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Dec 10, 2018

Today the statement that access to reliable early childhood education and child care is central to women’s equality is well accepted, unchallenged by few voices.

As long ago as 1970, the Royal Commission on the Status of Women identified accessible child care as central to women's equality. Its 1970 report, intended to “reduce gender inequality across the various spheres of Canadian society” began with four principles, one of which termed care of children a responsibility to be shared among mothers, fathers and society and --most significantly -- expressed the view that “unless this shared responsibility is acknowledged and assumed, women cannot be accorded true equality".

The 1984 Royal Commission on Equality in Employment, lead by now-Supreme Court of Canada Justice Rosalie Abella, noted that “child care is the ramp that provides equal access to the workforce for mothers” and included a full chapter on child care and equality in employment.

In 1984, only about half of Canadian women with young children were employed but over the last 25 years, employment rates of women with children have risen dramatically. In 2016, 71% of mothers whose youngest child was 0-2 years (77% for those with a youngest child aged 3-5 years), compared to 65% with 0-2 year olds and 71% for 3-5 year olds in 1992.

When compared to other OECD countries, Canada’s labour force participation rates of mothers are relatively high But looking at these data across Canada shows that mothers of young children in Quebec now have considerably higher employment rates than mothers in the rest of Canada. A 2017 report by the International Monetary Fund--assessing Canada from the perspective of competitiveness--concluded that it was Quebec's more accessible child care that was responsible for the women's employment gap between Quebec and the rest of Canada.

A UNICEF report, the first to quantify countries' progress on evidence-based indicators assessing early childhood education and child care (ECEC), observed that: 

Today's rising generation is the first in which a majority are spending a large part of early childhood in...out-of-home child care… This ...is driven by economic pressures on governments: more women in the workforce boosts GDP, increases income from taxes and reduces welfare costs (UNICEF, 2008).

Access to child care is critical for low income women to overcome poverty and isolation but the available evidence suggests that access to child care is even more difficult than it is for those who are more advantaged. Child care to enable employment, training and education or language learning appears to be especially inaccessible to women in diverse marginalized groups such as newcomers to Canada, Indigenous and those who are disabled.

In Canada today, the conviction that a plan for universal child care is fundamental for women's equality across the economic spectrum, cultural groups and across Canada is expressed by many voices working for women's equality--women's organizations, unions, anti-poverty and social justice organizations, some business groups, experts and academics, and the media. Indeed, universal child care is frequently raised as a defining characteristic of feminist government policy and of Gender-Based Analysis+ and Gender Budgeting.

In 1979, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) – to which Canada is a signatory, pledging to "ensure the equal right of men and women to enjoy all economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights”. Periodic evaluation of Canada’s progress on CEDAW has yielded repeatedly complaints by Canadian women's groups and reprimands by the UN Status of Women Commission, which has recommended that Canada “expand affordable child care facilities under all governments and…report, with nationwide figures, on demand, availability and affordability of child care in its next report” .  

Today comparative research and analysis shows that child care and early childhood education services designed to support women's equality can also meet children’s interests, development and wellbeing – so need to be well-designed and publicly supported. Programs that are universally accessible and of high-quality can satisfy the multiple goals of maternal employment, child development, social solidarity, social and human capital development - and both women’s and children’s rights.

Thus, reflecting on the history of the long struggle for women's equality in Canada, for at least 50 years the lack of affordable, high quality child care has been identified as a key barrier for women. As most Canadian women with young children are in the labour force today, Canada's relatively indifferent approach to child care continues to remind us that the fight for equality is far from won.

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