Early childhood care and education can boost women’s employment in South Africa

Improving access to high-quality, age-appropriate early childhood care and education (ECCE) is a national imperative, recognised in numerous pieces of legislation and policy in South Africa. While the benefits to children of the proliferation of these services are clear, the associated opportunities for benefits to women are seldom given due attention. This paper seeks to articulate how investment in ECCE services can support another important developmental imperative in South Africa: enabling women to participate meaningfully in the labour force.

ECCE programmes in South Africa

The National Integrated Early Childhood Development Policy(1) (ECD Policy) recognises various modalities of ECCE programmes for children aged 0 to 5 years, including ECD centres, playgroups, mobile ECD programmes, and toy libraries. The key characteristics and coverage of these different modalities are described in the table below.

ModalityECD centreChildmindersPlaygroupsMobile ECD programmesToy libraries
Delivery settingPurpose-built ECD centres or multi-use centres such as homes, community halls, places of worship, etc. Usually the childminder’s home Generally homes, community halls, and places of worship; some are provided in safe outdoor spacesProvided from a mobile vehicle, usually set up in an open space or community building such as a place of worship or community hallEarly leaning sessions can be offered at the toy library (fixed structure) or via a mobile- or playgroup model
DosageOften daily, for the full dayOften daily, for the full dayUsually 2 or 3 sessions per week, lasting 2 to 4 hours eachUsually 1 or 2 sessions per week, 2 to 4 hours eachBased on demand
Fees chargedYesYesSometimesRarelyRarely
# of childrenMore than 66 or fewerUsually 10 per groupUsually 15 per groupUsually 10 to 15 per group
Key featuresECD centres can offer age-appropriate ECD services across all age cohorts; they provide a daily, structured programme that is well suited to preparing children aged 3 to 4 years for school

They cater for children whose caregivers require full-day care services
Considering young children’s age-differentiated learning and social needs, very young children are better suited to being in the care of childminders who can offer a secure, nurturing environment in a home setting(2)

These nurturing and trusting relationships are necessary for infants’ and toddlers’ confidence to explore and actively engage with their surroundings, critical for their learning and development(3)
Playgroups are promoted in the ECD Policy as an important early learning programme modality, necessary to drive scale-up of early learning programmes within a variety of community settings(4)

Unlike centre-based programmes, playgroups are often free

Playgroups can be targeted at any age cohort, but are particularly suited to children aged 2 to 3 years, when they start learning the concepts of sharing and group interactions
Mobile ECD programmes are generally proposed to cater for children only where other ECD services are unlikely to be provided

A mobile ECD programme is similar to a playgroup, except that the service is provided from outside the area where it is delivered
Toy libraries serve as repositories of toys and learning materials appropriate for children of different ages, different capabilities, and at different developmental stages

Toy libraries sometimes also offer playgroups or mobile ECD sessions
Access among children aged 0 to 5 year(5)Some 2.24 million children aged 0 to 5 years currently access an ECD centre

Access is highest among children aged 4 and 5 years, 60% and 28% of whom attend a community-based ECD centre respectively(6)
Around 3% of children aged 0 to 5 years currently access a childminder or day mother programme

Attendance is highest among children aged 0 to 2 years, 6% of whom were reported to attend a childminder
Less than 1% of children aged 0 to 5 years currently attend a playgroupNo nationally representative data on accessNo nationally representative data on access
Who provides ECCE services in South Africa?
Unlike services in the health- and basic education sectors in South Africa, ECCE programmes are almost exclusively provided by non-government organisations and private individuals.

Providers are either non-profit organisations, subsistence entrepreneurs, or social micro-enterprises. Programmes serving the poorest communities are often small and informal, operating from private homes or rented venues, employing only a small number of employees who earn subsistence stipends and typically do not have formal contracts or employment benefits. Low earnings and lack of social and labour protection for women workers in the childcare sector are common in many countries in the Global South, where ECCE services are primarily provided within the informal economy.(7)

In a survey(8) of over 8 500 operators of ECCE programmes, conducted in April 2020, respondents reported that only 35% of the workforce was registered with the Unemployment Insurance Fund, 13% of programmes were registered with the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission, and 45% were registered with the South African Revenue Service. This provides a sense of the level of informality of the sector.

Despite the small size of many ECCE programmes, the cumulative workforce resourcing them is not insignificant. While the exact size of the workforce is not known, a rudimentary estimate can be made based on Statistics South Africa’s 2019 General Household Survey (GHS) data. The majority of children who were reported to have attended an ECD programme were either attending an ECD centre or childminder programme. Looking at these programmes alone, and assuming that centres and childminders accommodate an average of 50(9) and six children respectively, that centres are serviced by an average of six workers each, and that childminders do not have additional support staff, the ECCE workforce is likely to be in excess of 300 000 individuals. Critically, the Department of Social Development’s 2014 Audit(10) identified that over 95% of key staff at ECD centres were women. It is safe to assume that this is also true of other programme modalities. These figures are summarised in the table below.

Children attending (reported attendance, GHS 2019)Estimated number of programmesEstimated workforce
Centres2 241 938 44 839 269 033
Childminders235 50639 25139 251
Total2 477 44484 090 308 284
Why are ECCE workers undervalued?

Across the world, the childcare sector is commonly associated with low status and low pay and, in South Africa, it relies heavily on one of the most marginalised groups in our economy: black women.

A recent ILO study identified that “the vulnerability of childcare workers — assessed by their status of employment and their place of work — is directly related to the level of public financing for childcare services.”(11)

State subsidisation of ECD programmes in South Africa is minimal at only R17 per child per day, and only 30% of this may be used for salaries. According to the latest data from the Department of Social Development (DSD),(12) only around 626 574 children benefit from the subsidy, which is less than 25% of children reported to be accessing a programme.

Even subsidised programmes’ income is not sufficient to support a decent wage without further supplementation through fees payable by parents. Almost all community-based ECD facilities therefore rely on an income from fees. The Public Expenditure Tracking Study(13) found that the monthly fees charged by a sample of registered centres varied widely between quintiles, from R117 per month in household income Quintile 1 to R1 068 in Quintile 5 (2021 prices), and averaged R228 (2021 prices) per month across three provinces. Fee income can be inconsistent, especially in the poorest communities, as care centres’ income is vulnerable to variations in parents’ ability to pay and seasonal fluctuations in demand and attendance. The same study found that principals earned an average of R4 099 per month, while the average ECD practitioner earned R2 907 (2021 prices) — well below the national minimum wage, which is presently stipulated as R21.69 per hour.(14)

ECD workers are indisputably an important component of our social fabric. They form networks of care and reciprocity that support both the formal and informal economy. There is arguably no community-supported initiative as important and that exists on the same scale as the ECD sector. Yet, like many workers in the care economy, the ECD workforce is grossly undervalued by society.

Caring for young children is often seen as the commodification of what women do unpaid, or as part of the welfare system,(15) rather than a component of and precursor to the education system, and a vital investment in human capital and wellbeing.

Perhaps a contributing factor to this concerning state of affairs stems from the historical evolution of ECCE programmes in South Africa and their location as a responsibility of government. In the early 20th century, the provision of childcare services was modelled on the British welfare system. Later, with the advent of apartheid, differences in the types and quality of services and training in the childcare sector were divided along racial lines, with services for white children benefiting from state funding, formal training, and an evolution that recognised the emerging importance of early learning and stimulation. Services for black children were largely provided by international NGOs attempting to service the needs of a neglected black majority. From the outset, a distinction was made between daycare centres or crèches and nursery schools, the latter receiving support from provincial education departments and recognised as “adjunct to the national system of education”.(16) Crèches were seen as providing primarily childcare services, rather than serving an educational function.

In 1981, the role of ECD programmes in supporting school throughput was recognised in the report of the De Lange Commission. The report recognised the need for pre-primary education of children of all races from disadvantaged communities, and called for the introduction of programmes to prepare all children for formal schooling.(17) Government recognised these recommendations in principle and in policy, but funding to implement the recommendations did not follow.

The apartheid government continued to reinforce the racial inequity of state provision of ECD programmes.(18) White children enjoyed access to public pre-primary schools and subsidised private pre-schools, governed by the Education Affairs Act of 1988. The Child Care Act (1983) largely served black children by making provision for the registration of childcare facilities or places of care, commonly known as crèches. This served to further entrench the separation of the notions of care and education and enlarged the gap in access to adequate services for the most disadvantaged.

The National Development Plan 2030 (NDP), published in 2012, recognises the central role of ECD in the eradication of poverty and inequality in South Africa. The NDP calls for universal access to two years of pre-school and equitable and secure access to quality ECD services for all young children, with a focus on those living in poverty and with a disability. The NDP is explicit in stating that funding for ECD must be improved, and that current funding mechanisms are not adequate for the expansive ECD programme envisioned by the NDP. The National Integrated ECD Policy was approved by Cabinet in December 2015, committing all ECD sector partners to the provision of access for all infants, young children, and their caregivers to a universally available comprehensive age- and developmental stage-appropriate package of high-quality essential ECD services by 2030. Regrettably, the funding required to bring these policies to fruition has not materialised to date, and ECD services continue to be mired in a welfare services paradigm.

While the ECD Policy recognises the diverse range of ECD programme modalities described above, and indeed promotes the provision of services in homes and communities, the legislative framework governing ECD, including the Children’s Act(19) and various local government regulations, is effectively punitive and exclusionary.

The result is that only a relatively small number of programmes, mostly those provided in purpose-built ECD facilities, are able to register with the Department of Social Development,(20) and are therefore eligible to receive funding. Importantly, the Children’s Act does not distinguish between different types of ECD programmes in its requirements for registration, and therefore does not cater to the reality of most home-based ECD centres, childminders, and playgroups.(21)

The Children’s Amendment Bill is currently being considered by Parliament, but proposed amendments to the chapters relating to ECD were widely deemed inadequate, and were subsequently rejected by the Portfolio Committee on Social Development. This decision is considered a small victory by the Real Reform for ECD Campaign, which represents a large number of ECD organisations in South Africa, as the sector now has a chance to improve the Bill.(22)

A critical opportunity for women and children

South Africa’s policy vision is for all children aged 0 to 5 years to have access to an age-appropriate ECCE programme by 2030.(23) Currently, less than 40% of children enjoy such access.(24) Therefore, there is a recognised need to expand provision, which will require significant growth of the workforce supporting it. Supporting the expansion of services to the unserved 60% of children under 6 years could create more than 450 000 jobs in the care economy. In addition to its obligation to ensure that all young children have access to an ECCE programme, the expansion of economic opportunities for women is a key socio-economic priority.(25) It is therefore clear that investment in jobs in the ECCE sector presents an opportunity to simultaneously respond to two critical policy goals.

Beyond the jobs that could be directly created, especially for women, in the ECCE sector, the provision of affordable ECCE services would also enable many more women to participate in the labour force — the mothers, sisters, and grandmothers who are typically responsible for caring for children during the day. By providing safe and convenient childcare for their children, ECCE services will enable these women to engage in paid work.

The triple benefit of sustained investments in ECCE services are: i) the protection and promotion of children’s development, ii) the facilitation of women’s labour force participation, and iii) the creation of paid jobs in the care economy.(26)

While wages may not currently be optimal, there are several other features of careers in the ECCE sector that make these attractive to women. ECCE programmes are ideally located within communities, so that young children do not have to travel long distances to attend. According to the DSD’s spatial norms, ECD services must be available with a 2km radius from where children live, and the ECD Policy places an emphasis on prioritising home- and community-based services.(27) According to the 2014 ECD Audit, ECD centres are, on average, located within 2km from where the attending children live.(28) The proximity of ECCE services to homes would therefore also benefit women employees or proprietors through a shorter commute to work, thereby simultaneously lowering the daily risk of violence to which women are exposed when using public transport.

An additional attraction may be that ECCE workers who are mothers can stay with their children while simultaneously earning an income and saving marginally on the cost of their own childcare. This has numerous benefits for mothers and, in particular, children from birth to the age of 3 years. It enables breastfeeding throughout the day, reduces stress and anxiety due to separation for both mother and baby, and promotes healthy emotional regulation.


ECCE is a critical community-driven service with a growth imperative that has the potential to allow many more women caregivers to work, which would increase the employment of significant numbers of women in meaningful paid work. To achieve this, government needs to cease confining ECCE programmes to the realm of social welfare services, and begin to see the triple social and economic benefit of supporting the growth and sustainability of informal and community-based ECCE programmes.

This will require an urgent overhaul of the regulatory system for ECCE programmes, to ensure an enabling environment for the provision of programmes operating in the informal sector and those provided from homes and in community spaces. Greater state financing of ECCE programmes is also required to better supplement their income from parents’ fees and secure better conditions for workers, which would also enable more meaningful livelihoods and a higher quality of services for children. A potential financing strategy may be to target public employment schemes and enterprise development funding to the ECCE sector, with the specific aim of job creation for women.


Laura Brooks

Laura Brooks is a Senior Manager at Ilifa Labantwana, an organisation working to secure an equal start for all children in South Africa, through universal access to quality early childhood development. She has a Master’s degree in Economics from UCT, which she attended as a Mandela Rhodes Scholar, and a BA(Hons) from Rhodes University in her home town of Makhanda. Prior to joining Ilifa Labantwana, Laura worked in the private sector as a development economist, delving into a variety of social justice fields, including financial inclusion, violence against women and children, and, now, early childhood development. Her driving motivation is a commitment to improving the lives of South Africa’s most vulnerable people.