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Increasing the participation of women in the workforce: Role of quality childcare

In India, a McKinsey report indicated that an equal participation of women can increase the GDP by 16-17 percent, and yet, female labour force participation rate (FLFP) has been stagnant at 24-25 percent, well below the global average of 47 percent. This has significant repercussion, not only for women’s socio-economic empowerment but also for India’s growth story. While several factors inhibit women’s ability to work, most insidious factor is unpaid care work – managing the house, elderly, sick and children.

At the household level, women’s role as unpaid caregiver, is reinforced by families and internalised by women themselves. However, evidence suggest that a child benefits from quality nurturing care by both father and mother. Often, women spend bulk of their time on household work and, care of children ends up being more custodial in nature. We often fail to recognise that returning to work after child birth is not even a choice, especially for those from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. Mothers often rely on non-family care or leave their children unsupervised, which not only endangers the development, health and safety of children, but also, adversely impacts their own physical and mental health.

Unintentionally, this dilemma is reinforced, even at the policy level, where a global review of major child development and social protection policies found, that only 15 percent of these policies recognise the breadwinning role of women and are care-sensitive. In absence such policies, and supportive social networks, women keep opting out of work force. But, is there a way out? In this context, let us examine some evidences from Latin American countries with similar social fabric, specifically, Chile, Colombia and Mexico. In the 1990s, Chile, Colombia and Mexico had FLFP rates similar to those seen in India. Yet, in the past 17 years, these countries have seen an increase of 19, 29 and 11 percentage points respectively, whereas, India has seen a decline of 8 percentage points. In the early 2000s, these countries established childcare models (home-based, home visitations, centre-based and a combination of these). However, research informing the scale up was an integral part of the process, and the findings highlighted the issue of unpaid care work. Based on extensive research, centre-based childcare was designed and evaluated, not only to benefit children but also for mother’s economic well-being. More long-term evidences come from high income countries, that introduced similar child-care provisions to correct the gender inequality in labour force back in the 1960s.

Given the absence of care-sensitive policies in low-middle-income countries, relevant evidence on centre-based childcare and its impact on–early childhood development and maternal employment – has been scant. Yet, evaluations of large-scale, centre-based childcare programmes in Latin America have shown that such facilities can increase the probability of mothers being employed from 5 percent to 25 percent, while also increasing hours of work per month. It is also important to understand that that when women earn, they have higher decision-making power and improved diets for the household and children, thereby improving a family’s well-being.

The assumption that the provision of quality centre-based childcare can help mothers, avoid compromising an older child’s education (who usually ends up taking care of her young siblings), and young children to achieve better development potential, is a reasonable one. Caution needs to be exercised though when it comes to designing publicly provided childcare centres as impact on children is known to depend on quality and, promising impact has been seen for children older than 1 year.

Not many countries in the world have expansive social safety nets for food supplementation, care and health, but India has a strong foundation through the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Scheme. In the last few years, many schemes have been announced for children’s development, nutrition and health, such as the National Crèche Scheme, Early Childhood Care & Education, National Nutrition Policy, National Nutrition Mission, and Samagra Shiksha policy. Introduction of these new policies and the mission of convergence is a step in the right direction. However, there is a need to recognise the human resource shortage, and assess the deficiency -the extra number of sanctioned posts needed, to deliver quality services under the schemes.

The good news is we now have metrics to measure quality of these systems, and better understanding of the behavioural insights of human resource, especially in the context of non-monetary incentives, recruitments, provision of training. Moreover, we now recognise the growing value of care economy, and childcare, as an avenue of formal employment. Given there is still a lot to learn about building safety nets for the mother and child, India can not only improve these programmes with the aim to improve the future of its children, and mothers, but also serve as a global leader in creating a larger body of evidence.

Surabhi Chaturvedi is an independent researcher working on early childhood development. This opinion piece draws on a series of working papers she wrote for the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE), an initiative of LEAD at Krea University. IWWAGE aims to build on existing research and generate new evidence to inform and facilitate the agenda of women’s economic empowerment.

Disclaimer: This blog first appeared as an article in Business World on March 31, 2020. Click to visit the article.

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