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Millions of young children left home alone in global childcare crisis

Written by Emma Samman, Nicola Jones, Claire Melamed, Tanvi Bhatkal

At least 35.5 million children under five are being left at home without adult supervision, pointing to a global crisis in childcare, according to a new report by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) launched ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8.

The figure – which is more than all the under-fives in Europe – highlights how parents, but mostly women, are struggling to balance work with caring for their children.

Analysis of data from 53 low and middle income countries, accounting for one-fifth of the world’s children, reveals that on average, one in five young children were left alone or in the care of a young sibling.

In four of these countries, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote D’Ivoire, Chad and the Central African Republic, this figure rises to more than half of all under-fives left without adult supervision.

Report author Emma Samman, ODI Research Associate, said: “Governments are largely ignoring this crisis, even though the wellbeing of women and children is vital for national prosperity. Even where support and services are offered, they don’t reflect the reality of most women’s lives.”

Author, Nicola Jones, Senior Research Fellow at ODI added: “Giving parents the right to leave, providing creches and enabling breastfeeding are important.  But they do very little for the vast majority of women in the developing world working in the informal sector.”

The report, ‘Women’s Work: Mothers, Children and the Global Childcare Crisis’, illustrates the stark choices that working mothers are making. In Bolivia for example, poverty has driven thousands of women to seek employment on the other side of the world, in Spain.

One Bolivian mother told ODI researchers she left her five daughters behind when she moved to Barcelona in 2006.

She said she had not seen her children in three years and she currently holds down three jobs, working from 8am until 10pm every day, in order to send as much money as she can back to her daughters.

She said: "Many people think how is it that I left my daughters behind, but what choice did I have?”

The report outlines how increasing numbers of women are entering the workforce globally either out of choice or because they are forced do so for economic reasons.  But the burden of unpaid care work is still falling on women and girls. Across 66 countries, representing two thirds of the global population, researchers found:

·         Iraq has the heaviest and most unequal share, with women spending up to five hours more on unpaid work each day compared to men – the equivalent to ten years over the course of a 50-year lifespan

·         In Sweden the distribution is most equal, although women still spend 1.6 years more than men over the course of a lifetime on unpaid work

·         In emerging economies such as India and Mexico women do 9.2 and 10 years respectively more unpaid work than men, over the course of a lifetime

·         In developed economies, there is also a disparity. The UK is 11th in the ranking with 1.7 more hours daily – or 3.5 years over a lifespan – and the US 1.5 hours daily, or 3.1 years over the course of a lifespan

The report shows that it is not just mothers bearing the responsibility of child-rearing, but also adolescent girls and grandmothers.

In parts of Ethiopia, evidence suggests that more than 50% of rural girls between five and eight-years-old provide unpaid care on a daily basis.

Meanwhile, grandmothers interviewed by researchers in Vietnam revealed their care responsibilities left them in increased poverty, exhausted and suffering because of the constant stress they lived under.

The report makes a series of recommendations to help parents across the world cope with the demands of care and employment, including:

·         Extending labour market policies, such as maternity and paternity leave, so parents are better able to combine work and care

·         Provide early childhood education services that meet the needs of both the children and their mothers, especially those in informal work

·         Provide more integrated social protection policies, with income support to all generations who are providing care

·         Include men in caregiving agendas to tackle gender norms and encourage fathers to take more responsibility for childcare

Notes to editors

·         ODI analysis of UNICEF data suggests across 53 developing countries, some 35.5 million children under 5 – on average, 1 in 5 – were left alone or with a sibling under ten-years-old for at least an hour weekly at a given point in time

·         Data provided by Jacques Charmes (2015) which featured in the 2015 Human Development report - which he subsequently updated - show that on average across 66 countries representing 66% of the world’s population, women spent 3.3 times as much time as men on unpaid care work overall

·         Data from the 2009 Young Lives Survey suggested that in Ethiopia more than 50% of rural girls between the age of five and eight provided unpaid care on a daily basis, compared to 38% of rural boys

For more information or to organise an interview with the researchers contact James Rush on 07808 791265