My colleague Thalia Kidder is a feminist economist who’s been working for years to try and get the ‘care economy’
onto the development agenda. It’s been frustrating at times, but she should be celebrating right now: Oxfam’s bought in with projects that include developing a ‘rapid care analysis’ assessment tool; Melinda Gates decided to highlight Time Poverty in the Gates’ annual letter, and now for International Women’s Day, ODI has published an excellent report on the ‘hidden crisis in childcare’.
Mothers are entering the workforce in increasing numbers, both out of choice and necessity. But this has costs. In trying to meet the twin demands of caring for their children and providing for them economically, women’s capacity is being stretched to the limit. The critical issue is time, which comes at a price – in health, in wellbeing and in money.
There are 671 million children under five in the world today. Given labour force participation rates that exceed 60% globally, a large number of these children need some sort of non-parental care during the day. Early childhood care and education programming is not managing to match this need. At most, half of three- to five-year-old children in developing countries participate in some form of early childhood education, typically for a few hours daily.
We know very little about what is happening to the rest, but all the evidence points to a crisis of care. That crisis is heavily concentrated among the poorest children with the most restricted access to early childhood support. Across the world, at least 35.5 million children under the age of five are being left alone, or with other young children, without adult supervision.
Across 66 countries around the world representing two-thirds of the global population, there are huge inequalities in the time spent by women and men on unpaid work. On average, women spend 3.3 times as much as men do.
Unpaid care responsibilities cost women more than ‘just’ time – they are also reflected in lower income. The ‘motherhood pay penalty’, whereby mothers earn less than childless women, has been estimated at 37% in China, 42% in 31 developing countries and 21% in the UK. In part due to women’s choices, and in part the result of employer discrimination, the pay gap also reflects the absence of accessible childcare.
The cost of unpaid care has been valued recently at up to $10 trillion annually, around 13% of world GDP. It is not just mothers bearing this cost. This unpaid care is also borne by adolescent and even younger girls, passing on the costs to the next generation in the form of lost chances for schooling. Evidence from parts of 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 (26%) of these girls spend three or more hours daily on unpaid care.
Too often the assumption is that managing time is only a problem when women are working in formal sector jobs, which means that the focus is on labour market provisions that give parents the right to take time off, protect breastfeeding and provide crèches. These are important for those women who can benefit from them. But such policies cannot help with the daily struggle faced by the vast majority of women in the developing world working in the informal sector.
In India, for example, less than 1% of women receive paid maternity leave. A focus on labour market policy alone is therefore myopic. Two additional policy areas are important – social protection and early childhood care and education (ECCE). Social protection programmes are often a crucial support – but do not generally help to alleviate the time constraints faced by so many women. Nurseries and other care programmes benefit young children and appear to be valued by caregivers. However, existing programmes are centred almost entirely around the needs of small children and a focus on school readiness, rather than the needs of their carers.
Some positive examples:
Encouragingly, some countries are successfully responding to these challenges. Vietnam, for example, despite being a Lower Middle Income Country (LMIC), has in place a full array of labour market policies supporting care – including six months of maternity leave at 100% pay, paid paternity leave and paid breaks for both antenatal care and breastfeeding. Companies with large female workforces are also required to provide on-site crèche care or to subsidise private provision. South Africa, in turn, is one of only two developing countries outside Latin America and the Caribbean to ratify the International Labour Organisation Convention (ILO) on Domestic Workers (No. 189). Additionally, the country has put in place a number of creative policies to support children, with a premium on care – among these are the Older Persons Grant, which recognises the role of many grandparents in childraising, the child support grant and a disability grant focused on the needs of caregivers of children with disabilities.
And the inevitable ODI infographic: