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By: Alexandra MacKenzie

Zipporah Muthoni lives in Korogocho, an informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya. After the birth of her daughter, she had trouble finding and keeping a good job. As a single mother, she either had to limit herself to work she could do while caring for her child or else worry about her daughter’s wellbeing while she was away at work.  

Zipporah survived on low-paying jobs in her neighbourhood: laundry, dishwashing, and cutting and styling hair at home. She also earned money collecting paper from landfills for hours at a time. “Just imagine from morning to evening, you get only 17 shillings,” she says [approximately 20 Canadian cents]. “It can’t buy even bread. It’s just like going to hell, direct.”

Approximately 45% of Kenyan women aged 15 to 49 years currently have at least one child under the age of five. Childcare is unaffordable for most and prevents many of these women from pursuing their full economic potential. Zipporah’s dream is to open a hair salon that she would call Zippy M’resh, because “m’resh” means “beautiful”.

Watch Zipporah's story

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Testing the impact of access to childcare

The African Population and Health Research Centre (APHRC) in Kenya collaborated with McGill University’s Institute for the Study of International Development to test whether improving the affordability and quality of childcare services in poor urban contexts could increase women’s participation in economic activities.

This research is part of the Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW) program, a partnership between IDRC, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the UK's Department for International Development. GrOW seeks to identify solutions to address the barriers that prevent women from participating fully in the economy.

From 2014 to 2017, more than 1,200 mothers from Korogocho participated in a randomized control trial. Half of these women received vouchers to access subsidized childcare for one year. These mothers could choose to enroll their child in one of approximately 30 participating childcare centres in Korogocho. Caregivers in half of these centres received training on early childhood development and their centres received additional materials to enhance the quality and capacity of care.

Higher employment rate for women and safe spaces for children

By the end of the year, 80% of the mothers who received vouchers had used them. These women were 17% more likely to be employed than those who had not received vouchers. The subsidized childcare also freed up some of their time for other activities — mothers who used their vouchers spent on average five fewer hours each week on paid work than those without vouchers, while earning the same income.

The findings did not vary significantly between mothers who enrolled their child in a centre receiving quality improvement support from the project and those who chose centres without improvements — an indication that cost rather than quality is the main barrier preventing women from accessing childcare. Government policies to promote maternal employment should therefore concentrate on reducing the cost of childcare in addition to improving quality and providing a safe learning environment for children.  

The benefits associated with the program, such as the increase in women’s earnings and the amount of money they saved, outweighed the costs of implementing the program. These results demonstrate that subsidizing childcare is a cost-effective strategy to provide mothers of young children the opportunity to participate in the labour force and generate income.

When asked about the impact of the project on her life, Zipporah said “the benefits are still there, because now I am working […] and I’ve never been scared because my child is at school all the time.” Zipporah was also able to save enough money to move from a single room to a larger rented house.

However, many single mothers in Korogocho and other poor neighbourhoods around the world still struggle to work while caring for their children.

Listen to Zipporah discuss the project with members of the research team.

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Transforming research into opportunities

“I am hoping that the government will be able to realize that subsidizing childcare centres is important,” says APHRC field interviewer Justina Munyiva, who would like to see at least one subsidized childcare centre in every county ward.

APHRC hosted a policy workshop in Nairobi where participants discussed ways to turn this research evidence into action. Since the workshop, the research team has partnered with several organizations — including Tiny Totos, a social enterprise in Nairobi, and the Aga Khan Foundation, an international NGO — to create the Baby Care Consortium, with the goal of developing and implementing evidence-based policies for childcare.

In addition to subsidized childcare, the GrOW-supported research demonstrated the need for policies that promote a good “working environment for mothers who have children and also to provide entrepreneurial skills training for mothers,” says Milka Njeri, an APHRC research officer.

The findings have started a conversation with Kenyan policymakers about effective strategies for enhancing women's economic empowerment while strengthening child development, which could lead to more effective policies in the years to come.

Learn more about the project Improving Childcare Options to Create Better Economic Opportunities for Women in Nairobi Slums.

Read policy briefs about this project and the care economy:

Top image: Adjacent Possibilities