• Q&A
  • October 31, 2018
  • 11 minutes
  • 1

A hidden crisis: why childcare shortages cost trillions

Women and girls pick up the pieces when care provision suffers

“The world is facing a hidden crisis in childcare”. So concluded the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) think tank, following a major piece of research into the availability and distribution of childcare work throughout the developing world.

Apolitical spoke with Nicola Jones, Director, Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE) and Principal Research Fellow, at the ODI about the scale and nature of the crisis, what governments are doing to combat it, and what further action is needed around the world.

Could you spell out what you mean by the “childcare crisis”?

So I think there are multiple components. At a macro level, the lack of childcare has been estimated to cost somewhere between $12trillion and $28trillion in terms of global GDP, because of the undervaluing of work undertaken by women.

If you then look at economic cost at a national level then there are a range of different factors to think about. I think the first thing is that care is disproportionately distributed. Women are doing significantly more of it — spending anything from three to 11 times as much time on unpaid care as men.

I think the evidence shows very clearly that if you don’t have childcare available it affects women’s ability to participate in the labour market. There’s an estimate for example in China that urban women are 12% more likely to be out of the labour market because they can’t rely on care from grandparents. In Latin America over half of women not in the labour market cited domestic responsibilities as the key concern.

And one of the really striking figures from our study is the work by Aguero et al, who use survey data from 21 developing countries to show that the wage penalty for motherhood in them is 42%.

And then one important thing to remember is that this crisis has huge impacts across the life course. So on the one hand it can be grandmothers picking up the pieces, but also girls as they hit adolescence are increasingly being kept out of school in order to support care work.

You talk specifically about a public health concern, where children who are too young to take on caring responsibilities are left alone with younger children. Could you describe that?

In 53 developing countries there are over 35 million children under five who are without adult supervision at least a day a week.

In 10 low income countries the proportion is even higher: 46% of all under fives are left without adult care.

In Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Chad, Central African Republic, we found that over half were left without adult care. These are contexts where there’s just no available childcare outside of family members.

There’s a really telling statistic about urban contexts in the report, from Malaysia, that the risk of road traffic injury was 50% lower among children that were supervised by parents than those who weren’t.

To what extent is availability of paid childcare a part of the solution? Is that, in a global context, just a rich person’s service?

I”m not sure “rich” is the right term, but it’s certainly the middle class and higher that are able to pay for childcare.

In the global south a lot of women rely on poorly paid domestic workers, and one of the things that we’ve been trying to highlight In the gender and adolescence: global evidence research program is that many of them are also adolescent girls, starting from 10 years onwards. In some contexts, such as Ethiopia, girls in domestic work will actually take on more of the childcare responsibilities than the household cleaning, even when many are still children themselves.

So women who are able to benefit from paid care obviously can be enabled to engage in paid work. But the domestic workers they employ tend to be among the poorest paid and most vulnerable, and in some contexts not even covered by labour legislation.

In Ethiopia, for example, there’s a term for domestic workers that equates to “servant”, and that means they’re completely outside of the remit of the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs.

In Mexico we included a case study of the “Estancias” subsidised childcare program, which has been very innovative. Essentially, the government has encouraged women to set up their own creches which are partially subsidised and so are then also able to raise a reasonable income from providing care to urban mothers and are able to tailor service to their needs.

What role can social protection policy play in alleviating this overall childcare crisis?

It can be huge. One of the critical things about social protection systems — more so in middle income than low income countries — is that there’s already a platform reaching hundreds of thousands or millions of beneficiaries.

So if there’s then support for parental leave or breastfeeding regulations as part of that platform, particularly when women are returning to work so that they can still juggle childcare demands with work, that can be very powerful.

A big shift since the report came out has been the increasing investment in early childhood care and education integrated within the school system. So in places like Peru and Ethiopia you now have classes that provide preparation prior to children joining the first grade. That provisioning is in most cases free or heavily subsidised, and that can make a large difference.

Although what our findings did show is that, when the hours of that kind of provisioning within school are limited to a morning or afternoon, it’s still of limited benefit to parents as they’re not able to put in a full day of work. So women are still trapped within the informal sector or agricultural work.

And what about labour market policy?

Besides parental leave, subsidised care onsite, breastfeeding regulations, I think it’s also things like hiring practices that don’t penalise women for time outside of the labour market and non-discrimination policies during hiring.

Also, women are most vulnerable during maternity leave. So unless you’ve got strong regulations in place to protect not just employment but also the same role and level of pay when they return, there’s a lot of dropout.

And then obviously the provision of flexible working hours is critical for women during the early years if they’re not able to access childcare.

Since you published your report in 2016, have you seen any significant changes on this issue, and what are the most important steps governments around the world can take?

Unfortunately, outside of the continued investment — particularly by the World Bank — around early childcare within school systems, I don’t think we’ve seen great advancements.

A tiny minority of countries have signed up to the convention on rights for domestic workers. There needs to be much greater attention paid to getting more countries to sign up to that: especially those migrating outside country borders. That hasn’t had the momentum that it requires yet.

Legislation that has been proposed to provide greater protections to girls and women in domestic work has largely been unsuccessful. Ethiopia for example put in a proposed bill to the congress and that was turned down.

And even when you think about the UK, Canada and other OECD donor countries where there’s been a big push around increasing investment in 12 years of education for all children, compulsory education doesn’t start in most contexts until six or seven years, and there’s still a significant gap until children start school thats not been addressed. — Josh Lowe

(Picture Credit: Tina Floersch/Unsplash)


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