SDP Women’s Rights Article, Child Care The State’s Responsibility


Last month the TV footage that showed a Ugandan house help beating and traumatising a three year-old child who had been left in her care shocked us all. Women, men, young and old, child carers and social welfare activists are all holding their breath. Mothers, and hopefully many fathers, are not just shocked but seriously alarmed. Why? Did they really think this could never happen? Of course they were aware of the possibility so is it then a matter of degree? In our capitalist society child care is considered a private family matter so a wise parent then takes the best possible precautions. And as always it becomes a class question. The wealthy make sure that either mother stays home to bring up her kids or leaves them daily in the care of a well accredited and of course expensive nursery where she can be fully assured that her children will come to no harm whatsoever. And if they ever did, lo and behold the fate of the nursery proprietor!

It is the middle and working class parents (the majority) who have to agonise over a tricky act trying to balance the family budget. In order to offset the insufficient family income, should the mother go out to work and leave her tender babies in the care of an affordable, and therefore untrained, unaccredited carer; and keep her fingers crossed?  Many parents try to avoid this anxiety by enlisting the help of a young relative who is plucked from shambani and whose parents are too poor to give their child the education he/she deserves. Can you imagine what it is like for that deprived relative to toil ten hours (maybe longer) every day to care for another person’s child (or children) who is at least going to school and getting a square meal?  And of course not every household is a paragon of happy, amicable friendship. Sexual harassment and physical abuse of house helps are rampant; but then these are all considered private problems in private spaces.

Yet these very same children are the future workers, parents and even leaders that will ensure the viability of the state and be expected to produce the wealth of the country. So doesn’t the state have a responsibility to ensure that these children are cared for adequately from a very young age? The unfortunate Ugandan house help will of course be charged in court and imprisoned, this is not to justify or even condone what she did but to recognise that she may have had problems that deeply affected her, and that no-one least of all the state, cares about. In any case, will her conviction solve the problem of child care for the people? Or will the struggling parent have to dig deeper into her/his pocket to buy a CCTV, unaffordable to the average household? And which will further damage their relationship with the house help; but, please note: will of course benefit the CCTV supplier and manufacturer. The capitalist always comes out on top!

Patriotism and a national Kenyan identity can only be nurtured when the Kenyan state is seen to truly care for, and serve, its citizens – ALL its citizens especially the most vulnerable ones. Child care is not, I repeat, NOT a private matter. And women should NOT be left to carry that burden and have to constantly worry about what could be happening at home – quite apart from the fact that no child or teenager should have to spend their most formative years as domestic house helps. In a country where we are building TATU estates, KONZA cities and a shopping mall designed to cover nine acres – surely it is a national shame and totally unacceptable that a very basic service such as child care is not provided to our population.

I am not envisioning the construction of a myriad expensive crèches and nurseries staffed by Montessori trained teachers. Much simpler solutions can be devised if the political will is present AND if the community is consulted. Why can residents not be provided with a space and shelter, a teacher or two and the senior citizens in the area be involved in the care of the children. Yes, residents in an estate or community need to get together – not to spy on each other or to make money – but to plan together how they can best organize themselves for their own benefit. This calls for a radically different mind-set which sees co-operation, not competition, as the way forward and quality of life and not the size of one’s bank account as the bench mark.

A socially oriented government would rate child care as one of its primary responsibilities and enlist the cooperation of the various stakeholders, parents, senior citizens, teachers, state functionaries, etc to determine and implement what is best in the interests of the child as a future adult participant in that society. While parents would be the overall care givers, the senior citizens would give the unconditional love and wisdom of the cucu, the teachers will lay the bricks of a formal education and state functionaries, through youth clubs and such like, will impart the national values and ideology.

Zarina Patel

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