Non-state provision of early childhood care risks perpetuating unequal gender norms

2022 Gender Report

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Care and education of young children have traditionally been seen as the responsibility of the family and especially women, under the strong influence of unequal norms, standards and expectations about gender roles. For instance, among the countries that took part in the World Values Survey between 2017 and 2020, 43% of adults agreed or strongly agreed that children suffered if their mother was working, and the share was more than 80% in Bangladesh, the Plurinational State of Bolivia and Jordan. In Pakistan, 56% of adults strongly agreed, while 54% of adults in Norway strongly disagreed (Figure 15). About 40% of adults in Ethiopia and Kenya and 72% in Zimbabwe agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that it is a man’s job to earn money and a woman’s job to take care of home and family.

Source: World Values Survey, Wave 7.

Conversely, the logic of the marketplace assumes that mothers are consumers, exercising choice over the goods they purchase, which in turn affects providers’ responsiveness. But research has shown that mothers are captive consumers, since they are less likely to be mobile and less able to make free choices, having a strong preference for local services. They also tend to be unwilling to change ECCE providers, partly because they may dislike admitting that the care they chose for their child is unsatisfactory and partly because changing providers is an upheaval, requiring time off work to find a new provider and to settle a young child into a new regime (Plantenga, 2013). As captive consumers, mothers cannot, in reality, exercise much choice or influence providers regarding service quality (Penn, 2022).

Childcare is more likely than early childhood education to be viewed as a marketable commodity, but this has consequences. In low- and middle-income countries, where there is little tradition of state childcare provision, childcare services tend to be provided by unlicensed entrepreneurs and are often unrecorded and overlooked. By contrast, in several high-income countries, childcare markets are increasingly formalizing, consolidating and even globalizing. But the private for-profit sector’s claimed flexibility to respond to demand comes at the potential cost of lower quality and, as shown during the COVID-19 pandemic, increased volatility (Stephens, 2020).



Standardized, comparable data on care and education services for the youngest children are scarce because of the variety and, often, the informality of some types of provision. Such services are formally defined as having an adequate education component, i.e. services provided by trained or accredited staff with pedagogical qualifications, for at least 2 hours a day and 100 days a year. Whether available in school-, centre- or home-based settings, they should be governed by a regulatory framework recognized by national authorities. However, some countries recognize programmes that are integral to ECCE systems but whose education component is inadequate. Other countries have informal settings or unregistered ECCE services, which are not included in data but are vital to some families in terms of the education they provide.

In high-income countries, non-state actors have dominated care and education services for the youngest. Private institutions in 33 high-income countries accounted for 57% of enrolment of children under 3 in 2018. The phenomenon has historical roots. In France and Italy, private charities and churches introduced ECCE services before the state gradually enacted legislation introducing and expanding state services (Kamerman, 2006).

In Australia, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, the for-profit private sector is mainly responsible for non-state ECCE provision. In New Zealand, private institutions account for 99% of enrolment of children under 3. Among them, the share of for-profit services increased from 23% in 2002 to 41% in 2019, at the expense of community-owned services (Gallagher, 2017; Neuwelt-Kearns and Ritchie, 2020). In the United Kingdom, 82% of young children are enrolled in private institutions. In England, private companies accounted for 755,000 childcare places, or 46% of the total, in 2019. The value of the childcare market that year was estimated at GBP 6.7 billion, with private for-profit providers accounting for 82% of the sum (Department of Education, 2019; LaingBuisson, 2020). Expansion of private sector involvement in the past several years entails risks for service quality (Box 3).

In many countries, faith-based organizations and NGOs are the main providers of care and education for children under 3. In Germany, of the 73% enrolment in private institutions in 2017, about one third of providers were Catholic or Protestant church programmes (Blome, 2018; Strehmel, 2019); another third were NGOs; and only 3% of providers were in the for-profit sector (European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice, 2019).

Home-based services are a major part of ECCE provision in several countries (Kaneko et al., 2020). In 2012, 30% of children under 3 in the United States were in home-based services: 15% with an unpaid provider with whom the child had a prior relationship, 7% with a paid provider with a prior relationship and 7% with a paid provider with no prior relationship (Paschall, 2019). In 2019, 26% of children under age 3 in the European Union received childcare provided by a professional childminder at the child’s home or at the childminder’s home, as well as care provided by relatives, friends or neighbours: 19% for less than 30 hours a week and 7% for 30 hours or more (Eurostat, 2021). In France, childminders are the main care providers for children under 3. Families pay them directly but can receive a subsidy through a supplement to the childcare allowance, whose size is based on family income (European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice, 2021).

Although state provision dominates in Finland, enrolment with private providers increased from 13% in 2013 to 24% in 2019. While private provision includes local businesses and non-profit providers, the introduction of chains has fuelled its growth. The combined revenue of the three biggest for-profit chains increased from EUR 46 million in 2015 to EUR 146 million in 2019 (Ruutiainen et al., 2021). This rise is linked to a parental allowance for private services and increased outsourcing of ECCE services by municipalities seeking to reduce costs and promote parental choice based on interest areas (e.g. language and music), alternative pedagogies (e.g. Montessori) and location convenience (Kumpulainen, 2018). Israel’s early childhood educational development gross enrolment ratio almost doubled from 33% in 2013 to 62% in 2018. But only 25% of infants and toddlers were in certified day-care centres, which are the responsibility of the Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Social Services and must meet specific criteria (Vaknin, 2020).

While the share of non-state provision has remained stable or slowly increased in many high-income countries, it has decreased in Chile and Denmark. In Chile, the share of private enrolment decreased from 30% in 2013 to 10% in 2018, while the gross enrolment ratio increased from 19% to 25%. About 23% of all ECCE centres are managed by the private, non-profit Integra Foundation, which receives state funding directly and through an administrative agreement (Chile Undersecretary of Early Childhood Education, 2019). The Chile Crece Contigo (Chile Grows with You) programme, which the government introduced in 2009, extended access to ECCE provision to vulnerable children under 4 (Chile Government, 2021).

Informal arrangements with relatives, such as grandparents and siblings, or with friends, neighbours, babysitters or nannies remain common, especially in countries with little ECCE provision. In OECD countries, 26% of children under 3 are in informal childcare arrangements (OECD, 2019). In the United Kingdom, where 35% of children were in informal childcare as of 2014, grandparents were the most common carers, sometimes in combination with formal provision, which could suggest afterschool care (Simon et al., 2015). However, such informal arrangements are not included in the definition of ECCE. Care by untrained nannies and domestic workers is problematic, as they may not be able to provide developmentally appropriate care. About 10% of domestic workers in the United States are nannies. Their median age is 26, they are likely to be women and they receive the lowest pay among all domestic workers (Wolfe et al., 2020).

In 33 middle-income countries, 19% of children under 3 are enrolled in early childhood educational development programmes; non-state actors account for 46% of enrolment, with national shares ranging from less than 2% in Azerbaijan, the Russian Federation and Ukraine to 100% in Dominica and Turkey, albeit at low enrolment levels. In Jamaica, all ECCE services are run by for-profit, religious and not-for-profit private providers (World Bank, 2019). In South Africa, where 38% of children under 4 are in formal childcare, according to the 2018 General Household Survey, anecdotal evidence suggests most provision is private and often not registered, especially for disadvantaged populations (Alfers, 2016; Statistics South Africa, 2019).

Small-scale, community-based childcare programmes also provide ECCE. In Uganda, 7% of ECCE centres are community-based (Uganda Ministry of Education and Sports, 2017). Governments have embraced and developed such programmes to leverage the potential of an approach that integrates care, education, health and nutrition (Hayden and Wai, 2013). For example, in Latin America, such programmes became popular in the 1980s in Colombia (Hogares Comunitarios de Bienestar), Guatemala (Programas Hogares Comunitarios) and Nicaragua (PAININ) (Diker, 2001). In Peru, where 17% of enrolment was in private institutions in 2019, government and communities jointly run the Cuna Más home visiting programme, offering childcare, education playgroups and comprehensive care, including nutrition, safety, protection and health (Josephson et al., 2017).

In the poorest countries, many children receive little to no care. In Chad and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, half of children under 5 had been left alone or with a sibling in the past week. The use of siblings as caregivers can hamper the older sibling’s schooling and right to play, and siblings’ inexperience can have negative implications for the young child’s learning and well-being (Gromada et al., 2020).


Employers may support childcare by providing time (e.g. leave, flexible working arrangements), cash (e.g. vouchers, discounts) or services run or sponsored by the company on or off site. Such services can benefit from tax incentives through deductions or credits and from subsidies, in-kind support and a positive public image (IFC, 2019; UNESCO, 2020c). They may make up for weak public provision, especially in middle-income countries, while helping companies reduce absenteeism and increase employee retention and productivity. In Jordan, a company recorded reduced absenteeism and turnover within the first months of establishing an on-site day-care centre (IFC, 2019).

Yet laws require at least some employers to support or provide childcare for employees in just 26 of 189 countries, of which 8 are in Northern Africa and Western Asia. In some countries, employers must provide ECCE services for children until a certain age, e.g. age 2 in Chile and Paraguay (IFC, 2019).

In Asia, the situation varies. Work-based childcare centres in Bhutan involve a partnership between companies, UNICEF and the Ministry of Education (Tshomo, 2017). Operational guidelines state that the centres may not charge fees other than those approved by the ministry (Rao et al., 2020). India’s Maternity Benefit Act (1961, 2017 amendment) requires all employers with 50 or more employees to provide childcare services for children under 5 on company premises or in the employees’ community. The government provides tax incentives, implementation guidelines and sanctions for non-compliance, but employers say they lack guidance on quality issues, such as curriculum, standards and selection of third-party providers (IFC and Bright Horizons, 2019). Sri Lanka’s 1939 Maternity Benefits Ordinance obliges employers ‘with a prescribed number of women workers’ to establish and maintain a crèche (IFC et al., 2018). In practice, employers tend to outsource ECCE services to private preschool providers. Some employers have developed a ‘workplace consortium model’ to share operational costs (Warnasuriya et al., 2020).

Mandates for such services are often not enforced. In Cambodia, employers with at least 100 female employees are supposed to establish a day-care centre or cover employees’ day-care costs. However, an assessment of factory compliance found that 43% had no functioning nursing room or day-care facility and paid no childcare allowance. Another 38% had no functioning nursing room but paid a childcare allowance, although in more than 40% of those cases, payments were lower than stipulated (ILO and IFC, 2018). Another survey found that just 22% of firms with more than 100 female employees had on-site or nearby childcare, and that among the 47% of companies that reported paying a childcare allowance, the amount ranged from US$3 to US$25 per child per month (IFC, 2020).

International programmes try to encourage governments to adopt employer-supported childcare policies or to sensitize companies. Better Work is an initiative of the International Labour Organization and the International Finance Corporation aimed at garment workers, who are mostly female, in 12 countries. In Jordan, where women make up 73% of the industry’s workforce, partners supported the establishment of day-care facilities in garment factories (Better Work, 2020). The Gender Equality Seal for Public and Private Enterprises, launched in 2009, is a partnership between governments, employers and UN agencies that seeks to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment in business. To get the seal, companies need to have a policy and plan of action for gender equality and undertake an internal organizational assessment of their practices. More than 600 companies in Latin America have taken part in the programme, along with 11 countries from other regions (UNDP, 2021). Empresas que cuidan (Companies that Care), a UNICEF initiative, brings together companies in Argentina to promote innovative practices for staff who are caregivers. Its online platform provides employers with a diagnosis of their care policies and, based on the results, creates a plan with recommendations and offers materials and resources (UNICEF, 2021).

A key challenge is that work-based ECCE services are linked to formal employment, but the formal sector accounts for 39% of the world’s employed population and 30% in low- and middle-income countries (Devercelli and Beaton-Day, 2020; ILO, 2018b). Thus those in informal employment, as well as many of the formally self-employed, are left behind. In 42 markets in Accra, Ghana, women working as porters, street vendors and traders have limited childcare options, with just 7 centres, of which 3 are for-profit (private institutions account for 98% of Ghana’s gross enrolment ratio in ECCE services for young children). The cost can be high, especially without support from the municipality or the Market Traders Association (ILO and WIEGO, 2019). The need for childcare provision in African cities’ informal settlements, such as those in Nairobi, Kenya, is a major policy concern (Hughes et al., 2021). In Gisenyi, Rwanda, UNICEF and Action pour le Développement du Peuple, a national NGO, established six ECCE centres near markets where mothers working as traders across the border in the Democratic Republic of the Congo can leave their children under the supervision of trained caregivers (UNICEF et al., 2021).

Some governments partner with NGOs, unions, faith-based organizations and communities to run childcare centres. The Self-Employed Women’s Association, a trade union in India, has created a cooperative in charge of 13 day-care centres. Although parents pay a monthly fee, funds also come from the association, donors and public subsidies. Mobile Creches, an NGO in India, offers care for children of construction workers, who are usually in the informal sector, in partnership with the government and companies. In Mexico, Programa Estancias Infantiles para Apoyar a Madres Trabajadoras y/o Padres Solos (Day-care Centre Programme to Support Working Mothers and/or Single Parents) was established in 2007 to offer grants for women or community groups wishing to develop a home-based or community childcare service (Moussié, 2018).