Let me tell you briefly the stories of Afia and Melba.
Afia gets up every day at 5 a.m. to fetch water from a well two miles away from her farm in Djanipe (Togo) to prepare a family meal before going off to her farming or trading activities When she comes back home in the evening, she is too tired to play with her two children, aged four and two.
Soglo, her husband, works shorter hours and does not participate in childcare or household chores. They have been hit hard by the lack of rainfall and are constantly struggling to make ends meet.
Afia fears the children might be malnourished and is thinking about borrowing money from a neighbour to get her son Edem into primary school. She would prefer not to have any more children, but family planning services are not available.
Thousands of miles away, in the Bronx, New York, Melba is expecting a baby. It is her third child with her partner José, who is employed on short-term contracts in the construction sector.
Household financial management is a challenge, with Melba working part-time as a cashier at a local supermarket in order to care for her two-year-old, Meagan, and taking her four-year-old , John, back and forth to pre-school.
Sometimes a friend or a babysitter is in charge of the children while Melba and José are working, usually in the late afternoon or early evening. They cannot afford a day-care centre, where Meagan would enjoy enriching learning activities, and Melba is about to go on maternity leave without any protection, as her contracts are not subject to collective agreements.
In my work in social protection, I have come across many Afias and Melbas who represent the failure of societies to provide maternity protection and good solutions to support the reconciliation of work and childcare responsibilities for both women and men.
And when this happens, negative outcomes ensue, both for economies and families. Parents –most often women – must forego opportunities for decent work, having to do part-time work or working in vulnerable and informal economic activities.
Gender inequality is reinforced within the home and in workplaces, whilst household income is severely reduced, undermining basic family needs, such as health care, food, nutrition and education.
As a result, children are deprived of opportunities for quality care and learning, seriously impairing their chances of succeeding in life.
In this context, Governments must understand that the economy suffers because it misses the opportunity to harness its human capital efficiently for economic growth.
Strong investments are needed in the social sector and across the life cycle, starting with pregnancy, childbirth, maternity protection, parental leave, early childhood development and care. This should continue through adolescence to young people’s entry into paid jobs, as a guarantee to future decent work.
It is necessary to incorporate work,-family policies, including maternity protection, into national legislative frameworks and to support workers with family responsibilities, also introducing paid paternity leave as a strategy to encourage men to share in the care of children.
Several studies have demonstrated how early childhood care and education programs improve, not only the development status of young children, but also the labour force participation rates of women. A study in Argentina assessing the impact of the expansion of pre-school infrastructure on women’s employment, found that women’s probabilities of being employed rose between 7 and 14 percentage points.
There are many examples about the positive results of family-focused social protection schemes.
In Malawi, for instance, the implementation of social cash transfer programmes with primary caregivers, (mostly mothers and grandmothers), as beneficiaries has helped to retain children at school and to keep them from seeking employment in the tea and tobacco estates to supplement household incomes.
By contrast, austerity measures put in place in Europe in response to the current economic crisis has meant a setback to achieved progress. Cuts in health care and education in countries like Greece, Spain, Italy, Ireland or the UK, call for a thorough review of current austerity policies, particularly as Europe cannot afford to fail its working families.
ILO and UNICEF are working together to facilitate a more integrated approach that would reduce the risk of perpetuating poverty, inequality and social exclusion. It would increase the likelihood of a virtuous circle of decent work interacting with strong childhood development policies to generate positive outcomes in terms of family and societal well-being.
It is a matter of dignity for societies and for millions of individuals who fight very hard every day not just to provide the basic for their families, but to enjoy life with them.
Like Afia. Like Melba.