Gender equality cannot be achieved without the provision of universal, flexible and affordable childcare.
High levels of gender inequality continue to exist in Northern Ireland. Women still do not have equal access to employment, healthcare or public and political life. Women continue to be disadvantaged by the gender pay gap, women’s poverty, widespread sexism, misogyny and men’s violence. Further, women are disproportionately represented in paid and unpaid care work, a profession that is historically underfunded and undervalued.
Why is this relevant to childcare? The lack of affordable and flexible childcare options means that women continue to face additional barriers to employment, education and training. This lack of access disproportionately impacts women because they are more likely than men to be responsible for providing care to children. These barriers perpetuate the gender pay gap, women’s poverty and myths about women’s role as being in the home. This means that the gap between women and men’s economic, political and social opportunities continues to widen and gender inequality continues to persist.
Lack of access to affordable and flexible childcare has particular impacts for marginalised women, such as, ethnic minority women, disabled women and rural women. These women can face additional social and economic barriers that can compound their experiences of gender inequality. For example, ethnic minority women are more likely than non-ethnic minority women to face additional barriers to employment in Northern Ireland, as a result of the intersectional harms of sexism and racism. Lack of access to affordable and flexible childcare creates an additional barrier to women who already face barriers to employment. Therefore, making affordable and flexible childcare accessible would bring particular benefits to those most disadvantaged by the lack of provision.
Although lack of access to childcare is a key barrier to achieving gender equality, it is important to stress that it is not only a women’s issue. It is a societal issue that impacts all genders, but disproportionately impacts women. This is because women are more likely to than men to be primary caregivers for children. Nonetheless, all of society is negatively impacted by this lack of access, as it puts additional pressure on parents, impacts children’s early learning and stifles economic growth. Therefore, facilitating this access would benefit all of society; economically, socially and in terms of health.
The Northern Ireland economy continues to benefit from the unpaid labour of women who provide care for children, while limiting women’s opportunities to progress their career, grow their wealth and equally participate in society. Introducing accessible, affordable and flexible childcare would go a long way to bridging the gap between women and men’s economic and social opportunities. The Childcare for All campaign is calling on our government to urgently introduce universal, accessible and affordable childcare and to provide investment to support the childcare sector, particularly during the current cost of living crisis and in the context of pandemic recovery. The advancement of gender equality and the sustainability of the childcare sector in Northern Ireland depends on it.
Women’s Sector Lobbyist Policy Assistant,
Women’s Resource and Development Agency