Published on Let's Talk Development

What happens when early childhood development meets women’s economic empowerment?

The project was conducted in Burkina Faso and interviewed a sample of 2000 female public works participants with children aged six or under. Photo: Olivier Girard The project was conducted in Burkina Faso and interviewed a sample of 2000 female public works participants with children aged six or under. Photo: Olivier Girard

Evidence shows that children’s development and women’s participation in economic activity increase growth, reduce poverty, and improve household wellbeing.  Providing affordable, quality childcare contributes to both. But often, researchers and policymakers have looked at the benefits of supporting women's employment and childcare in isolation —with one group of people interested in improving early childhood development (ECD) and another interested in women’s economic empowerment.  Our new paper bridges this gap to examine whether community-based childcare centers can do both.


The setting of our study

The World Bank’s Youth Employment and Skills Development Project for Burkina Faso recruited young people aged 18 to 35 to participate in labor-intensive public works for six months. The program team identified 36 urban worksites that could host a childcare center. We randomly selected 18 sites to receive a center, while the remaining 18 did not.  All 18 community-based childcare centers were established as planned during the six-months of public works, continuing to operate after the public works ended. Each center could accommodate up to 50 children and was staffed by seven to 10 public works participants who received three days of training to operate the centers, instead of doing the labor-intensive public works.

We interviewed a sample of around 2000 female public works participants with children aged six or under in all 36 study sites. Fourteen months after the childcare centers opened, we tracked down the same women to find out if they had used the childcare centers and to ask about their economic activities, their wellbeing, and their children’s development. Halfway through our study, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the childcare centers to close for four months, but the centers were up and running again by the time we went back to talk with program participants in February 2021.


Households used the childcare centers

We found that the community-based childcare centers expanded access to childcare. About 25 percent of program participants at the worksites with new childcare centers had used them at least once over the past year.  Because there were other childcare services available, 12 percent of households in the control group reported having used any available childcare centers in the past year. But the share of households using any childcare centers was almost three times higher in the sites with the new childcare centers⁠—increasing to 37 percent (Figure 1). Although some households stopped using the new childcare centers once the public works program ended, the gap between the two groups persisted, with 10 percent of households in the control sites using a childcare center in the past 24 hours before our follow-up survey, and almost 22 percent of households in the treated sites using one.


Figure 1. Use of childcare centers over the past 12 months

Figure 1


Women’s employment and financial outcomes improved, and so did their psychosocial well-being

Women’s employment improved in sites where childcare centers were available, with 0.08 standard deviation gains on average.  They had higher monthly earnings from salaried jobs, and we found suggestive evidence that this is at least partly driven by increased time spent engaged in paid work. Part of this shift in work resulted from some women being directly employed to work in the childcare centers (67 of the 928 women we interviewed in the sites with new childcare centers ended up working as childcare providers in the new centers). But we also see improved outcomes for women who weren’t working in the childcare centers, which suggests that change occurred at least in part by freeing up women’s time. Women also had better financial outcomes, with increased savings and an improved ability to get cash in an emergency. We also find some evidence of improvements in mental health, a dimension often overlooked in studies investigating the effects of ECD interventions (Figure 2).


Figure 2. Effects of the childcare centers

Figure 2


Women’s agency did not change

Did the improvement in women’s employment translate into more control over household decisions or transform gender attitudes? We don’t see significant changes in women’s involvement in decision-making in the household, their attitudes toward gender, their freedom of movement, or their partners’ involvement in childcare and other household activities. Why didn’t these things change? Perhaps these issues are more entrenched and take time to evolve. Or perhaps having more income isn’t enough to shift the balance in decision-making power. There is more work to be done to fully understand what shapes intrahousehold dynamics.


Child development improved

Children in sites with the new childcare centers had improved ECD scores, with a 0.2 standard deviation gain on average. These gains primarily showed up in gross and fine motor skills, with no increases nor deterioration in language development. Because the childcare centers were closed for a third of the study period due to COVID-19, these positive impacts on child development could have been even higher.


Everyone wins 

Our results provide new evidence that offering childcare can positively impact both women's economic empowerment and children's development.  Still, there’s more room for improvement⁠—women’s decision-making agency and partners’ involvement in domestic tasks didn’t budge.

A final thought⁠—was the program cost-effective? The childcare centers essentially paid for themselves. The monthly cost of operating each center was USD 16.6 per child running at full capacity. The centers typically had around 33 children enrolled instead of the maximum 50, which raised operating costs to USD 25.2 per child on average. Women who used the childcare centers earned an extra USD 23 to 25 per month. If we factor in any additional benefits from children’s improved development, then the social gains are even higher.


Aziz Dao

Research Analyst at the World Bank’s Africa Region Gender Innovation Lab (GIL)

Estelle Koussoubé

Economist at the World Bank’s Africa Gender Innovation Lab

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