Governments build roads and bridges. Why is another essential piece of infrastructure, child care, built on women’s unpaid labor?
To get to the medical school in Pakistan, I’d take Kashmir Road, a busy thoroughfare that carries thousands of cars and buses each day and plays a major role in Karachi’s functioning. I’d take another road, unnamed and unpaved, to reach my patients at the primary health care clinic serving mothers and children on the outskirts of Karachi, in a village called Rehri Goth. This much smaller road also played an important role in the community. Both roads allowed me and so many others to get to work and to doctor appointments, to go to market, to get to school, to see family and friends, and so on. That’s why governments build roads and bridges—because they’re seen as vital to a region’s economy.
Working with women and children at the clinic, and as a mother myself, I began to think more seriously about something else that plays a vital role in economies: child care. When child care is accessible, safe, and affordable, it allows parents to go to work and to school, to medical appointments, and to buy food and other essentials. The problem is, in most places child care is neither accessible nor affordable. Despite its vital role, child care has long been treated differently than infrastructure like roads. Instead of being planned and built by governments, it’s left to individual families to figure out on their own. This vital piece of public infrastructure is built on the backs of women’s free or low-wage labor.
This is gender inequality.
A society that relies on women’s unpaid or low-wage labor for its very infrastructure isn’t only unequal, it’s holding back the economy.
Women’s organizations have long said this. So have economists, labor organizations, and others. Now, with the global pandemic, this uncomfortable truth is becoming even more clear—and addressing it even more urgent.
Unpaid caregiving a major barrier to work
There are two main issues connected to the widespread lack of access to safe, affordable child care, each its own kind of slow-boiling crisis. The first is the sheer number of children left on their own. Even before the pandemic, UNICEF estimated that some 35 million children under age 5 were either left alone at times or in the care of another child under age 10, usually a girl.
The second is the unpaid care burden. To be sure, caring for children can bring tremendous fulfillment. Many women—and men, too—choose to focus their energies there. The problem is, too many women have long felt that they have no choice. It’s simply been expected that women will provide most of the child care and other unpaid household labor, often forgoing their own basic needs in the process.
Worldwide, women perform three-quarters of unpaid care work, which includes everything from watching children to housecleaning and cooking. If you add up all those hours, the average woman spends 201 working days per year on unpaid care. It’s no wonder, then, that women of working age say their main barrier to participating in the labor market is lack of child care, according to several studies. In fact, women’s participation in the labor force is 27 percentage points lower than men’s, according to the International Labor Organization, and much of that gap is due to unpaid care work.
The unpaid care burden is felt most acutely by low-income women. This includes women working in the informal sector who have no safety net, single mothers, women belonging to minority racial and ethnic groups, and women in rural areas, who on top of their other unpaid responsibilities often spend hours a day hauling the family’s water and firewood.
All of this has had ripple effects throughout society. Then, about a year ago, the slow boil of these dual crises became a full-blown catastrophe.
From paid work to unpaid care during coronavirus
During the pandemic, women have left the labor force in jaw-dropping numbers. This is partly because women tend to work in sectors disproportionately affected by the shutdowns, including paid child care, hospitality, and food service. On top of that, millions of women have left jobs because they have been unable to find care for their own children. When child care centers closed abruptly, along with schools, an estimated 1.5 billion children had nowhere to go. About 800 million of them were under 6 years old. That’s nearly one-tenth of the world’s population.
This upended countless lives and livelihoods in low-, middle-, and high-income countries alike.
It affected Sylvia, a mother in Homa Bay, Kenya, and her four-year-old daughter Gift. Without school or daycare options, Sylvia still needed to earn a living. Interviewed through an anthropology project called Pathways, she explained that when she was able to work at a hair salon, she would bring Gift along. But she also worked washing clothes, and she couldn’t bring Gift to people’s homes. She had no choice but to leave her daughter on her own.
The child care closures affected untold numbers of girls as well. The East African child care provider Kidogo estimates that more than half of the families that had been using its services shifted child care responsibilities to their adolescent daughters, derailing their educational and future job opportunities.
Across the Arabian Sea, in India, the child care shutdown affected Savitha, an engineer in Bengaluru, whose live-in nanny returned to her home village. Initially, Savitha tried to juggle her career and caring for her 2-year-old twins. Ultimately, she felt her only choice was to leave her job. Her former nanny, meanwhile, is one of 55 million domestic workers who suddenly found themselves unemployed during the pandemic.
In the U.S. and the U.K., I have family members and colleagues who have faced the difficult choice of continuing full-time work or staying home and caring for their young children. Several gave up work to focus on their children.
Then there are the women who are simultaneously doing three jobs: earning a living, providing child care, and acting as teacher during school and day care shutdowns. The problem of women’s unpaid care is so pervasive in the U.S. that The New York Times recently devoted a 17-page section to the topic.
Some of the unpaid care burden on women will lessen—a bit—when children return to school. But child care centers, which aren’t treated like vital infrastructure, are facing an existential crisis. Their staffs, which are largely female and often underpaid, have already been reduced with the pandemic. Now they face even more long-term consequences. In South Africa, for example, 68 percent of early child development providers surveyed said that with their costs rising due to COVID-19 precautions, they run the risk of permanent closure. This would leave families with even fewer child care options in the future.
As the world begins to emerge from the pandemic, both governments and the private sector must consider how these blows to women’s employment—including job losses and the unpaid care burden—will hold back economic growth.
Building child care into COVID-19 recovery
Addressing the child care crisis doesn’t just advance gender equality, it makes fiscal sense, expanding the labor pool to include mothers and more paid child care workers. Countries that get this right and consider child care within their economic recovery plans will come out ahead.
There’s plenty of research laying out a case for action. A 2021 evidence review commissioned by the International Development Research Centre, for example, recounts instances in which access to child care has helped boost women’s workforce engagement in Brazil, Mexico, and Chile. Recent studies in South Africa, Turkey, and Uruguay have shown that universal child care can help both women and men find success in the workplace. In India, access to comprehensive child care helped double women’s income in small community studies. But so far, many of these programs are small, and successes haven’t been tested on a larger scale.
This is a missed opportunity. By increasing female labor force participation, countries will see their GDPs grow. In India, the growth could be 27 percent, according to International Monetary Fund research. The World Bank estimates that Niger’s GDP could grow by 25 percent if gender inequality were reduced. According to an International Labor Organization report, doubling investments in the care economy could lead to 117 million new jobs in the sector by 2030—largely for women.
Canada, meanwhile, is considering taking a leadership role in addressing the unpaid care burden by creating universal access to early learning centers. A major study showed that the costs would easily be repaid in the creation of hundreds of thousands of new jobs and eventually increase the country’s GDP by as much as $107 billion.
There is no one “right” model. But several organizations have already laid out thoughtful policy recommendations, including the International Labor Organization’s “5Rs of decent care work”: recognize, reduce, and redistribute unpaid care work and increase the rewards and representation of paid care workers.
And thankfully, we have a meaningful platform for action that we can and must seize on now: The Generation Equality Forum. Beginning this month in Mexico City and culminating in Paris later in the year, government, private-sector, and civil society partners will come together to outline ambitious and specific actions to advance gender equality. The world hasn’t had a convening like this on gender equality in a quarter century. Now is the time for leaders to commit to lasting change—for women and girls, for families and societies, and for economies.