Why mothers in slums use informal daycare centers

April 1, 2022

On 23 February 2022, the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) convened a joint national dissemination workshop for three Early Childhood Development (ECD) projects funded by the British Academy. These projects focused on the intricacies of raising children under the age of three in informal settlements and in semi-nomadic communities. During the workshop, it was noted that most Kenyans, especially women who live on or below the poverty line in these resource-poor settings, face challenges balancing work and getting quality childcare services for their children.

In an interactive session during the workshop, one participant raised a thought-provoking question on why mothers in informal settlements leave their children in the care of primarily untrained caregivers in sub-standard, unregistered daycares with poor environmental conditions. To understand their decision in choosing this means of paid secondary care, you need to understand the circumstances of families in informal urban settlements. Firstly, there is the huge issue of limited household income. Most people living in informal settlements work for a meager daily or weekly wage (most report working for a daily wage of between KES 200 – 300). The money placed against the financial obligations associated with city life fails to provide for a comfortable life. Informal daycare facilities charge between KES50 – 100 per child for parents who provide food items when dropping off their children and KES 100 for parents who rely on the centers to provide food for the child. This translates to KES 1500 – 3000 monthly assuming the child attends daycare for 30 days in a month. This is a lot of money but manageable compared to the market rate for live-in domestic help.

Then, there is the issue of space. Families living in informal settlements occupy very small rental spaces. According to the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA)’s report on the demand for housing in Kenya, these spaces are estimated to be between nine to fourteen square meters in size. The houses provide shelter to at least three people. While the more fortunate Kenyans can afford to have a live-in helper to care for the children, this is not feasible for families in informal settlements on account of space. They already live on top of each other, so one extra person would further stretch the accommodation facilities.

Also, very few domestic workers are looking to serve in households in the informal settlement areas. They assume that their income will not be met consistently and that life will be difficult. Maybe water is in low supply, or the environment may be less pleasing to them, or perhaps they want to experience a different kind of living arrangement.

Why not have a relative assist in providing care for the child? While that was convenient in rural areas, it is not feasible for urbanites in Nairobi’s informal settlements today. The progressive evolution of the family dynamics in Kenya has seen this kind of arrangement phased out. Relatives look for a quid pro quo kind of a relationship, lest one of the parties feels taken advantage of. Additionally, most adults in informal settlements engage in some form of paid work to supplement income and so may not have the time to mind the children.

How about one parent stays home while the other works outside the home to provide for the family’s daily needs? Well, this may work if the working parent’s income allows it. Life in the city is quite expensive. Even the more well-to-do Nairobi residents struggle to meet their lifestyles on a single income. It is also retrogressive to have mothers stay home when they can contribute to society through participation in paid labor. Fathers would be more reluctant to consider staying at home as primary caregivers as society expects them to be financial providers.

Instead of focusing on the choice or lack thereof for families living in informal settlements, finding a solution to improve care at an affordable rate would be more productive. This would require the investment of governments and non-governmental organizations. Most daycare centers in the slum areas are substandard because there is inadequate funding to improve the facilities and the services. A daycare center is set up in response to a glaring need. According to the Community of Practice and the Nairobi Early Childcare in slums studies, these facilities are in most cases set up by a resident who accepts a request to care for a neighbor’s child; the word spreads. Before long, she has a group of parents who consistently seek out her childcare services.

We always conduct impromptu visits of the facilities to ensure that offered care is of acceptable standards. Sensitization of the service providers has increased awareness on the importance of incorporating care and learning opportunities to the services offered in informal daycare centers,’’ says Elizabeth Mutimba, a Community Health Volunteer (CHV) in Korogocho slums.

While these childcare facilities benefitted from capacity strengthening opportunities provided by  APHRC in collaboration with CHVs, there is a need to build on policies that would streamline this service and put a more workable regulatory system in place.