-depth case studies of ten companies operating in both developed and developing economies, and supplemental case studies of 14 other companies, demonstrate benefits such as improved recruitment and retention and greater employee productivity through reduced absences and greater work commitment. Possible employer-led supports range from the most resource-intensive (like workplace creches) to the least (information and referral services). Unfortunately, the characteristics of the relatively large and successful firms studied suggest that their employees are not very representative of the larger female workforce.

The distinction between public and employer-based provision of childcare is somewhat blurred by the growing importance of public-private partnerships and aid-supported social enterprise. For instance, Oxfam’s Enterprise Development Programme, launched in 2011, is a livelihoods programme aiming to improve opportunities for small rural enterprises, focusing particularly on women. A recent GrOW-sponsored study of one specific initiative in the Surkhet District of Nepal prompted investments in time-saving technology such as seed-sorting machines, a biogas facility, and seed collection centres (to reduce the time spent in manually carrying seeds to the market) (Ghosh, Singh, and Chigateri 2017a). Many specific case studies provide additional evidence of the need for employers, non-governmental organisations, and government initiatives to address care constraints.


The Kamali Employment Programme is a 35-day work guarantee aimed at low- income and female-headed households that mandates equal wages for men and women. GrOW research jointly carried out by IDS and ISST examines the ability of female participants to balance paid and unpaid care work. It analyses quantitative and qualitative data from a sample of 100 women engaged in paid work with at least one child under six years of age in two municipalities of Nepal, revealing the programme’s significant limitations (Ghosh, Singh, and Chigateri 2017b). Women with children under one year of age are excluded, and those with older small children find it difficult to participate. A pilot innovation that incorporated creche facilities was unsuccessful because most of the small children refused to part with their mothers. Children, as well as adults, need time to adapt to new circumstances and the reassurance that comes from wider participation.

Women participants report that many work sites are more than a one-hour walk from their homes, despite a rule to the contrary. The manual labour required is often physically exhausting. Researchers recommend a number of changes: provision of onsite childcare facilities, along with safety gear and basic amenities such as drinking water and toilets, and sufficient monitoring to ensure strict adherence to the one-hour distance limit. The programme could better achieve such goals if it employed staff to focus on the care-responsiveness of working conditions, required a minimum percentage of female participation, and encouraged women to play a larger role in its decision-making bodies, such as Ward Citizens’ Forums.


Another component of IDS and ISST research on paid and unpaid care work focuses on one of the most important components of India’s social protection policy, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) (Zaidi and Chigateri 2017). It offers a far less favourable assessment than previous research which focused primarily on the programme’s positive impact on FLFP rates.13

The public works programme entitles rural households to 100 days of waged employment, with 33% reserved for women, equal wages for men and women, and the provision of creches at worksites. Such provisions are usually seen as a means of empowering women, but a survey of 100 women and in-depth interviews with a subsample of 16 in two districts of Rajasthan concludes that MGNREGA has had a detrimental impact on the physical and mental wellbeing of women participants (Zaidi and Chigateri 2017). The unskilled hard labour leads to reports of pain and fatigue. Childcare facilities at work sites are rare and of poor quality. Women who participate tend to earn lower wages because they are forced to come late or leave early to attend to care tasks. No allowances such as lighter work assignments are made for pregnant or breastfeeding women.

Despite these limitations, most women surveyed consider MGNREGA employment vital, especially as an alternative to private employment in the agricultural lean season. Inequalities in daily wages between men and women labourers in private agricultural work are widespread and MGNREGA’s equal pay provision has improved paid work opportunities for women (Dasgupta and Sudershan 2011). Still, the programme could and should be more responsive to their care burdens.

Public investment in infrastructure could also reduce such burdens by improving rural access to water and fuel.


GrOW-sponsored research in an informal settlement of Nairobi shows that childcare centres could improve women’s income-earning opportunities, with broader implications for other areas of sub-Saharan Africa (Clark et al. 2018, 2019; see also Chapter 7 in this volume for methodological insights). This project—-jointly carried out by McGill University and the African Population and Health Research Center—used a randomised study design to assess the impact of a daycare voucher programme on WEE in an informal settlement of Nairobi. Women aged 15-49 with children between one and three years of age were identified using census data and interviewed. Most were engaged in poorly paid work of low quality (vending, cleaning, washing clothes, or domestic work) and a substantial number were unemployed. Relatively few women were able to rely on kin networks for childcare, due to geographical separation (Clark et al. 2018). Fathers played a very limited role in caregiving, and sibling care was considered detrimental both in terms of the quality of care provided and the impact on the education of the older sibling.

Many mothers engaged in income-earning activities that precluded bringing their children along. As a result, about a third paid for daycare centre services, despite the high price, which averaged about 17% of the women’s monthly wages. Many of them saw centre services as advantageous to their children’s development, a perception validated by research findings that children attending daycare were less likely than others to suffer from cognitive delay. Though these findings do not establish a causal relationship, they support the study’s conclusion that formal centre-based childcare plays a central role in allowing mothers to balance work and childcare obligations (Clark et al. 2018).

Women who received 12 monthly childcare vouchers for the period from January to December 2016 were 17% more likely to be employed than those in the study who were not (Clark et al. 2019). In addition to being more likely to be employed, mothers who worked for pay were able to earn the same amount of income despite working about five fewer hours per week. Affordable daycare could be the “key to unlocking women’s earning power in Africa”.


GrOW-supported research conducted by IDS in partnership with the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee’s Research and Evaluation Unit in Rwanda demonstrates that improvements in women’s income and position in the household do not necessarily help them reduce the demands of unpaid care. ActionAid Rwanda (AAR)’s Food Security and Economic Empowerment project in Muko targets vulnerable smallholder farmers, including 1,200 women and 300 men. It aims to improve their food and economic security through increased agricultural profitability (Kennedy and Roelen 2017). Initiatives include farmer cooperatives, community seed banks, a maize processing plant and storerooms, and agricultural training sessions. The researchers recommend that AAR could: (1) build infrastructure directly or in concert with the state to reduce care loads; (2) expand the project’s literacy development centres, where women leave their children while they work; and (3) include care-sensitive and gender-disaggregated indicators in monitoring and evaluation, and train staff to use them.

The research also finds that Rwanda’s Vision 2020 Umurenge Programme, a national social protection scheme that aims to eradicate extreme poverty', appears to intensify rather than mitigate women’s total work burdens. The programme combines public works, credit provisioning, and unconditional cash transfers for households not eligible for public works (Murphy-McGreevey, Roelen, and Nyamulinda 2017). Women greatly value the income provided, and describe increased expenditures on food, education, and health that improved their families’ wellbeing. However, they also describe longer workdays that undermine their health and general wellbeing. As with the AAR project in Muko, research finds that gender norms limit the redistribution of care work, leaving women exhausted.


The Chinese government’s distinctive development strategies have yielded relatively high rates of economic growth since 1978. Systems of collective and state-provided care provisioning that existed in the Mao era were dismantled, while rural-to-urban migration increased dramatically as employment shifted from agriculture to industry. Fertility rates declined rapidly, tilting the age structure of the population toward the elderly. Both educational attainment and health outcomes improved (Li et al. 2017). Data available from several national surveys make it possible to trace some impacts of these changes at the household level.

IDRC-supported analysis of this data, by the University of Winnipeg and Peking University, argues persuasively that measured growth in Chinese market output has imposed new stresses on the family care economy and has disadvantaged women. The migration of working-age women to urban areas has intensified demands on grandparents, especially grandmothers, to provide care for children left behind (Tran et al. 2017). According to the 2010 census, 61 million children—40% of all rural children—were left behind as a result of massive labour migration to be cared for either by grandparents or the remaining parent. The proportion of rural preschool-age children in grandparents’ full custody rose sharply from 3% to 27% between 1991 and 2011. Both family income and child outcomes tend to be significantly lower in rural than in urban areas.15

Public service provision has proved inadequate. While enrolment in daycare programmes has increased somewhat in urban areas, these services remain unaffordable for low-income families. Private and informal sector employees seldom have access to maternity leave. The newly mandated “two-child policy” may exacerbate the resulting difficulties. Stresses are also apparent at the other end of the life cycle. Women are less likely to be employed in public-sector or urban firms that provide pensions. Their responsibility for care work reduces their lifetime employment and earnings and limits their occupational choices. Many of the elderly remain in rural areas, geographically separated from their adult children. Elderly women in particular face an increased risk of poverty and neglect.

Other findings from the same research highlight how specific policy changes have reinforced women’s responsibility for unpaid care (Dong and Zhao 2017). The economic reforms of the post-Mao period dismantled the system of employer- or state- provided childcare, shifting responsibility back onto families and invoking Confucian cultural traditions. Reduced revenue flows to local governments led to steep declines in childcare and pre-school programmes. Growth in personal income, combined with fertility decline, eased these pressures for some families more than others. Newly instituted maternity leaves and maternity benefits were not offered to state employees on short-temi contracts, informal workers, or private employees. As of 2012, only a third of urban women were estimated to be eligible for paid leaves, with an obvious negative impact on both their career opportunities and their ability to breastfeed infants. Families have limited ability to compensate for the lack of public care provision for children and the elderly. Research found that women constitute 68% of the elderly infirm who do not receive appropriate care.

Public policies have contributed to increased gender gaps in both employment and earnings. Care responsibilities hinder the ability of rural women, in particular, to access better-paid off-farm employment. Between 1990-2010, the gender employment gap rose from about 14% to about 20% while the earnings gap widened in both rural and urban areas despite an upward trend in the average wages of both men and women. This change occurred despite a significant improvement in female educational attainment over the period.

Time-use data indicate that women work longer hours than men (the total work of urban women exceeds that of their male counterparts by as much as 8.7 hours per week). Elderly women have become more economically vulnerable. The postreform pension system is contributory, so pensions depend on labour market status: women typically have fewer years of employment and lower pre-retirement salaries than men. As a result, women over 60 receive only half the average pension that men do (Dong and Zhao 2017).

In sum, economic policy reforms in China have both increased care deficits for disadvantaged families and constricted women’s economic opportunities. Explicit integration of care needs and gender equality into a new Chinese development agenda could increase public, private, and community-level care provision, improve workplace regulation, and promote more equitable sharing of care duties within families.

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