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New Gates Foundation Research Calls For Focus On Childcare For Gender Equitable Covid-19 Recovery

New research by Gates Foundation and International Development Research Centre, published on the International Women’s Day, has revealed the extent of the unpaid care burden that women across the world bear and which has only gotten worse since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. It has found that women across the world are spending 30 hours per week exclusively on childcare – almost a second full time job. In India, both women and men reported an increase in unpaid work at home (chores and care work) and a decrease in time spent on paid work, but that extra time translated to more rest for men and more time spent on chores for women.

This research report came after two other childcare reports launched earlier in March, both by the World Bank, on the importance of investing in childcare to build human capital, and an update to how laws and regulations affect women’s economic inclusion, including childcare. The latter found that only 40 countries introduced additional childcare measures during Covid-19 pandemic, and they are mostly high-income countries. 

This new research was produced in partnership with the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW) East Africa initiative, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, FemDev and the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE) an initiative of LEAD at Krea University. It had a specific focus on supporting women in low- and middle-income countries. “In the beginning of the research, we challenged ourselves to think if the childcare issue is a high-income country problem or a global problem. One of the hypotheses I had in my mind was that high-income countries tend to have nuclear families and may find childcare more pronounced as an issue. But what the report shows that this is a universal problem,” says Anita Zaidi, President for Gender Equality at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

Zaidi quoted an example from the report: “In Nairobi, Kenya, the researchers looked at a low-income settlement. The 35 informal childcare centers were all decimated as a result of Covid-19.” Describing the fallout from closure of childcare centres in low-income settlements, “this has three effects: first, the women who were sending those children to the childcare centres have difficulty in working; second, the women from childcare centres have lost their jobs; and third, childcare burden shifts to adolescent girls. The last effect is particularly worrying as this will have long-term effects for this generation.” 

The shift of burden to adolescent girls is worrying as they already shoulder a disproportionate amount of care burden compared to their male counterparts, in many low- and middle-income countries. As quoted in the report, Malala Fund estimates that an additional 20 million secondary school-aged girls in low- and middle-income countries will be out of school post Covid-19. “People often say that developing countries have joint families, but the evidence shows that actually there’re repercussions on adolescent girls who are stepping in to fill those gaps,” says Diva Dhar, Senior Program Officer, Gender Data and Evidence at the Gates Foundation and a co-author of the report.

Both Zaidi and Dhar, from Pakistan and India respectively, feel that a lot of the global conversations on childcare have been focused on high-income countries, but this is equally a priority for low- and middle-income countries. “It is surprising how little attention childcare has received over the years. The pandemic has laid bare the fissures and fractures in our society, which has been organised on the backs of women and women’s unpaid work. With everybody around the world now thinking how to stimulate the economy, women need to be central to economic recovery plans and progress,” says Zaidi. This report and the growing evidence base show that the disproportionate burden of childcare on women urgently need addressing.

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