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The Road Ahead: Why Child Care Matters for Women’s Economic Empowerment

How Far We Have Come

“Why would we pay women for something they are willing do for free?” Feminist economist Nancy Folbre, reminisced about a time when a male colleague uttered those words to her as she decided to specialize in the economics of family care. Studying childcare was considered a “non-issue.”

Fast forward a few decades, and the "care economy," which includes both public and private care services as well as unpaid care work such as cooking, caring for children and the elderly, and other household work, is a growing topic of concern for researchers and policy makers. Last August, it was the target focus of an economics conference at McGill titled, The Global Need for Formal Child Care.

More women than ever are participating in the labor market. Although more women may be working for wages, their hours spent doing unpaid household work has not diminished, increasing their overall work burden, time poverty, and stress. This raises the question: Are women really empowered under this model?

Photo: Wilhan José Gomes

The answer is no. Central to women's economic autonomy and holistic empowerment is recognizing, reducing, and redistributing unpaid work and care. This was one of the key indicators of women's economic empowerment identified by the UN High Level Panel on Women's Economic Empowerment (UNHLP), with evidence supported by the International Development Research Centre and its program, Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW). How then, do we ensure that care is seen as a societal issue and not just a women’s issue? For one, research can help.

GrOW-supported research seeks to generate new evidence on how to best balance paid and unpaid care for women without creating negative effects for future generations, such as off-loading care duties to school-age daughters, as well as better engaging with men in care work. Let’s focus our attention on one policy solution: access to quality and affordable childcare.

Building the Evidence Base on Child Care

Using data from seven OECD countries, the Women’s Budget Group compared the return of government investments in social infrastructure, including childcare, with returns on physical infrastructure investment. Childcare investments created twice the number of jobs as investments in construction.

To contextualize what this data means for the poorest of the poor, GrOW supported research in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya and Rajasthan, India in order to identify how access to quality, affordable childcare impacted women’s economic outcomes (e.g, job participation, income) on the ground. Researchers from the African Population and Health Research Centre (APHRC) and McGill University surveyed over 1200 women in the Korogocho slum. Results showed that women who placed their children in subsidized daycares earned a higher income without increasing the number of hours worked. Yet, high costs continue to be the main barrier hindering access to this service by Kenyan women. When this study offered a subsidy for safe childcare, demand rose alongside women’s productivity.

Researchers from McGill and the Institute for Financial Management and Research in India surveyed over 3,000 Rajasthani women about their child care strategies when they needed to work. 70% of women reported leaving their children with a sibling or relative and 50% brought their children to work. Interviews revealed that women were often taxed for ‘visibly’ being mothers and marginalized from accessing better jobs. Likewise, siblings responsible for care were often required to leave school, creating generational disempowerment effects. Access to child care is a low cost intervention that can help break these cycles.

Benefits are not limited to women. Preliminary findings in Kenya showed that children were reportedly sick less often and missing less school. While additional evidence is needed, early findings from GrOW are encouraging.

The Road Ahead

We have come a long way since unpaid care work was first dismissed as a pressing economic issue. How can we ensure that the care agenda moves forward?

  1. Research on the care economy must pinpoint who benefits and who doesn’t in order to identify targeted equality-promoting interventions. The Institute of Development Studies, another GrOW supported partner, generated a large dataset of 94 case studies from women in India, Nepal and Tanzania describing the balances and tensions women face between paid work and unpaid care work. These stories further validate the urgent need to use research results for gender-transformative policy change.
  2. Developing countries are at a particular disadvantage when it comes to finding ways to finance subsidized day care. More research is needed to uncover financing solutions to provide affordable and quality child care, such as through co-operatives or private-public partnerships. A few countries like Brazil, India, and Jordan have unveiled policies requiring companies to provide childcare options. A brand new report from the International Finance Corporation titled, Tackling Childcare: The Business Case for Employer-Supported Childcare, uses case studies to highlight how investments in employer-supported childcare can in fact strengthen the bottom line, helping retain good employees and generate growth. Expanding evidence like this is hugely valuable so that companies in other countries can support childcare, even if not mandated to comply.
  3. More research is needed on the link between child care arrangements and the impact on gender norms and expectations within the household. Working closely with practitioners on the ground can help to develop more context-sensitive and effective policies that are ‘long-term’, as changing norms is not a quick fix.
  4. Finally, we need to think critically about what care is, and what is the appropriate quality of care for different contexts. Practitioners at Aga Khan Canada discovered that what at first seemed like sub-par conditions of day care facilities in Kenya’s poorest slums, were actually safer than the conditions that mothers could provide on their own. There isn’t a single care model. Formal day care is also not the only form of child care. Evidence from Indigenous communities in Canada [Findings from conference presentation, “Formal vs informal child care among Indigenous Canadians” by Simona Bignami, Virginie Boulet, Demography, Université de Montréal] and China, demonstrate the prevalence and importance of extended family in child care, while in other contexts and among migrants, the role of the extended family is diminishing. We need more evidence on how care networks can work to holistically support future generations.

Photo: Sasin Tipchai

It is important to ensure that care duties are reduced and shared so as not to result in a ‘double burden’ for women. International efforts like the UNHLP on Women’s Empowerment are a first step, as are country efforts like the recent launch of Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy. Still, grassroots-led evidence is needed and members of the SEEP network have a role to play to keep this agenda front and center in all women empowerment discussions.


Olivia Tran is a Development & Gender Officer at Global Affairs Canada.

Alejandra Vargas Garcia is a Senior Program Officer for the Governance and Justice program at Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Connect at @Ale_V_G.

Martha Melesse is a Senior Program Specialist for Employment and Growth at IDRC.

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