Childcare and Women’s Economic Empowerment: What’s The Link and What Can The Market Systems Approach Add?

August 25, 2020


woman carrying baby on her back looks back and smiles
Photo: ILO 2015

By Aatif Somji (ILO) Based on the research brief ‘Child’s Play’. This blog was originally posted on BEAM Exchange.

The COVID-19 crisis and ensuing confinement has brought to the fore a key constraint to women’s economic empowerment: the unequal, gendered distribution of unpaid care work. Even before the pandemic, women were performing more than three-quarters of all unpaid care work – equating to roughly 12.5 billion hours of unpaid care work done by women every single day.

Whilst there is increasing recognition of unpaid care work and its impact on women’s economic empowerment (WEE), there remains little practical guidance on how to foster its reduction and redistribution among society. One step to achieving this is through the provision of childcare services, which shift care responsibilities away from mothers and other unpaid carers to paid caregivers. In turn, this can contribute to the economic empowerment of women through improved access to labour market opportunities and greater agency over manageable workloads.

It’s for this reason that the ILO Lab decided to research programmes taking a market systems approach to developing childcare services, exploring the different ways that these programmes have addressed the issue as well as the key lessons learned for implementation.

Based on the programmes researched, three approaches to addressing childcare emerged:

  • Looking at the Market for Childcare Services

This approach considers childcare services as its own system, analysing the core market for childcare as well as the wider ecosystem surrounding it to understand where the key constraints to further development of the market lie. These could include weak demand for such services, a scarce supply of qualified caregivers, a lack of affordable physical infrastructure for childcare centres, or limited access to finance to cover the costs of setting up a childcare business.

  • Influencing Policy

This refers to facilitating improvements in the formation and, importantly, the implementation of laws, regulations and standards by the state. Influencing policy can enhance childcare in two ways: quality and provision. The quality of childcare can be improved through effective regulation and licensing, while its provision can be boosted through publicly funded childcare centres or public subsidies to lower the cost of private childcare services for end users.

  • Making the Business Case to Enterprises

This is about establishing a convincing argument for why it is in employers’ interests to support childcare for their employees. This could be based on recruitment, retention, productivity or CSR, amongst others. Employers can support childcare through private subsidies, public-private partnerships and on-site childcare centres.

Eight key lessons can be drawn from the programme experiences:

  • Unpack the childcare market system

As a relatively new phenomenon for MSD programming, a practical starting point is to treat childcare like any other sector and analyse the entire system: identifying the obstacles to developing the market, addressing these through pilot interventions to see what works and investing in scaling these successful initiatives.

  • Cities as more mature markets

The high population concentration of cities make them promising candidates for exploring the wider market for childcare. Urban centres are more likely than rural areas to have well-developed childcare markets, with it also being more commonplace for both sexes to be working.

  • Public sector incentives matter

When it comes to childcare, government is a key player in the system. It is important not only to recognise this but also understand government’s motivational drivers. When public sector incentives are well aligned to those of an intervention, the potential to bring about systemic change is much stronger. This is particularly important for rural areas where private childcare markets are less developed.

  • Gender analysis critical

Without a proper gender analysis, issues such as unpaid care work and childcare services are unlikely to be identified as barriers to economic development. Ideally this consists of a standalone gender analysis. If this is not feasible, gender-based constraints should at least be well incorporated into market systems analyses. Put simply, if gender is absent at the analysis stage, it won’t be present in interventions or impact.

  • Holistic understanding of WEE

Capturing the full effects of childcare provision requires taking a holistic approach to WEE: looking beyond income generation, factoring both quantitative and qualitative indicators and often going down to the household level. Without this holistic understanding, some of the positive effects of childcare services on WEE would be neither measured nor documented by projects.

  • Female workforce a key entry point

The business case for employer-supported childcare seems most compelling for enterprises seeking to shore up their female workforce. In this case, childcare can form an integral part of a wider female engagement strategy for companies that may be expanding their workforce with new female entrants or trying to improve the productivity of an already largely or exclusively female workforce.

  • Working with lead firms has pros and cons

Lead firms are often the most willing and able to trial new interventions such as employer-supported childcare. But this can come at the expense of adoption by smaller firms, where such interventions are unfeasible given their relative lack of resources. In this case, finding ways to support ‘second movers’ is important for wider systems change.

  • Social norms matter

Simply providing access to childcare is not sufficient if women do not feel comfortable using this service or fear adverse consequences as a result. It is therefore important to understand the prevailing social norms relating to the use of childcare services: respecting and working within these norms, but also seeking to shift them over time to make the use of such services more socially acceptable.

Childcare services have the potential to alleviate the burden of unpaid care work for women and substantially contribute to women’s economic empowerment. The market systems approach can yield opportunities to facilitate improvements in both childcare provision and quality – based on the approaches and lessons outlined above.

As a relatively new phenomenon, there has been some reluctance from both donors and implementers to engage directly in childcare services. Rather than shy away from this sector, projects should not be afraid to test promising initiatives and scale up those that are successful.

Ultimately, developing childcare services has the potential to enhance quality of care and education for children, provide greater labour market opportunities for mothers and create additional decent jobs in the care economy: a triple-win for society. The ILO Lab is committed to exploring this promising area of work further; we hope you will join us as we push for greater gender equality in the world of work through developing the childcare market system.

For a more thorough exploration of the projects researched and their different approaches, read the full brief.