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Investing in ECD could be an investment in increasing women’s employment

Universal access to early childhood care and education – currently available to less than 40% of South African children under six – would not only better equip the nation’s children to reach their full potential but would also enable significantly more women to occupy meaningful, paid jobs.

Investment in expanding access to high quality, age-appropriate early childhood care and education for the nearly 4 million children under 6could create more than 450 000[1] new jobs in the “care economy”, mostly for women who currently make up 95% of the childcaring workforce.

Although the National Development Plan (NDP), along with numerous other legislation and policies, recognises that early childhood development (ECD) is central to eradicating poverty and inequality, a focus on investing in jobs in the sector would also address the national policy goal of increasing women’s participation in the economy, says economist Laura Brooks.

“While the benefits to children of ECD are clear and widely accepted, the associated opportunity to achieve another key developmental imperative of enabling women to participate meaningfully in the labour force, is seldom considered – yet this too would aid in addressing persistent inequality,” she said.

Brooks authored the chapter “Early childhood care and education can boost women’s employment in South Africa” in the 2021 Women’s Report released today (2 August 2021) is sponsored by the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) and distributed in partnership with the SA Board for People Practices (SABPP).

It is estimated that more than 300 000 people are employed in early childhood care and education, 95% of them women, serving approximately 2.5m children and mostly operating in the informal and non-profit sector.

Brooks said that beyond the direct job creation opportunity in the ECD sector itself, providing more widely available and affordable early childhood care and education services would also have “an exponential impact of enabling many more women to participate in the labour force”.

“For each woman who works in caring for children, whether as a childminder or day mother in a private home or community facility, or working in a formal ECD centre, another six to 10 women[2] are able to take up full-time employment,” she said.

Brooks said that increased investment in early childhood care and education would “deliver a triple social and economic benefit” – firstly by promoting young children’s development and capacity for learning in formal schooling; secondly, enabling greater participation by women in the work force; and third, by creating more and better-paid jobs in the care economy.

“However, to achieve this, government needs to move away from the paradigm of ECD as a social welfare service and see it as a socio-economic development opportunity to grow a sustainable, community-based sector that generates employment and supports better education outcomes.”

“This will require an urgent overhaul of the regulatory framework and excessive red tape which currently excludes rather than enables providers of this vital service. State funding of early childhood care and education is minimal and needs to be greatly increased – this would secure better conditions and meaningful livelihoods for workers and in turn improve the quality of services provided to children,” she said.

A potential financing strategy may be to target public employment schemes and enterprise development funding to the early childhood care and education sector, with a specific view to job creation and entrepreneurship opportunities for women, Brooks said.

Unlike public health services and basic education that are provided by government, early childhood care and education services are almost exclusively provided in the private and non-profit sector, by NGOs and private individuals operating as subsistence entrepreneurs or micro social enterprises.

The sector is largely informal, operating from homes, rented venues, community halls and places of worship, as well as mobile facilities, with staff typically earning subsistence stipends below minimum wage and not having employment contracts or benefits.

She said that ECD was seen as a social welfare service, currently falling under the Department of Social Development, and that the sector “battles excessive red tape, with a legislative framework that is effectively punitive and exclusionary”, resulting in very few ECD facilities being able to register with the Department and being eligible for funding support.

State subsidisation of early childhood development via the Department of Social Development is minimal, at R17 per child per day, of which only 30% can be used for salaries, and the subsidy reaches only about 620 000 children, less than 25% of the children reported to be accessing ECD programmes.

“This means that almost all community-based ECD facilities, even those who do receive the state subsidy, rely on fees from parents to supplement their income. Fee income can be inconsistent, especially in poorer communities, as it relies on parents’ ability to pay, which is often highly variable,” Brooks said.

While the NDP explicitly states that current funding for ECD is not adequate for the target of universal access and must be improved, and the country has a National Integrated ECD Policy approved by Cabinet in 2015, Brooks said that the funding required to give effect to these goals and policies “has not materialised to date”.

Meanwhile, the Children’s Act does not distinguish between different types, and locations, of ECD programmes in its registration requirements and “therefore does not cater to the reality of most home-based ECD centres, childminders and playgroups”.

Brooks said these challenges and barriers pointed to the urgent need to address the funding and regulatory framework of early childhood care and education, in order to realise the opportunity for women’s employment and economic empowerment, and in turn for the sector to make its envisioned contribution to improving education and supporting economic growth and social stability through educated, skilled people.


About the Women’s Report:

The 2021 Women’s Report focuses on the life and work of women in South Africa. The report, sponsored by the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) and distributed in partnership with the by the South African Board for People Practices (SABPP), is available to download from www.womensreport.africa


About the author:

Laura Brooks is a development economist and Senior Manager: ECD Expansion & Financing Support at Ilifa Labantwana, an organisation working to secure an equal start for all children in South Africa through universal access to quality early childhood development. She has a Master’s degree in Economics from UCT and a BA(Hons) from Rhodes University.



All statistics and references are derived from Laura Brooks’ article in the 2021 Women’s Report www.womensreport.africa, unless otherwise stated. Where necessary, some of the statistics in the article are further explained below.

[1] Based on estimates of 300 000 people currently employed in the childcare sector servicing ±40% of children under six. Servicing 100% of this population would require at least an additional 450 000 workers to meet the staff: child ratios prescribed in the Children’s Act (38 of 2005) for different types of ECD facilities.

[2] Based on the staff: child ratios prescribed in the Children’s Act.