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Recovering from COVID-19: The case for investing in childcare


In 2020, UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned that the global pandemic “could reverse the limited progress that has been made on gender equality and women’s rights” over the past 25 years. Even before the onset of COVID-19, the International Labour Organization (ILO) had warned of a severe care crisis, with some 1.9 billion children under the age of 15 — including 800 million children under six — in need of care.

Childcare must be addressed within COVID-19 recovery plans both to advance gender equality and because it makes fiscal sense. In addition to reducing the undue burden of care, affordable and quality childcare frees mothers to participate in the labor force and creates jobs for women in the childcare sector.

A recent review of evidence, supported in part by the Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women – East Africa initiative, points to ways the pandemic has deepened the childcare crisis and widened gender gaps. It highlights the steep cost of inaction, with a focus on low- and middle-income countries, and offers solutions for governments, donors, and employers.

The cost of inaction: reversing progress on women’s gains

The effects of COVID-19 on women’s economic empowerment can be seen along four key pathways:

  • the disruption of education and early learning
  • the existential threat to the childcare sector
  • increased household care burdens
  • the loss of employment and income

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization estimates that 1.5 billion school-aged children globally have been affected by school closures related to COVID-19. Simultaneously, distancing and hygiene requirements and the need for personal protective equipment have increased childcare operation costs while demand has fallen due to lockdowns and fears of infection.

While both women and men are spending more time on childcare, the bulk of the extra time is falling to women and adolescent girls, deepening pre-existing gender norms. School closures are also widening gender gaps in access to education, as more girls are losing study time to care for siblings. Many may not return to school post-COVID-19 due to rising poverty levels, early entry into the labour force, or early marriage and pregnancy, as was seen after the Ebola epidemic.

COVID-19 has also led to more employment loss for women than men. ILO labour force surveys show a significant decline in employment in the second quarter of 2020 compared with the previous year — with a steeper decline for women than men in most countries. This decline can be attributed to more women leaving employment to care for children and women being more likely to work in retail and food services. The childcare sector, including centres and domestic workers in private homes, is largely female. Those still employed are working longer hours and are more vulnerable to abuse by employers.

Overall, those hardest hit by the pandemic are informal workers — predominantly female — whose work was already less secure and who have few benefits and protections to buffer their loss of income.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International notes that childcare and unpaid care work remain absent from the stimulus packages and emergency measures being announced. In fact, analysis by Oxfam in 2020 finds that 84% of the International Monetary Fund’s COVID-19 loans encourage, and in some cases require, poor countries to adopt tougher austerity measures. These measures could disproportionately disadvantage the poor and women, whose unpaid care work must compensate for the shortfall in access to social services.

What can be done?

The solutions presented here are informed by the ILO’s “5Rs of care”: recognize, reduce, and redistribute unpaid care work and increase the rewards and representation of paid care workers. While many of these recommendations are not new, they are more important than ever as economies recover from the pandemic.

Moving forward: Building childcare into our COVID-19 recovery

As countries move out of the response phase, they face tough choices in dealing with the costs of recovery. Imposing austerity measures to reduce debt is one obvious temptation, but it would come at an enormous cost to the health, education, and childcare systems that have proven vital to our resilience—and to progress on gender equality.

Investing in childcare — and care more broadly — will facilitate a more inclusive recovery. Such investment can have a direct impact by boosting employment and job retention in the care sector, while also alleviating care constraints that keep women from work. It will require mobilizing public and private resources, and, in low- and middle-income countries, foreign aid:

  • Governments must look to innovative sources of funding, such as new forms of taxation, and new joint programming with non-governmental organizations and private sector partners. The private sector must enact family-friendly workplace policies and arrangements to support employees’ childcare needs.
  • Donor organizations and international financial institutions must ensure that childcare is addressed holistically in all COVID-19 fiscal stimulus and relief packages to countries.

This paper was produced in partnership by IDRC, Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women – East Africa, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, FemDev, and the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy, created by the organization LEAD at Krea University.

Read the full evidence review

Read the policy summary

We launched this evidence review at our March 8, 2021 event “COVID-19 and the care crisis.” Watch the recording.

    Recommendations to address the COVID-19 exacerbated childcare crisis

    • Invest in gender-responsive public services
    • Safely reopen schools and childcare centres
    • Help families cope with the increased burden of care
    • Help shift social norms around childcare
    • Improve public and private financing for the childcare sector
    • Improve support to childcare workers
    • Include childcare workers in COVID-19 response decision-making
    • Strengthen their right to collective action