Juliet Nyambura remembers the day she lost her job as though it were yesterday. She remembers the fear over what would happen to her family without her income, and she remembers the shame she felt at not being able to provide for her children.
“When your child is counting on you and there’s nothing you can do to help, that feeling is very hard for a mother,” said the 34-year-old, whose husband’s part-time work was not enough to support the family. “We had no money for medicine. I was always afraid.”
Losing her job washing clothes in the Korogocho slum in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, had nothing to do with Nyambura’s competency at work. The problem was that after the birth of her fourth child, Joy, she simply couldn’t find enough time to take care of the infant and keep pace at work.
Balancing childcare and income generation is a problem faced by mothers around the world, but in a community like Korogocho, where some 100,000 people eke out a precarious living in a one-square-kilometre sprawl of iron sheet and mud shacks in the shadow of a smouldering rubbish heap, there are few safety nets, and the loss of an income can easily push a family into debt and crippling poverty.
At first, Nyambura tried to juggle both commitments, rushing home every two hours to breastfeed her baby. But eventually, her employer lost patience. For the next two years she was unemployed, surviving off the generosity of friends.
“We were often hungry,” said Nyambura. “Sometimes we would go to sleep without having eaten all day. But I didn’t want to ask everyone for help. I knew in the end they would start running away from me.”
But in January 2016, Nyambura’s fortunes changed dramatically. That is when she became one of more than 1,200 Korogocho mothers to participate in a research project carried out by the Africa Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) in collaboration with McGill University in Montreal, Canada. By issuing vouchers for free daycare services to mothers, and by investing in the capacity and resources of a selection of daycare centres by retraining caregivers and offering material support in these centres, the project aimed to explore the relationship between affordable, quality daycare services, and women’s ability to earn a living.
The Korogocho project is part of a wider initiative known as the Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women program (GrOW), a partnership between the UK's Department for International Development, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), that seeks to identify solutions that can address the barriers that hold women back from participating fully in the economy.
Martha Melesse, a senior program specialist for IDRC, outlined the underlying problem. “We know from statistics available that on average, women work longer hours than men in any given day. And they spend almost five hours a day doing unpaid work caring for their families, while men spend only one and a half hours for the same. This is limiting women’s ability to contribute fully to their national economies.”
“The GrOW program is testing whether access to affordable and quality daycare is one of the missing links that can unlock the full potential of women at work, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and in South Asia where women spend a significant amount of time caring for children,” she added.
The Nairobi-based manager of the Korogocho project, APHRC’s Stella Muthuri, reported that within one year, subsidized access to daycare had already increased women’s economic participation. The percentage of working mothers increased from 48.9% among those without free daycare to 57.4% among mothers with subsidized daycare. The 8.5% increase brings the mothers closer to the levels of male participation in the labour force, in an environment where jobs and income-generating activities are hard to come by.
“It doesn’t take a lot of investment in each mother to achieve significant social and economic impact,” Muthuri said. “We found that women [who received vouchers] were less tied down and more mobile. They were mentally and physically released. Even women who had been working before told us that they were now less stressed and conflicted over what was happening at home.”
Nyambura’s story is a case in point. Once Joy was enrolled at the Bestan Child Care Centre, a local-run facility with brightly painted walls and a friendly atmosphere, she was able to learn a new trade: bag making. Recycling old flour sacks into convenient shopping bags and selling them across the capital, the mother of four now earns enough income to support her family and even indulges in a few treats. On a good day, she can bring in 500 Kenyan shillings (approximately CA$6.20), which goes a long way in a place like Korogocho.
“My children now have food every day and I can pay school fees for my older children,” she said with a smile, sitting with her daughter on a low wooden bench at the daycare centre. “My rent is paid and I even bought a TV. My children are happier now. They smile and laugh more than they used to… Even when they’re fighting over the TV remote,” she added, chuckling.
The project also found that access to daycare may promote children’s social and cognitive development. For Pastor Charles Mathenge, the owner of the Bestan Child Care Centre, subsidizing daycare services is a win-win situation. “Once the kids are here, the mothers have time to get a job and keep supporting their families. But it is also important for the children themselves. This is a dangerous neighbourhood. [If the children weren’t here] most of them would go to work with their mothers on the dumpsite — even the three-year-olds. It’s a terrible life for them. But here we can teach them to avoid bad choices.”
Nyambura knows it all too well. “When I bring Joy here each morning I know that I am free to work, and that makes me proud. I have no words,” she said.
The project will now focus on disseminating its findings through community dissemination events, policy conferences in Nairobi and Montreal, and presenting or sharing the findings at related stakeholder meetings as opportunities arise. The larger goal is to contribute to conversations on potential sustainable funding options with government and private sector partners for expanding the scope and quality of childcare services. “We’ve seen a lot of interest in improving childcare services,” said Caroline Kabiru, a research scientist with APHRC in Nairobi. “Now we want to make sure that interest is sustained”.