Mobile creches are transforming the lives of women and children in Africa

a woman carries a child on her back

An innovative childcare project in Burkina Faso is enabling local mothers to go to work. Image: REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

Douglas Broom
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Lack of childcare is one of the biggest obstacles to women’s participation in employment.
  • Now an innovative scheme in Burkina Faso is offering mobile creches, so that mothers can work while their children play safely.
  • Not only are the women benefiting financially, the children are gaining skills and confidence.
  • Other countries are following suit.

Childcare is a challenge for working mothers the world over. In developed nations it’s often the cost that is a barrier to women rejoining the workforce. But in other parts of the world, childcare for working mothers is virtually non-existent.

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Unless friends or family members are able to look after small children, mothers are often forced to take their child to work with them. And where that work is outdoors, that can mean leaving children to fend for themselves.

But a World Bank-supported programme in the West African country of Burkina Faso offers a new solution. It provides a safe and stimulating environment for children and peace of mind for their mothers. What’s more, it follows families as they move for work.

‘Hiding their children’

In 2016, Burkina Faso launched short training programmes designed to tackle youth unemployment and fight poverty. Participants are given six months work in projects like urban development and roadbuilding. So far, more than 46,000 young people have taken part.

The organizers were surprised by the number of young women applying to join the scheme. What they did not know was that several of the applicants were mothers, and were in fact omitting to mention their young families and pregnancies due to a fear that these would automatically disqualify them.

a picture of a woman on a bicycle with a child on the seat
Before the creches, many mothers in Burkina Faso had to take their children to work with them. Image: World Bank

“It became clear that the women were hiding their children and were making do in whatever way they could to take care of them,” says Savadogo Ouédraogo, mayor of the third arrondissement of the town of Manga, where mobile creches were first tried out.

Childcare on the move

Without childcare, mothers were often forced to rely on older, usually female, children, who missed school to care for their younger siblings. Where no family support was available, the children were simply brought to the worksite and left to play together while their mothers worked.

As well as being dangerous for the children and stressful for the mothers, these makeshift arrangements meant the children were not receiving any stimulation to further their development.

But, because the women have to move between worksites, conventional childcare solutions were impractical. So the project organizers invited the mothers to join a focus group to talk about their needs and the difficulties they were facing.

Working with childcare experts and government departments, they came up with the idea of mobile childcare units that could follow the women as they moved between worksites. The education ministry trained carers and UNICEF provided tents to house the mobile creches.

a picture of a crechè
The creches not only allow the mothers to work more easily, but improve their children’s prospects. Image: World Bank

The creches allow children to take part in activities which help them learn to speak and count, as well as engage in creative play. It also provides women with employment opportunities as caregivers and educators. “This has changed how people think about childcare, which was undervalued and usually underpaid because it was not regarded as involving any actual job skills,” says Mayor Ouédraogo.

“There has been a huge difference in my life after I joined the public works programme,” said one mother who benefitted from the scheme. “With the money I earned I was able to buy two coolers to sell fresh water and juices.”

Another mother remarked that, “Thanks to the mobile childcare, I know how to better handle and stimulate a child.”

Bridging the gender gap

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020 found that, although women’s educational attainment, health and survival were improving across the world, economic participation and opportunity had actually worsened since the last report in 2019.

The report predicts it will take an alarming 257 years before gender parity can be achieved in the workplace and identifies the lack of childcare as a key reason for the deteriorating position of women.

“It is becoming increasingly evident that the lack of childcare services is one of the main obstacles to women’s participation in paid employment, yet few social protection programmes are offering them viable solutions,” said Rebekka Grun, a World Bank social policy expert who was behind the youth employment drive in Burkina Faso.

After the success of pilot projects in Manga and two other communities, Burkina Faso set up mobile creches in 21 other locations and, although they were suspended when COVID-19 hit the country, they were reinstated in October 2020 and now look after over 1,500 children.

And it doesn’t stop there. Cameroon already has four mobile childcare centres at public works locations, and Madagascar plans to launch 278 mobile creches, while Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo have also taken up the concept.

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Related topics:
AfricaGender Inequality
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