Women in childcare in Kenya’s informal settlements


Kyle Anzimbu, 3, receives Polio immunisation from World Health Organization Kenya Disease Prevention and Control Officer Joyce Onsongo at the Kibera Vaccine Centre on May 26, 2021. 

Photo credit: Lucy Wanjiru | Nation Media Group

Kenya has made significant strides in improving access to education, healthcare and other basic services. However, childcare often does not get the recognition it deserves.

In most African settings, women are considered children’s primary caregivers.

For mothers and guardians who double up as breadwinners and primary caregivers, difficult decisions have to be made — to either go to work with their non-school-going children or leave them under the care of their kin or Good Samaritans. Those who can afford it hire domestic workers. But many of these domestic workers are themselves categorised as informal workers.

As you may be aware, most people living in informal settlements in Kenya work to make the lives of those in the middle and upper class better. For example, the women who do your laundry, the commuting ‘house managers’, the construction site (‘mjengo’) workers, those in the cleaning or garbage collection services, domestic workers and childcare givers among others.

Informal settlements

But let’s pause and ask: who looks after their own children— the ones they leave behind as they head out to make the lives of others better?

In some cases, women in informal settlements have arrangements similar to daycare for the middle and upper class. Nairobi alone is estimated to have at least 5,000 of these childcare facilities catering to the informal workforce living in informal settlements, with the number across the country reported to be about 30,000.

In informal settlements across the country, women often lack the support and recognition they deserve. As is generally the case with the cultural perception attached to women and childcare, society assumes that childcare does not deserve pay.

It is presumed a natural responsibility for women. As such, childcare is undervalued, underpaid and sometimes not paid or recognised at all. This meagre pay (where it is available), has a ripple effect on the quality of care given to children in informal settlements whose parents ironically work to make everyone else’s lives better.

It's time to change this situation. Childcare givers in informal settlements deserve recognition, better pay and support.

High levels of poverty

The current state of childcare in Kenyan informal settlements is characterised by poor infrastructure, limited access to basic services and high levels of poverty. Many families struggle to provide for their children and, as a result, childcare often falls to women. According to a study by Unicef, 84 per cent of children under the age of five in Nairobi’s informal settlements are cared for by family members, with women providing the majority of this care. This caregiving work is essential because, without it, children would be left unattended, unsupervised and at risk of harm.

However, it is important to recognise that this work comes at a cost. Women who provide childcare are often forced to give up other opportunities, such as education, employment and access to finance.

According to Uthabiti Africa, the authors of the status of female childcare workers in Kenya report 2023, “Childcare in Kenya is informal and presents concerns over workers’ rights, poor work conditions, low pay and lack of representation. Many childcare workers are women and girls who are over-represented in the informal sector and predominantly from lower socio-economic status.”

So how can the crucial role of women in childcare be recognised and supported by the government and non-governmental organisations?

First, training and resources needed to provide quality care for young children should be provided. Important areas include nutrition, health and early childhood development.

Economic independence

Second, increasing investment and access to childcare services in informal settlements provides options for families and supports women’s financial inclusion and economic independence.

Third, there is a need to challenge gender norms, pegged on the ingrained idea that women should be responsible for childcare. By promoting gender equality, we can help women break free from the constraints of caregiving and pursue their goals.

Fourth, it is vital to support the work of women in childcare financially and also offer opportunities for professional development.

Fifth, it is crucial to formulate a policy and regulatory framework on domestic and childcare work as key contributors to the care economy. By supporting women in childcare, we can create a more equitable and just society where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.

Ms Biira is a strategic communicator and media personality.