By Fr. Benedict Mayaki, SJ
In the wake of the Covid-19 crisis that has engulfed the world, challenges to children’s education, care and well-being have become even more pronounced. Even before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, experts were already describing the situation of families as “a global childcare crisis.”
The latest report published by UNICEF notes that “99 percent of the world’s 2.36 billion children” are in countries with some movement restrictions “including 60 percent under some form of lockdown.”
As a result of this, at least 40 million children worldwide have missed out on early childhood education in their critical pre-school year, as Covid-19 has greatly affected childcare and education facilities in many countries.
The report released on Wednesday focuses on the state of childcare and early childhood education globally and includes an analysis of the impact of widespread Covid-19 closures of vital family services.
Effects of disruptions to education
“Education disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic are preventing children from getting their education off to the best possible start,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore.
“Childcare and early childhood education build a foundation upon which every aspect of children’s development relies,” Fore added. “The pandemic is putting that foundation under serious threat.”
The impact of Covid-19 restrictions on work and family life has left many parents struggling to balance childcare and paid employment, with a disproportionate burden on women who, according to the report, spend more time on childcare than men on average.
Already before the pandemic, the report notes that “over 35 million children under five years old are sometimes left without supervision, a factor often linked to economic pressures on parents to work.” Currently, the closures have exposed a deeper crisis for families of young children especially in low and middle-income countries, many of whom find it difficult to access childcare services.
Global state of childcare
The UNICEF report underlines that the care children receive “should provide them with affection, protection, stimulation and nutrition and at the same time enable them to develop social, emotional and cognitive skills.” It lists the different forms of childcare as family care, non-family care and no care (situations where no-one is supervising the child.)
According to UNICEF, for children who receive care from family members (parents, grandparents and older siblings), there are substantial benefits such as “the development of early and secure attachments.” However, not all family-care experiences are positive for children as in 74 low and middle-income countries, 80 percent of children aged 2 to 4 years experienced some form of violent discipline.
In richer households, especially in low-income countries, a substantial amount of childcare is done by domestic workers. This form of childcare, according to the report, “can relieve fatigued parents and enable them to attain a more manageable balance between caring and earning.”
The report also points out that of the 70 million domestic workers worldwide, 70 percent are women. One in six is from a migrant background, and 9 out of 10 of them are excluded from social security systems.
Meanwhile, children with no care, according to the report, run the risk of “undernourishment and immediate physical harm (including death)”. This also carries “negative consequences for children’s long-term developmental outcomes.”
Accessible and affordable childcare
In light of these global childcare challenges which have been further exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis, UNICEF proposes “adequate and gender-balanced parental leave policies,” as well as improved “access to organized non-family childcare.” These, the organization hopes, “will enable both parents to balance caring and earning responsibilities more effectively and equitably.”
In this regard, the report points out that out of 166 countries, only 45 percent provide tuition-free pre-primary programs for at least one year, and this number drops to 15 percent for low-income countries.
At the same time, UNICEF notes that increased pre-school enrolment is only possible due to affordability. The report highlighted that in Latin America which had a 96 percent pre-school enrolment rate in 2018, parents spent less than 20 percent of their per-capital household budget on childcare costs.
The report proposes measures to guide governments and employers in improving childcare and early childhood education policies.
It recommends paid parental leave for all parents so that there is no gap between the end of parental leave and the start of affordable childcare; flexible work arrangements that address the needs of working parents; investment in the non-family childcare workforce, as well as social protection systems for families working in non-formal employment.
“The Covid-19 pandemic is making a global childcare crisis even worse,” Fore said. “Families need support from their governments and their employers to weather this storm and safeguard their children’s learning and development.”