How women who work are held back by a lack of quality daycare in Africa

Women’s ability to work is severely constrained by the lack of child care facilities in urban slums. Reuters/Thomas Mukoya

Women’s economic empowerment hinges on the assurance that quality and affordable child care is available so that they can go about the business of doing their jobs.

Globally, women’s participation in the labour market has remained at around 52% for the last 20 years, according to United Nations. But women also bear most of the responsibilities at home, including caring for children or other dependants, cooking, cleaning and other housework.

In Kenya, only 46% of the country’s women participate in the labour force. For most working mothers, having formal employment may allow them more options for child care. A steady source of income eases their ability to send their children to daycare centres, or even pay for in-home care.

But for the women in Nairobi’s slums, who toil in the informal sector with modest and irregular pay, their likelihood to afford child care is greatly reduced. This is partly due to the increasingly disjointed nature of life in the urban slum where there’s no network of family support. In the past mothers could rely on this network to lend a hand or a watchful eye until a child is of school age.

There has been a growing awareness of the potential to provide daycare for children in Nairobi’s urban slums. But the quality of care varies widely because of a lack of adequate regulation.

Caregivers in this setting lack the support they need to provide quality child care or ways that they should stimulate the children’s environment while their mothers are at work.

Improving women in the workforce

Our study is a three-year project. It explores the daycare options available in Nairobi’s slums. It also assesses whether a woman’s ability to work and earn can be improved if quality child care is provided and subsidised. The study provides subsidised and quality improved daycare interventions to mothers in Korogocho, one of the largest slum neighbourhoods of Nairobi.

Almost half of all Kenyan women aged 15 to 49 years have a child under the age of five. For most of these women, participating in the labour force is dependent on concurrent child care responsibilities.

Our aim is to examine the nature and magnitude of barriers to child care, such as high cost and low quality and what impact these have on the way that women participate in the labour force. This will generate critical evidence-based policy recommendations aimed at increasing the participation of women in the labour force.

The results of the study will also provide researchers with insights into ways women’s participation in the workforce can be stimulated and how the gender gap in earnings can be narrowed.

The findings can also serve as the basis for discussions between policymakers and community leaders about how better to meet the needs of mothers with young children.

A global conversation

The research findings could have broader impact. Exploring the challenges that women in the most vulnerable and compromised environments face may improve their livelihoods.

This research will feed into the global conversation about women in the workforce, and how to approach the targets outlined in the newly ratified sustainable development goals, in particular, goals five and eight that deal with gender equality and economic growth through employment.

Understanding the choices women have to make to meaningfully contribute to their countries’ development, while also sustaining their households, is a step towards realising economic parity. Economic parity should not only be an ambition for the privileged but for all women.