NAIROBI – The fried potatoes that Linet Njeri sells on a rubbish-strewn street in Mathare, a slum in Nairobi, are delicious. She’s been selling bags of potatoes – lightly salted, warm and crisp – to passersby for 15 years. Crawling around Njeri’s feet, occasionally perilously close to the wood-burning stove that heats the frying oil, is her 16-month-old daughter, Rosemary. Njeri also has four other children. The oldest is manning a shop behind her, one is at school, and the other two she has left at home, alone.
“I’d like to expand my business, but I can’t because I can’t afford childcare,” says Njeri, who is a single mother. She says she feels lucky because she has her own business, and that means she can bring her youngest with her. “If I was employed, I don’t know what I would do.”
Most days Njeri makes around 600 shillings ($6), but from that she has to pay for the potatoes, wood and oil. “It is a struggle,” she says. “I have to keep Rosemary here with me. Daycare charges 100 shillings a day. It is too much.”
For mothers in Mathare and other slums across the Kenyan capital, lack of access to childcare is a major barrier to work – and to the path out of poverty. Nearly half of all Kenyan women aged 15 to 49 have a child under the age of five.
But because there are so few childcare options, especially in the slums, women face an almost impossible decision on a daily basis. Leave their babies home alone and go look for work, or stay with their children, but fail to earn enough money to feed them.
Kenyan women make up just under half of the workforce, but less than one in five of them have permanent jobs; the rest are casual workers. There are very few jobs that provide childcare, so women in the slums are forced to take on casual work, with the result being they never know if they’ll find work or not.
Walking through Mathare, home to some 300,000 people, a visitor can see several women with their babies tied to their backs as they bend over doing laundry. Other children, seemingly unaccompanied, play alone in the street.
Tucked down one alley, in a tin-roofed shack measuring about 3m (9.8ft) squared, 23 children are being looked after by three women. There are no windows, and the room is crammed with kids aged between six months and three years.
“This is one of the best daycare centers in Mathare,” says Judy Analo, 41, who brings her two grandchildren here every day. Before finding the center, she could only work alternate days with her daughter, as someone had to stay at home to look after two-year-old Tracy and 14-month-old Constantine. “It was so hard to find this place. I saw lots of other places, but this place is much better, as when you pick your children up they will be clean.”
The daycare, which doesn’t have an official name, is open six days a week, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., but is oversubscribed. They regularly turn mothers away, as they can’t fit any more children into the room.
“Things are really bad,” says the owner, Veronica Ngesa. “Some people leave their children in the streets alone when they are just eight months old.” Others, she says, lock their babies and children in the house all day as they go to work. “There are so many children, so there is a real need for places like this.”
Ngesa’s daycare is supported by the British charity Tushinde, whose name means “Let’s succeed.” The funding pays for two meals a day for the children, many of whom arrive on their first day severely malnourished. The mothers, many of whom are single parents, each pay 30 shillings a day, which is still a struggle for some who might only earn a few hundred shillings a week.
“Many women are casual workers, so if they don’t go to work they don’t get paid,” says Sally Nduta, a social worker and development manager at Tushinde.
But for many women living in Kenya’s slums, even having the option to work is a luxury. “There is a great need for daycare. Forty-six percent of women who want daycare are not able to get good daycare for their children, so they can’t go to work,” says Nduta. “What we do is a drop in the ocean.” She wants the government to enact new laws to make companies provide childcare for those who need it.
Lucy Inziani does whatever work she can – laundry, cleaning, even manual labor – if it means she can provide for her children. Before finding the Tushinde daycare, she couldn’t work, and her family struggled to survive. “Other places are dirty,” she says. “Sometimes the rooms are very small and they are really congested.” It’s hard to imagine a more congested room than the one we are standing in, but all the women here say it’s spacious compared to others.
Even with the dire conditions, mothers who are able to access any daycare at all are the lucky ones. For thousands of others in the slum, earning enough money to survive means risking the health and well-being of their children on a daily basis.