Quality Child Care is a Missing Piece of the Poverty-reduction Puzzle

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A discussion with Mirai Chatterjee on SEWA’s holistic model and approach


The Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India has been a pioneering trade union for poor women workers since 1972, branching off into a number of different initiatives to holistically support its members. It soon realized that a major need for women working in the informal economy was child care – but child care that met their unique needs. 

In 1986, SEWA’s social security division set up its first child care centre in Ahmedabad. In 1989, SEWA was a founding member, along with the Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS), of the Forum for Crèches and Child Care Services (FORCES), a national network promoting the need and right to child care for women informal workers.

Today, FORCES brings together 450 women and children’s rights organizations across 10 states in India. Through a national campaign, FORCES is calling for full-day, free, quality, holistic, and integrated early childhood care for all. The campaign wants to see greater investments in the public child care service – the Integrated Child Development Service (ICDS) – so that hours are extended to match women’s working day and the service is improved to provide quality care, education, nutrition, and health care services to children from 0-6 years old.  

Drawing on SEWA’s experience of running child care centres, Mirai Chatterjee, the Director of SEWA’s Social Security division, speaks to WIEGO’s Megan Macleod about what kind of child care services women informal workers need for themselves and their children.

From what you’ve seen, what are the childcare needs and gaps for women in the informal workforce?

MC: Well there are huge child-care gaps for women in the informal work force. From the very beginning of SEWA, the first thing women said to us was “Whatever has happened to us, has happened to us; we lead hard lives, but we want a better future for our children.” And so from day one it was evident that this was one of their needs, and even demands, of their own union. 

And the gaps come because who is going to take care of their children when they are out to work? Many of them are home-based workers, so they work at home but they need to work. We don’t have a daycare system.

In the mid-70s, the Indian Government started a programme called Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), which is there today, and it’s billed as the world’s largest child development/child care programme. But it was set up to address the issue of children’s well-being and malnutrition and children’s development. It takes care of young children for two-to-three hours a day, and as we know, informal women work much longer days.

Most importantly, the gap is in a holistic approach that focuses on care, nutrition, health, and education.

Tell me a little more about the mothers who use this service. Can you give us a picture of what it’s like for these women to balance both income-earning activities and child-rearing duties?

MC: The mothers who use this service are women working in the informal economy. They are from the main categories of workers from where SEWA derives its membership: the first group is manual labourers and service providers, so many of our mothers are agricultural labourers, small and manual farmers, construction workers, domestic workers, women who clean, women who are waste recyclers. 

The next big group of our mothers is street vendors, who leave early in the morning for the market to buy vegetables. The third group — an important group — is home-based workers: women who sew or produce goods from the home. They say, “Without child care, we are not able to work, because our home is our work place, and if our child is constantly running about the place, it is difficult for us to complete our work order.” 

So of course balancing work and family and child care is a huge challenge for our members. In fact, women tell us it adds hugely to the stress and various responsibilities of their day. The one net result is that they hardly sleep: they go to bed way past midnight and get up really early — that’s the only way they can get through the day. And they are always worried about their young children. 

The other collateral issue is that older siblings are kept at home to take care of the younger children because the mother has to work. So the older sibling, usually the older girl, is kept at home to take care of her younger siblings at the cost of her own education, well being, and development.

Child care sets up a virtuous cycle. In fact, we say child care is poverty reduction. You can’t reduce poverty or have any impact on women’s workforce participation and women’s work if you don’t have full-day quality child care. It’s as simple and clear as that.

How do these women’s choices differ from women in the formal labour market?

MC: I think the same issues are there for women in the formal work force. The major difference is that there are laws which say that there should be crèches where there are women working in the formal work force. 

So, if you will, there are those minimum standards. However, those laws are not implemented, therefore, for most women working in factories or in formal work places, they suffer from the same issues: no full-day quality care. In that sense, it’s an issue that cuts across both formal and informal, at this time, anyway.

How is SEWA addressing these needs? What are the BalSEWA Centres?

MC: As I mentioned, SEWA women have identified child care as a demand and as a need. 

Women have been contributing to the BalSEWA (“Bal” means child in Hindi) centres from day one. Currently, they contribute almost 200 rupees per month per child, although the cost per child is closer to 800 to 1,000 rupees per month. SEWA made up the difference from various sources.

We run these centres according to women’s hours of work, and they are run by informal women workers. We lay less emphasis on their educational qualifications, although some education is important, and more emphasis on what kind of human being they are. We also provide capacity building for them. And that’s another difference from the government centres: they lay a lot of store in education and qualifications. And by that store, many informal women workers would be disqualified, frankly, as child care workers. 

One very important issue is space. That’s an ongoing issue for us because in urban India space is extremely expensive and hard to come by. So finding adequate space for our children, the kind of centre that is large enough for our activities, plus has some garden or some open space, has been a huge challenge in urban India.

What is unique about the BalSEWA Centres?

MC: I think what is unique is that the centres are used, run, and owned by the women themselves. In fact, all our child care centres are run by a child care workers’ cooperative. Once we had a critical mass of child care centres and child care workers we organized them. We learned that, along with unions, cooperatives are a workers’ organization; it is a democratic organization, and it is a structure that promotes long-term sustainability plus ownership by the local women themselves.

You recently conducted a survey on the benefits of child care. What were the most interesting findings? How will this impact your future work?

MC: We’re finding that women’s income doubled just from full-day child care. So it’s a dramatic impact we’re talking about. And I’ll bet this is the same in country after country.

And then, the second thing: peace of mind, women report. Third is overall well-being of the child; they say their child is much more active and ready for school. The teachers in the primary schools report there’s a real difference between our kids and other kids who haven’t been to SEWA’s BalSEWA Centers.

So all in all, we would say that child care is a win-win. I don’t know why we haven’t done it as a nation; we have fallen short, and it’s time we took action — and we will take action.


For more information and to sign onto the global campaign for child care for women informal workers please see: http://www.wiego.org/wiego/wiego-child-care-campaign


Top photo: Ahmedabad, India: Jyotsna Mahendra, a teacher at BALSEWA daycare, enjoys time with her student, Kritika Gyansingh, age 4. The BALSEWA Center, run by the Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA), a trade union for poor, self-employed women in the informal sector, holistically addresses issues for women working in the informal sector by providing affordable daycare, health check-ups, and educational programmes. The Center's daycare allows SEWA members to earn essential income for their family while keeping their children in a safe educational space. Working mothers pay just 150 rupees a month, and the Center usually has about 30 children enrolled. Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images Reportage

Informal Economy Topic