Investing in communities means investing in child care options for families and children

Dipaliben works in the hilly fields of Gujarat, India. Despite the harsh elements and the presence of snakes and wild animals, Dipaliben – like many mothers in her region – had to take her young son Sehil with her when she worked. The available childcare center was only open for a few hours a day, which didn’t provide the coverage Dipaliben needed to make enough to support her family. Taking Sehil to the fields with her was her only viable option.

Dipaliben is far from alone; many of us continue the difficult juggling act of caring for children while simultaneously working. For families — especially mothers and even older sisters — of over 40 million children globally, this is a grueling daily reality.

But parenting does not have to be this way.

We could — and should — make high quality, affordable childcare universal. It would allow families, especially women, to allocate more time to work and leisure, earn more money, support children’s learning and development, and could generate between $2 to $4.5 trillion of additional GDP each year.

Lack of access to childcare creates real financial consequences for women like Dipaliben. Research in Uganda found the profits of women entrepreneurs who brought a child to work were 48% lower than their peers who had separate options for childcare.

While women’s groups have been clamoring for attention to this issue for decades, there is growing momentum and fresh interest following the pandemic.

Previous efforts and funding on care have been disjointed, often centered on one-dimensional outcomes decided by the group driving the work. For example, a recent study revealed that revealed that only 22% of studies on early childhood development programs consider outcomes for mothers that are not about their parenting practices.

But people’s lives are not siloed like this. Look at Dipaliben. It wasn’t until the Self Employed Women’s Association started offering extended hours at the nearby government-run daycare centers that she was able to take advantage of the preschool opportunity for Sehil. The shorter hours may have benefitted her son’s development, but they were not workable for her family. At the same time, Dipaliben would not have been satisfied leaving her son at the center if she was not assured that he would be safe, nurtured, and well cared for there.

The solution?: Cross-sector collaboration and investment.

Everyone working to promote childcare can take a more holistic perspective to support, measure, and advocate for better outcomes for children and families. Actors focused on women’s empowerment should consider what makes care most beneficial for children. This includes having childcare providers trained to support children’s early learning through play, nutrition, health, and basic safety and security. Organizations like SmartStart in South Africa and Kidogo and Tiny Totos in Kenya are building care models to show that providing comprehensive training on child development is also good business, and ultimately pays dividends to caretakers, children, and their families.

Conversely, those working on childcare with children in mind must attend to the needs of women and families as they determine when and for how long childcare centers will be open, where they are located, and how well childcare providers, often women themselves, are paid. They should think about gender training and engaging fathers or male family members to ensure equity and to optimize impact for mothers and children. When families are released of the burden of inadequate childcare, women can determine what economic opportunities exist for them to thrive.

If women’s empowerment leaders can link up with child development leaders and those who promote access to health, nutrition, education, and other critical services that can be delivered through childcare centers, they create a formidable alliance. In Australia, early childhood development and gender equality advocacy groups aligned on childcare as a core policy ask, which resulted in $25 billion in additional public resources for universal childcare and 4-year old preschool. These efforts shaped a policy that was beneficial for all stakeholders – women, children, families, communities, and economies.

Global cross-sector alliances for care are also seeing financial impact, as evidenced in the launch of the World Bank-led Invest in Childcare Incentive Fund. A joint campaign and commitment from across the world of child development, gender equality, and inclusive economics catalyzed over $180 million dollars to invest in affordable, accessible, and high-quality childcare.

Access to quality childcare is vital to development. Only when we come together can we make sustained global progress and have a stronger impact for families like Dipaliben’s. Since starting childcare, Sehil has been thriving by learning many new things and Dipaliben been able to earn more to support herself and her family. This is the type of change every woman, family, and child deserves – and a vision we must all get behind.

Dana Schmidt, Echidna Giving
Diva Dhar, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Anna Abelson, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation / Global Health Visions
Matt Freeman, Stronger Foundations
Saskia Guerrier, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation
Netsanet Belay, Lego Foundation
Shikha Goyal, Imaginable Futures
Sarah Iqbal, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation