Motherhood penalty: ‘Why we can’t get decent jobs’

Grace Wamuhu, a mitumba seller, and Mary Njeri in Nairobi on January 2024.

Photo credit: Photos I Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • These mothers say they cannot afford childcare and have to juggle between their work and looking after their babies.
  • Decent work, according to the ILO, is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace, social protection for all, better prospects for personal development, and social integration.

Grace Wamuhua's heart jumps every time her toddler calls "Mama!" as she sells second-hand clothes on the bustling Tom Mboya Street of downtown Nairobi.

It could mean he's wandered too far in the crowds or is in distress. Grace must stop her work and swiftly grab him before he disappears or gets hurt.

It happens all day long as the single mother balances her trade with protecting her rambunctious child. She can't afford childcare, so he stays by her side.

Grace Wamuhu, a mitumba seller, on Tom Mboya Street in Nairobi during an interview on January 20, 2024.

Photo credit: Bonface Bogita I Nation Media Group

The baby keeps calling his mother while pointing at honking vehicles and touts directing passengers to matatus, thus interrupting our interview.

Getting the luggage to the city centre is not a walk in the park, she says. It involves manoeuvring within the market, then the streets, with baby on her back as she keenly follows the person transporting her stock.

“Doing this work with my baby around makes it tougher. But I must do it. I have to provide for my children. My education never went beyond Class Two, so I can’t get a better job,” the 35-year-old narrates.

Grace’s three other children are in school. The single mother is determined to offer them the best life she can. That means working to get an income, however difficult it is.

“I wake at 4am to prepare the other children for school, then get myself and him ready for our day,” she explains, cradling the boy.

Like Grace, Roseline Akinyi, a mother of four, struggles daily to balance childcare and her income-generating activities.

Roseline Akinyi, a sweet potato broker at Namba Stage in Migori County. The mother of four links farmers with sellers in other towns. She struggles daily to balance taking care of her child and working.

Photo credit: Tebby Otieno | Nation Media Group

Roseline is a sweet potato broker at Namba Stage in Migori County where she links farmers with sellers in other major towns across the country.

“When I did not have a small baby, I would take the sweet potatoes to my customers in Nairobi and Mombasa, three times a month. But now I do not travel but send the stock to my customers.”

Her three other children are in school. She wakes up early to prepare her third child for school before jumping onto a boda boda to work, with her eight-month-old baby strapped on her back. Although she is married, she says her husband has taken a back seat and she takes care of all bills.

Between managing anxious farmers and calling customers, Roseline must stop to breastfeed, shade her baby from the harsh sun, and rock her to sleep in a makeshift crib. Previously, she would collect the potatoes from the farm herself. Not anymore.

“I now pay other people to go to the farms and bring these sacks here. I then call my clients in Nairobi and Mombasa, and alert them to receive the stocks that are on the way,” she says.

Given the nature of their jobs, Grace and Roseline can’t afford house helps. They are forced to bring their babies to work. This, however, does not guarantee their safety as evidenced by the lack of shelter for their babies against changing weather patterns. Again, when their babies fall asleep, they have to make them temporary bedding within these open markets.

Lack of childcare impedes many Kenyan women from accessing decent work. Hard-won careers also suffer, as former teacher Mary Njeri discovered after losing her job in Dagoretti, Nairobi.

“I got my second baby while I was at home, jobless. I could not search for a job and take care of my baby at the same time. I had no resources to employ a house help. I settled on raising the baby, hoping to get a job once the baby grows,” the ECDE teacher explains when we meet her.

The mother of two, aged 12 and 5, says it has been difficult to get employment since 2017 when she lost her job.

“Losing my job depressed me because I was the family breadwinner; my husband had no source of income.”

Decent work, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), involves productive work that delivers a fair income, security in the workplace, social protection for all, better prospects for personal development, and social integration. It also involves equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men.

A survey, titled Barriers that Prevent Women from Participating in Decent Work and conducted between 2021 and 2023, shows that most women (57 per cent) and almost half of men (48 per cent) hold jobs that do not meet the ILO definition of decent work.

It further found that social norms that place much of the caring responsibility on women continue to limit their participation in decent jobs.

Aisha Karanja, a sociologist, says even women empowerment programmes in the country have not changed the perception that women have to do house chores.

She says employers, too, still believe men are less troublesome and more productive than women, thus offering more demanding jobs to men, resulting in few women holding senior positions.

“You end up in disguised employment where people think you are working, but you are not making ends meet. Once you receive your pay, you use part of it on transport and daycare for your baby. At the end of the day, you can’t even afford a decent meal,” Aisha says.

A 2023 report by five researchers from the University of Nairobi and government agencies shows that women with children aged 0–5 years are three per cent less likely to participate in decent work activities.

The researchers further note that college and university education significantly increase the likelihood of women accessing decent work by 88 per cent and 58 per cent respectively.

The statistic is evidenced by the number of women with young babies currently holding senior positions at their workplaces in the country.

Societal expectations burden women disproportionately with childcare and housework, further limiting work options. But quality, affordable childcare could change the narrative, as civil engineer George Ngoge explains.

“I went back to work a day after my wife was discharged from the hospital. Our baby is now a month old. I did not get paternity leave for fear of losing my job because I do not have a formal contract. I work throughout the year except on Saturdays,” says the father of three who lives in Nairobi.

Government auditor Rebecca Njui advanced in her career by utilising family support and continuing her education. She has seen her career grow from her entry level into the job market as an intern.

Rebecca Njui during an interview at VetLab Sports Club in Kabete on January 20, 2024.

Photo credit: Bonface Bogita I Nation Media Group

Upon completion of her internship, she secured a customer service position before getting promoted to credit officer and later accounts assistant.

Two years later, she secured a job in another organisation where she rose to assistant manager before leaving for her current role with the government as an internal auditor.

“In the past, internal audits were feared, a bit. I like challenges and internal audit gives me challenges. My current job involves going around the 47 counties, giving quality assurance and I’m an outgoing person, so I am doing what I love to do.”

Amidst her career and academic growth, she equally walks the motherhood journey. She is a mother of four (9, 7, 5 and 1). Being in a demanding job that is also mobile, she says her support team has eased the burden.

“When they (babies) were quite young, juggling between work and motherhood was quite something but the support system, my husband, has been with me in this journey,” she says.

Rebecca is continuously advancing her studies. For instance, her Bachelor of Arts in Economics qualified her to secure her first job. When she started her motherhood journey, she created time for her Master’s in Finance.

She is currently at the research stage of her PhD in Leadership and Governance course, which she believes will enable her to get to the top decision table in the future.

“When I went back to my job after five months’ maternity leave, I would travel with the young baby and I would have a nanny by my side. I am not aggressive right now in looking into more opportunities because of motherhood and I believe I would be a bit further than where I am now,” says Rebecca.

Motherhood challenges to decent jobs are not limited to those looking for jobs but also those who have secured them.

John Ndaishimiye, a human resource manager, says the Child Act and the Child Protection policies recognise the right to education and the best interest of a child but do not consider the social dimension.

He adds that lack of legal measures safeguarding women as they work affects their production levels.

He says the lack of an environment where children can be while mothers work is a major issue that is not protected by any law.

“The best interest of the child is not taken care of in terms of labour laws. We don’t have a clear guideline on how to respond to a situation where mothers have to work to provide for their children but we have some organisations with these policies,” he says.

The lack of childcare even impacted former Kwale woman representative Zuleika Hassan. In 2019, she was kicked out of Parliament for bringing her then five-month-old baby to the chambers. Her story dominated global news.

“As women members of Parliament, some of us had already written to Parliament and the Parliamentary Service Commission passed that we should have a room for babies to stay, but they hadn’t implemented it.

"Mine was a one-day decision because of the few challenges I had that day. I asked myself: 'What if there was an important vote and just because of the baby I couldn’t go?'” Zuleika says.

The former MP, who married at the age of 29 and joined politics while fairly young, walked her motherhood journey while at the peak of her political career. She experienced the challenges of having a Parliament without a crèche.

In 2011 while expecting her first child, she was the national youth coordinator for the Orange Democratic Movement party. The mother of four (aged 12,10,6 and 4) had her other children during the period she was a nominated youth representative in Parliament and woman representative for Kwale County.

“I had my last three children in Parliament, so imagine breastfeeding each of them for two years. That is six years of the ten years I was a woman MP and could not travel.

“I missed so much of education, capacity building, and experience that my counterparts had when they travelled outside the country,” Zuleika narrates.

Quality childcare isn't a privilege, it's a prerequisite for Kenya achieving gender equity and sustainable growth. With smart policies and public-private partnerships, working mothers like Grace and Roseline can nurture their children without sacrificing livelihoods.