ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, May 06, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 49

When Amma goes to work: Where do the childen go?

More child care options for working mothers in Sri Lanka – a need of the hour

By Carol Aloysius

The controversy raging over the recent Cabinet decision to ban women with children under five years from seeking employment abroad brings into focus an important issue: the need to empower our working mothers so that they can juggle both career and motherhood without putting their children at risk.

Ever since women began entering the labour force both in this country and elsewhere, the task of juggling her multiple tasks as mother, carer and working woman has posed one of the biggest problems to the working mother.

Well-organised day care centres are the ‘in thing’ in some western countries

This problem was further compounded when women began seeking jobs abroad. The exodus of women to the Gulf states and elsewhere which began in the 90’s has today swelled to thousands of women currently working largely as domestic aides and undergoing untold hardships and humiliation in order to send enough money to keep their home fires burning.

Unlike working mothers who were fortunate to be able to return to their homes after work, these migrant mothers were compelled to stay away from their families for months if not years. Worse still, they were forced to leave their children in the care of husbands, uncles, or neighbours who often exploited their young charges. Without a proper support system in place to supervise and monitor the kind of care given to these children, it is not surprising that many children of absentee mothers became victims of sexual abuse, drug abuse and ended up as juvenile offenders.

One of the saddest aspects of the plight of children (the girl child especially) of absentee mothers is that they are used by their own fathers for sexual gratification. Losing their virginity at a young age, many of them also face the risk of being thrown out of their homes once their mother returns and forced to take to the streets, ending up as sex workers.

While children of migrant mothers are specially vulnerable to various abuses, it is also a fact that all children of working mothers who stay away from home for long hours are equally at risk. Today, with more than half the labour force comprising working women , the lack of proper child care facilities for working mothers is undoubtedly one of the prime reasons for the rising incidence of violence against children in Sri Lanka.

Lack of domestic aides, the disappearance of the extended family in today’s single unit families has forced working mothers to turn to neighbours for help to look after their children until they return home. Bereft of parental care, such children become easy prey to a kind sympathetic ‘uncle’ or ‘aiya’ who has a free hand to abuse them and warn them against telling their parents by threatening to kill them.

Leela , a garment worker who was forced to leave her five-year-old daughter in the care of her neighbours, says that her neighbour had repeatedly raped her daughter who was threatened with death if she revealed the truth, and it was only after the girl had complained of a pain in her vagina, that she discovered the horrible truth.

Due to the lack of suitable alternative child care, we also see a number of children now returning to an empty home and being forced to make their own tea and amuse themselves until their parents return from work. This has led to the growing incidence of ‘latch key’ children which is common in the West albeit with attendant risks to the Home Alone child.

Which brings us to the question of what child care options do working women in Sri Lanka have?

Day care centres and crèches are one option. But do we have enough of these alternative child care facilities for the thousands of working mothers in this country? Besides the fact that most crèches are run by untrained personnel and are open for a limited time, the cost of sending their children to a crèche or day care centre makes such alternative child care facilities beyond the reach of especially the underprivileged mother.

Providing working mothers with suitable alternative child care facilities must thus be necessarily a priority of the state authorities. Day Care centres run by fully trained child friendly personnel where mothers can drop off their children early morning and return in the evening to pick them up, are now the `in thing’ in countries like Australia where this writer spent some months. Many of these privately run day care centres provide meals for the child, organize recreational activities, toilet train the pre-schooler and teach them the three R’s. But these facilities too are available only at a price.

Currently however, in a bid to persuade more mothers who stopped working due to their inability to find affordable child-minding facilities, to return to the work force, the Australian government is setting up a number of additional well equipped day care centres managed by trained personnel across the country. These centres, which are funded by the state are thus affordable to the working mother.

A similar experiment has been carried out successfully in Sweden too, where I came across child care centres operated by the municipalities with the help of the central government which charge nominal fees and are thus affordable to most mothers.Another option would be to set up crèches in the work place. I recall an attempt to introduce a child friendly work place by a few big firms in Sri Lanka some years ago, but I’m not sure if they are still in operation.

“Having a crèche in my workplace would be a great boon to all mothers with young children,” says Nelun, a new mother working in a garment factory. “Besides giving me the opportunity to continue breast feeding my five-month-old baby, it will also ease my mind and fears about leaving my baby in the care of my aged parents or a domestic,” she adds echoing the opinion of hundreds of other new mothers faced with a similar problem. Setting up child friendly crèches in the workplace has other benefits as well, points out a psychologist.” It will also increase the work output of the mother since she is no longer worried about her child and her mind is at ease to attend to her office work,” she says.

Child-friendly workplaces are thus the need of the hour for our working mothers and offer probably the best option in alternative child care.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.