Are South Africa’s childcare policies serving women’s economic participation?

“Adequate childcare is a critical element of the decent work agenda”. Decent work, according to the International Labour Organization,(1) includes opportunities for work that is not only productive but also provides a fair income, job security, and prospects for personal development. Thus, the opening phrase, which is from Pia Britto’s commentary(2) on the multiplier effects that early childhood development has on many of the global Sustainable Development Goals, can be viewed as a ‘business case’ for supporting employees with childcare responsibilities. This is particularly the case for women who, despite their increased participation in economic activities, continue to be disproportionately responsible for childcare, due to socially ascribed roles.

In addition to limiting women’s participation in decent work and/or other income-generating activities, limited or no childcare can also reduce women’s productivity at work, reduce their income, and lead to gender inequality in employment.(3) From the perspective of the workplace, employees faced with childcare challenges can contribute to negative outcomes such as frequent absenteeism; poor employee well-being, productivity, and performance, with an adverse effect on firm profitability; reduced job satisfaction and loyalty; poor employee retention; and compromised organisational reputation.(4)

It is against this background that the development and effective implementation of family-friendly policies are increasingly recognised by policymakers in government and international agencies, as well as by civil society organisations, as important in any public or private workplace. Defined as “measures and arrangements that have a positive impact on workers’ abilities to reconcile work and family responsibilities — and advance the development and well-being of their children”,(5) family-friendly policies are varied, but can be categorised into two broad groups.

The first is flexible workplace practices that remove impediments to working by allowing employees to shift the time and location of their work to suit their needs and family requirements. Examples include flexible working hours, compressed work scheduling, job-sharing, and telecommuting. The second relates to policies and practices that support employees with caregiving responsibilities to fulfil their family- and personal needs(6). For employees with childcare responsibilities, in particular, four sets of policies are identified as the most effective: (i) paid family leave to care for young children, (ii) breastfeeding support, (iii) access to affordable and quality childcare, and (iv) child benefits.(7)

In this article, I draw on academic and other evidence-based literature to explore the availability of child-focused policies in South Africa and the extent to which these serve South African women’s participation in economic activities. The insights that emerge are valuable against available evidence(8) showing very low levels of adoption of family-friendly policies in South African workplaces.

This is despite government’s commitment to making the country’s work environment family-friendly through, inter alia, “affording employees their full family-related entitlements and benefits”.(9) I envisage that the illumination of gaps in childcare policy will propel interventions and practices that can better integrate and include women at work. To set the stage, the article begins with a brief overview of women’s economic participation in South Africa.

Economic participation of South African women

The post-apartheid era has seen notable feminisation of South Africa’s labour force. This is reflected, for example, in the rate of women’s participation in the labour force increasing from 38% in 1995(10) to 54% in the first quarter of 2020,(11) and nearly a third (30%) of women being in informal-sector employment in the first quarter of 2019.(12) Furthermore, the 2021 Global Gender Gap Report(13) ranked South Africa 92nd out of 158 countries in terms of the active economic participation of, and opportunities available to, women. This indicator is based on three measures: (i) the participation gap (the difference between women’s and men’s rates of participation in the labour force); (ii) the remuneration gap (the ratio of estimated women’s income to that of men, and the level of wage equality between men and women for similar work); and (iii) the advancement gap (the ratio of women to men among legislators, senior officials, and managers, and in technical and professional fields).

Legislative instruments that partly explain this improved economic participation of women include the Labour Relations Act No. 66 of 1995,(14) which prohibits unfair discrimination, “directly or indirectly, on any arbitrary ground, including, but not limited to race, gender, sex, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, political opinion, culture, language, marital status or family responsibility [emphases added]”, and is applicable to all employees. The Employment Equity Act No. 55 of 1998(15) (EEA) aims to achieve equity in the workplace by promoting equal opportunity and fair treatment in employment. The EEA states:

No person may unfairly discriminate, directly or indirectly, against an employee in any employment policy or practice, on one or more grounds including race, gender, pregnancy, marital status, family responsibility, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, HIV status, conscience, belief, political opinion, culture, language, and birth (emphasis added).
Childcare policies and women’s economic participation in South Africa

It is noteworthy that South African labour legislation does not specifically deal with employers’ obligation to offer childcare support to employees.(16) The only existing legal avenue for the right to request such support is unfair discrimination provisions, particularly in relation to family responsibility, noted above.(17) The country’s legislative and policy frameworks do, however, contain regulations providing for family leave, breastfeeding support in the workplace, early childhood education and -care, as well as child benefits. The following sub-sections explore the extent to which these frameworks enable women’s economic participation.

Paid family leave to care for young children

Family leave typically encompasses three statutory leave provisions. The first, maternity leave, grants women “a break from employment (usually a statutory entitlement) during pregnancy and/or after childbirth, related to maternal and infant health and welfare; for this reason, it is available only to women, and is usually limited to the period just before and after birth”.(18) The second is paternity leave, which is available to fathers for the purpose of childcare in the time immediately after the birth of a child. Parental leave, the third type, entitles parents of any gender time off work when their maternity or paternity leave is exhausted.(19) To the extent that these provisions guarantee parents the right to return to the same work at the end of the leave period, all three types of leave provide a degree of job- and income security.(20) The availability and accessibility of such leave is, therefore, one of the main enablers of labour force participation, particularly if the leave is paid. If unpaid, the leave can mean the potential loss of much-needed income, and can thus be a disincentive for taking the (entire period of) leave or for participating in the labour force.

Of particular interest in this article is maternity leave, which, in South Africa, is provided for in the Basic Conditions of Employment Act No. 75 of 1997 (BCEA). Under this Act, South African working women are entitled to at least four consecutive months’ maternity leave, including a month’s leave before the baby’s birth, if needed. In terms of duration, this provision is in line with Convention No. 183 of the International Labour Organization (ILO),(21) which provides for 14 weeks’ paid maternity leave. It is noteworthy, however, that South African employers are not under any legal obligation to remunerate employees during this time.

South Africa’s high prevalence of single parenthood, the rising cost of living, and crushing household debt mean that many mothers, particularly those working in the private and non-governmental sectors, may not be able to afford to take leave or take it for the full recommended period. In other words, financial necessity may force women to return to work as soon as possible, thus posing a number of health risks to both mother and child.

Another potentially accessible leave policy for South African women in the labour market is parental leave. Enacted in January 2020,(22) this leave provides all parents, including fathers, with 10 days’ unpaid leave when their child is born. Although the leave does not apply to birth mothers, as they are already entitled to maternity leave in terms of the BCEA, it is available to adopting women and surrogate mothers. However, as with maternity leave, parental leave is unpaid, posing the same limitations as unpaid maternity leave. A further constraint is that 10 days’ leave is extremely short for the intended purpose.

Breastfeeding support

The benefits of breastfeeding for child health and -survival, maternal health, and early childhood development are widely documented.(23) For this reason, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby’s life, which should ideally continue with appropriate complementary foods until at least two years of age. This recommendation renders breastfeeding a workplace- and labour issue, as it essentially means mothers must breastfeed in the time and space of paid work.(24) Indeed, ILO Convention No. 183 recommends “one or more daily breaks or a daily reduction of hours of work for breastfeeding, which is to be counted as working time and remunerated accordingly. WHO Recommendation No. 191 states that, “where practicable, provision should be made for the establishment of facilities for nursing under adequate hygienic conditions at or near the workplace”.(25)

Not only has South Africa ratified and committed to these and other international initiatives to promote breastfeeding, the country has also domesticated these through an array of legislative instruments, regulations, guidelines, and policies.(26) These include the 2011 Tshwane Declaration of Support for Breastfeeding and, perhaps most notably, the Code of Good Practice on the Protection of Employees during Pregnancy and After the Birth of a Child. For example, in line with ILO Convention 183, Section 5.13 of the latter urges all workplaces to make arrangements “for employees who are breast-feeding to have breaks of 30 minutes twice per day for breastfeeding or expressing milk each working day for the first six months of the child’s life”.(27) A number of studies have, however, revealed that this code, and the fact that it is legislated, is not widely known by mothers and relevant managers in the country. As a result, it is rarely implemented by employers across all sectors,(28)(29) and South African workplaces typically do not provide breastfeeding facilities such as a private space for mothers to breastfeed or to express and safely store breast milk.(30)

Where awareness of the code exists, managers often leave it to mothers to request breastfeeding support. However, due to power relations and certain sociocultural factors, mothers often do not request or utilise their available and legislated breastfeeding support, thus foregoing their full maternity benefits.(31)(32) It has been argued that a major contributor to this is mothers’ implicit knowledge that, if they breastfeed in line with their legislated benefits, they will “fall short of the ideal worker ideology around which organisations are built. Ideal workers single-mindedly devote their efforts to organisational goals, not allowing distractions such as reproductive needs which are experienced by pregnant and breastfeeding mothers”.(33) Thus, in preparation for returning to work at the end of their maternity leave, many South African women stop breastfeeding before the recommended six months. It is partly for this reason that, while most mothers in the country (88%) initiate breastfeeding almost immediately after birth, very few babies are breastfed in line with the WHO’s recommendation.(34) To the extent that babies who are not breastfed are vulnerable to suboptimal feeding and care practices and, ultimately, overall poor health, poor workplace breastfeeding support can hamper women’s economic participation by, amongst other things, increasing absenteeism and job dissatisfaction, as well as decreasing productivity and wages.

Access to affordable and quality childcare

For women, who disproportionately bear the unpaid caregiving responsibilities within families, the availability of affordable and high-quality childcare services — particularly when aligned with the work schedules of the mothers and caregivers — has been widely acknowledged as having the potential to enhance women’s economic participation.(35)(36) In essence, such childcare makes the combination of work and childcare feasible, increases the number of hours spent in paid work, and reduces absenteeism and work–family conflict, which all ultimately contribute to improved productivity and the profitability of enterprises.(37)(38)

Policies designed to ensure the provision of childcare in South Africa are mainly the National Integrated Early Childhood Development Policy (2015) and the National Child Care and Protection Policy (2019). These are operationalised by three government departments, with a focus on different age cohorts. These departments are: the Department of Basic Education (focused on children aged 5–9 years), the Department of Social Development (0–4 years), and the Department of Health (0–9 years). Despite their focus on different age groups, these policies, together, aim to attain positive childhood educational and developmental outcomes, mainly through the provision of healthcare and nutrition, as well as psychosocial support. Where mentioned, childcare services and facilities are typically related only to psychosocial support. The foregoing may largely explain why only 38.4% of preschool children (0–4 years) in South Africa are cared for in formal facilities such as pre-schools, nursery schools, crèches, and educare centres, and why the majority (49.2%) are cared for at home by parents or guardians.(39)

The poor availability of and access to affordable and quality childcare can hamper the economic participation of women in various ways. For example, faced with limited childcare options, women often adopt detrimental coping strategies such as taking children to work with them on a regular basis. While this can address women’s immediate childcare responsibilities, it can also reduce the time and other investments that women can put into paid work, leading to low productivity, long working hours, and low wages.(40) Another strategy is choosing ‘mother-friendly jobs’, such as informal employment or part-time work, which are more flexible and easier to combine with childcare. In addition to being relatively insecure — and often poorly paid — these jobs also often mean that South African women have relatively longer working hours than men do when both work and care responsibilities are taken into account. In a 2006 review of time use, based on data for five sub-Saharan African countries, South African women were found to spend 13 times more time than men on this activity.(41) More than 10 years later, the situation has not changed, with the 2019 report(42) showing that women in South Africa spent, on average, 228 minutes a day on childcare and other household chores, while men spent only 75 minutes.

Child benefits

Child benefits are regular cash transfers provided to the primary caregiver of a child, to ensure the child’s access to quality social services.(43) In South Africa, these take the form of the Child Support Grant (CSG), an unconditional, means-tested, cash transfer programme aimed at supporting the welfare of eligible children younger than 18 years. First implemented in April 1998, the CSG is the largest social programme in South Africa, reaching close to 13 million recipients by the end of March 2021.(44)

Since its implementation in 1998, the CSG has been lauded for many positive outcomes in children, including enhanced nutrition, health, and educational and schooling performance, as well as a reduction in adolescent risk behaviour and the strengthening of households’ resilience to financial shocks.(45) As an unconditional cash transfer, the CSG has also been shown to enhance the economic participation of women (the main caregivers of children and, hence, recipients of the grant) by providing a source of income that can facilitate the search for employment opportunities by, for example, covering the costs of sending required documents, travelling to interviews, etc.(46) Drawing on various recent empirical research findings, Tondini(47) states that, on average, mothers who receive the CSG tend to have better-quality jobs, are more likely to enter the formal sector (which offers more labour protection), and earn relatively higher wages than their counterparts who do not receive the grant. Indications are that these labour market improvements are long-lasting, and tend to continue beyond the child reaching the age of 18 years, when payment of the grant ceases.

I pay for the child’s daycare centres’ fees and also pay for her transport”; I buy food and school uniform for the children and also pay for transport to crèche for one child”. These excerpts from a study on the use of the CSG by caregivers(48) illuminates another pathway by which the grant facilitates women’s economic participation in South Africa. In essence, given that access to affordable childcare services and/or facilities is one of the most effective pathways to increasing women’s access to employment in developing countries, income from the CSG enables many mothers and other caregivers to pay for childcare, which frees up time for economic participation.


This article showed that South Africa has an enabling environment for the four sets of policies consistently shown to be the most effective in enabling women to combine their childcare- and work roles. While, for the most part, these policies do support women’s participation, some gaps remain, particularly in relation to the implementation of the policies. Previous research(49) has shown that these gaps are often due to supervisors’ lack of awareness of the benefits these family-friendly policies hold for organisations in terms of employee productivity and profitability. Another explanation is that, given employees’ differing care needs, the benefits of these family-friendly policies are not standard for all employees.

  • Supervisors need to be sensitised to the legal onus to have policies in place to support the childcare demands of employees, as well as the benefits such policies hold for organisational productivity.
  • Instead of ‘one-size-fits-all’ support, workplaces should consider creating safe spaces for women with childcare responsibilities to discuss with their supervisors the specific workplace support the women need. Such spaces have been shown to lead to a higher perception of company support, lowered intensions to leave the company, enhanced productivity, and overall better quality of life for employees.(50)


Zitha Mokomane

Zitha Mokomane holds a PhD in demography from the Australian National University and is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Pretoria. Her research focus is areas of work-family interface and social policy analysis, and she has consulted widely in these areas. She is the founder and current chair of the African Research Network on Work and Family.