Access to childcare and its relationship with prevention of violence against women

Introduction: Availability vs accessibility of childcare

The provision of childcare is inseparable from the achievement of gender equity, as well as the issue of improved systemic capacity to foster women’s ability to rebuild their lives after the experience of violence.  Over the last decades, the need and demand for child care have grown steadily. Access to child care is intimately linked to employment rates among women, to women’s ability to reach for workplace equity, and to reduction of poverty by a parent’s ability to go to work with her children in an affordable and safe space.

In 2014, Statistics Canada reported that rates of child care use in Alberta were relatively low (40%), with many parents in western Canada resorting to private arrangements (Sinha, 2014, Childcare in Canada). The reasons are the barriers presented by cost, accessibility and quality of arrangements, with extremely long waitlists for licensed and regulated daycare centres and challenges of safety, quality and monitoring associated with day-home care. In addition, there are challenges for children whose parents work shifts outside conventional working hours (9 to 5 weekday schedule). The availability of varied options of care delivery (nannies, day homes, daycare centres, preschool programs, and before and after school services) does not necessarily translate into accessibility of care.

For parents, finding a quality, accessible and affordable licensed care spot is tough and involves a compromise-laden juggling of variables such as quality, convenience, availability and cost. Wait lists for spots in licensed daycares are incredibly long. When it comes to planning and applying for a daycare spot, parents say Basically you need to put your name down as soon as you see a little pink line on the pregnancy test.” Expectant parents enter their unborn children on several lists and must hope that at least one spot is open when needed.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives examines the out-of-pocket costs paid by a “sample” low-income family that earns $30,823, which is the average amount that families with young children living below the poverty line (LIM-AT) earn in Canada. This sample family has 2 parents and 2 children. One child is in school and requires no additional child care, while the other is preschool-age in a full-day program. Even after the fee subsidy is applied, in Edmonton, the sample family would pay $292 a month (CCPA 2016, ‘A Growing Concern: Child Care Fees in Canada’s Big Cities’;  p 20-21). These cost burdens are greater when, for example, the family has one parent, who is unable to work, and two children, both in need of child care. If with some luck both children get a spot each, these spots may be in separate locations, which means separate drop-offs and pick-ups, which can be a Herculean task for a parent without her own transportation and struggling to manage shift work and/or studies and/or other caregiving duties (e.g. for an aged parent). When the parent is a survivor of violence, the experience of trauma may greatly impede any quest for employment and add to the already heavy pressures of being a single parent having to provide daily necessities for young children and self.

Subsidies for childcare have a number of strings attached (more than a mother dealing with violence may be able to manage).  The applicant must either be employed, looking for work, or have special needs (none of these may be applicable for a woman who is dealing with violence, before, during and after separation). Stay-at-home parents can apply if their child(ren) are enrolled in a licensed pre-school or approved early childhood development program (this means some outlay must be made, which a woman in financial distress  may not be able to manage – as is often the case when a woman is coping with violence).As with care spots, the waitlists to get a subsidy are long: parents of older children, particularly those of kindergarten age, may have to wait years for a subsidy.

Lack of access to childcare is tied to women’s experiences of insecurity, poverty and violence

The lack of access to safe and affordable childcare is a matter of special concern in Alberta, and specifically in Edmonton, with its soaring rates of domestic violence and family violence (of which domestic violence, referring to intimate-partner violence, is a sub-set. Violence more often than not involves violence against women.) The Edmonton Police Service reports ‘In 2016, there were approximately 8,715 events throughout the city that had a domestic violence component.’[1]  The current lack of quality, accessible, affordable and regulated childcare spaces and options in Alberta creates risk of harms to women and children, diminishes access to avenues of economic security, has a negative impact on quality of life of women and children, and worsens the situation of women and children already impacted by violence.

A 2016 report by West Coast LEAF High Stakes: The impacts of child care on the human rights of women and children is a rich collection and analysis of accounts by diverse women of how gaps in childcare impact their safety, well-being, and human rights. Section 6 of the report focuses on the experiences of women fleeing  violence and is replete with evidence of how lack of access to childcare renders women dependent on abusive spouses. With no access to childcare, the inability to seek, find and keep independent income and housing locks women into violence, or forces their return to it. Through all these scenarios, women are unable to gain any chance of respite or self-care, unable to meet professional support providers (e.g physicians and legal counsel) for one-on-one consultations because of the constant requirement to be present and available to provide caregiving.

Details of shareable images from West Coast LEAF


High Stakes establishes that lack of access to childcare is a threat to women’s human rights, quality of life and ability to have some stability and security. Many women are forced to take up unstable jobs for reasons of the flexible hours that will on the one hand allow them to meet caregiving responsibilities without the added costs of childcare. On the other hand however such employment is insecure and women are often trapped in cycles of poverty and related economic crisis. They may remain dependent on spouses who may on frequent occasion use this dependence as an instrument of abuse and control.  The heightened risk of partner or spousal violence exists in a vicious reciprocity with economic insecurity and lack of access to quality childcare is a predictor and contributor to the violence and inequality faced by women. As if all this were not enough, mothers who are coping with economic insecurity operate in situations of high stress that not only challenge parenting activity but also increase the risk of involvement with child protection services.

At ICWA, during our conversations with service providers as well as survivors, we have heard a range of stories of what lack of safe childcare entails for women coping with violence, including  in the so-called post-separation period. Even after leaving a violent relationship, women and their children continue to be vulnerable to violence and women’s socio-economic security during this period is further reduced by a lack of access to affordable childcare. Women who manage to leave violent homes and relationships find soon enough that their economic constraints and burdens are exacerbated in the post-separation phase, where the lack of access to childcare not only continues to undermine their chances of finding economic independence and safety for themselves and their children but also promotes the probability of their return to their abuser.

Regarding the experiences of immigrant women vis-à-vis access to childcare

For women who are coping not only with violence but also immigration-related disadvantage and cognitive and/or physical challenges, lack of access to childcare raises their already high barriers to employment and the challenges in providing parenting care. ICWA has seen this with several immigrant women who have approached us for help. One poignant example:  an immigrant, a skilled pastry chef with a diploma, fluent in English and French, unable to work because of a serious leg injury, unable to afford childcare, and at the same time coping with spousal abuse and sporadic abandonment.  The physical burdens of parenting imply a greater risk of adverse health outcomes for mothers struggling with their own health.

Lack of access to childcare is one of the multiple meshed barriers that undermine immigrant women’s chances to live on terms of equality and safety.

For immigrant mothers in Canada, access to safe childcare is a vital piece in the complex settlement process, whose stresses are linked to violence against immigrant women. For instance, with access to childcare, mothers are better able to attend English and driving classes, thereby potentially increasing their physical and social independence, ability to access decently remunerated work (many jobs require a fair command of English and/or a driver’s license), ability to expand their social connections and gain and use knowledge of their legal rights.

Without access to childcare (and also thanks to sexist social norms) immigrant mothers often remain home to provide care, which increases their social and linguistic isolation and socio-economic dependence on their spouses, both of which are predictors of exposure to violence. Language barriers often prevent women from accessing work outside minimum wage jobs of cleaning, food retail etc. Isolation at home deepens women’s lack of ‘Canadian employment experience’ thereby ensuring their disadvantage and extreme pay gap if and when they are able to go to work. Note that even when both parents are working, a lack of affordable childcare often means that senior (again, usually female) relatives are saddled with babysitting and housekeeping chores (euphemistically dubbed ‘private arrangements’ in statistical data and translating to servitude in reality).

Childcare-related budget and policy developments in Canada, 2017

Chapter 5 in Budget 2017 “ Equal Opportunity: Budget 2017’s Gender Statement” clearly links the provision of accessible childcare to the prospects of success of any efforts to reduce poverty, violence and harassment disproportionately experienced by  women who are Indigenous, physically and cognitively challenged, and senior. On June 12, 2017, The Multilateral Early Learning and Child Care Framework was announced  for collaborative government work on childcare program enhancements, which are to be based on principles of  quality, accessibility, affordability, flexibility, and inclusivity. The implementation of the Framework will be supported by Government of Canada investments announced in Budgets 2016 and 2017 totaling $7.5 billion over 11 years to support and create up to 40,000 new spaces across Canada over the next 3 years. Through bilateral agreements the Government of Canada will provide provinces and territories with $1.2 billion over the next three years for early learning and child care programs. In that context, in November 2016, the province of Alberta announced that it would allow qualifying early learning and child care (ELCC) centres to offer daycare at a maximum of $25 a day. In April 2017, the government of Alberta named 22 centres across Alberta (five in Edmonton and Calgary) to participate in a 3-year, $25-a-day childcare program (eligible child age 0-6 years). While Alberta’s planned creation of 1,296 affordable child-care spaces  (714 of which will be new) is a heartening development, especially in a strained economy, there remain big questions about the systemic constraints on access and about safety, cultural competence and quality assurance in the spaces made available.

Conclusion: Questions to consider

What are the gaps to access to licensed child care for women and children who are living with violence as well as with violence in the post-separation phase? This question is relevant because a single mother struggling for social, psychological, physical and economic recovery from violence can be acutely challenged to pay for a childcare space (even at the proposed $25 a day rates in Alberta).

What are the systemic gaps and needs around cultural safety and inclusiveness in childcare spaces, i.e. what are the steps taken towards the inclusion and safety of non-gender-binary conforming children, Indigenous children, newcomer children, and children with special needs and challenges? This question is relevant because children from specific settings may be disproportionately affected by intersecting forms of historical, social, and cultural inequity and disadvantage. To what extent do care centres and related spaces like family day homes incorporate principles of cultural safety in their ELCC programming? What can be improved and how?

What new strategies are needed in ELCC programming for children who have been in situations of violence and who may have been impacted in early childhood as a result of exposure to violence? ELCC providers come into regular and direct contact with young children and their parents. These providers of care and socialization are in an important position to support children and families impacted by violence and to promote family safety and healing. It is also true that ELCC providers may have varied levels of understanding of the early childhood impacts of domestic and family violence. For example, a child is being aggressive in the classroom because that is the model of behavior with which the child has been presented in a violent home. However, without awareness of the impacts of violence on children, such ‘acting out’ may be seen as a tantrum requiring disciplinary action to be ‘fixed’ and may be mistakenly attributed to no more than a deficit of parenting inputs. The real cause of the aggression and the underlying trauma in the situation may go unrecognized and unaddressed. What is needed in this context is to bring ELCC providers into connection with those who specialize in the fields of domestic and family violence. These connections may give ELCC providers access to relevant knowledge and tools that are focused on the impacts of violence. This access to knowhow may increase the effectiveness of ELCC providers in appropriately responding to the needs of children impacted by violence.[2]


[1] In Alberta, poverty and violence have a marked presence in the lives of women in Indigenous communities. According to Mahony, Jacob and Hobson (Statistics Canada 2017 ‘Women and the Criminal Justice System‘) ‘In the 14-year period from 2001 to 2015, the homicide rate for Aboriginal females was nearly six times higher than that for non-Aboriginal females-4.82 per 100,000 population versus 0.82 per 100,000 population. The over-representation of Aboriginal women among homicide victims was observed in most provinces and in the territories, but was most notable in the territories and the provinces of Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan.’

Violence in immigrant families is prevalent and well-documented in numerous anecdotal reports (from government, non-profit and academic sources, all cited in the ICWA 2015-2016 report on unmet needs in stemming immigrant family violence in Edmonton). Reliable statistics remain difficult to compile for diverse reasons such as methodology (questionnaires and surveys in official rather than immigrant languages) and the reluctance of victims to speak out (fears of further violence, of deportation, of stigma and loss of community and familial ties etc) (Sinha, Statistics Canada, 2013, ‘Measuring violence against women: Statistical trends’).

[2] A UNICEF technical document (Landers, 2013, Preventing and Responding to Violence, Abuse, and Neglect in Early Childhood ) describes the ‘Strengthening Families: Protective Factors’ strategy whereby ‘The staff in early childhood care settings receives instruction in interacting with all families in ways that build protective factors. …The focus is on protective factors but early childhood staff is also trained to recognize risk and respond to early warning signs of abuse and neglect.’ (pp20-21 of 36).

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