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Decentralised Childcare Services

Decentralised Childcare Services

The SEWA experience demonstrates that adequate childcare encourages school-going among children and helps tackle social barriers such as caste. Many women can also find employment as crèche teachers and this helps them forge bonds with other women. It serves as an entry point for further organising, organisation building and promoting overall community development.

Decentralised Childcare Services

The SEWA Experience

The SEWA experience demonstrates that adequate childcareencourages school-going among children and helps tackle socialbarriers such as caste. Many women can also find employment ascrèche teachers and this helps them forge bonds with other women.It serves as an entry point for further organising, organisationbuilding and promoting overall community development.


fter three decades of working with the children of Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) members, we have learned how crucial childcare is to the life of the community. They often say, “We have hard lives. But we live for our children.” “Whatever has happened to us, has happened, but we want a better future for our children”. In particular, poor working women want childcare – an umbrella term encompassing all facets of the life of a child. It includes physical care of the child, including nutrition and health, emotional and cognitive development. It also includes spiritual development with value-based education. And finally, fun, play, recreation and exposure for their children.

We have also learnt that our members try to give their very best to their children, like mothers anywhere in the world. They have limited resources and time, but many struggle and make huge sacrifices to educate their children, feed them properly, ensure adequate medical care and other opportunities. SEWA has, over the years, felt that women’s need for childcare must be supported and fulfilled. After all that women contribute to the nation’s economy, they have a right to childcare. It is their legitimate entitlement. It helps them and their children emerge from poverty. In fact, childcare is an essential economic means to emerge from poverty and deprivation. Without proper attention to childcare, children cannot grow healthily.

Keeping all of these issues in mind, SEWA has been providing integrated childcare services to its members’ children. In the course of this work, there have been numerous experiences, some of which are discussed here.

Childcare Aids Poverty Alleviation

We have repeatedly seen that when childcare is available for the children of poor women workers, and according to their hours of work, they are able to work and earn more. From our studies in Kheda and Surendranagar districts, we have learned that all mothers reported income raise of 50 per cent and more. Obviously, this income increase helps women and their families out of poverty. This is a strong argument for including childcare in any government’s “minimum needs programme” and anti-poverty package.

Children’s Overall Development

If appropriate and affordable childcare services are available to children, they grow healthily and experience the joy of learning. The children of the poor have few

Economic and Political Weekly August 26, 2006

opportunities. But even with a little exposure to learning through play, learning from others and exploring the world outside, they bloom. The change in these young children is almost palpable.

We have had hundreds of sick and malnourished children, moderate to severely under nourished, who are completely changed individuals as a result of proper care. We have numerous examples of children who barely walked and talked because of physical or mental challenges. With love, care and encouragement, they catch up with their cohorts. For many, there is scarcely a trace of their earlier deprivation. This is quite a remarkable transformation.

In any programme aimed at poor women’s overall development, childcare is indispensable. Some of the reasons for this have been mentioned earlier. But another important one is that it reduces women’s stress levels. Our members often say, “Since these centres started, I can work and earn in peace. I am no longer tense and worried about my child. And when I come home tired, I’m glad to see my child well-fed and happy.”

Adequate childcare supports and takes care of one aspect of women’s work and their lives. Many admit that earlier the sheer burden of multiple responsibilities, including childcare, left them angry, irritable and exhausted. Now they feel more at ease vis-à-vis this aspect of their lives.

Childcare Encourages School-Going

With the introduction of childcare in a village or urban ‘mohalla’, there are significant changes in the overall attitude to schooling and education. First, we have found that those children who are in childcare centres at an early age, enjoy learning and are more likely to go and stay in school. In our two ‘melas’ or carnivals of our crèche “graduates”, child after child, spoke about how important crèches were in encouraging school-going. And this is true for both rural and urban children. Also, perhaps due to our emphasis on equality of girls and boys, many girls attend school – and right up to high school, which is still not so common, especially among poor families.

Next, the existence of childcare centres releases older siblings from childcare responsibilities. Older brothers and sisters are now freed to go to school. In our Kheda study, we found that 70 per cent of the children went to school for the first time after crèches were started in their villages. This, in itself, is a powerful case for starting crèches in every village and urban settlement – at least one for every 1,000 of our population.

Finally, locating childcare centres in the primary schools is yet another boost to the school-going among young children. Whenever we have had crèches in the school premises, it has benefited all. The young children come in with their older siblings, they get used to the idea of school and their older siblings come in and play with the little ones during the school breaks. There is a general atmosphere of learning and education, with the young children quickly learning from the older ones already at school.

Removal of Social Barriers

Children of all castes and communities play and learn together in our crèches. In a deeply divided society like ours, these childcare centres help children come together from infancy. Although, SEWA’s crèches mostly have children from the poorest castes and communities, there are some, especially in Ahmedabad city, who are almost lower middle class. And our children are drawn from all the major faiths of our multicultural, multilingual and ethnically diverse society. As our children not only play, pray and learn together but also literally eat together, major caste taboos are eliminated. Of course, this is neither an automatic nor easy process. In the city, it has been less of an issue. In some rural areas, caste taboos are still rigidly observed. We were given spacious rooms in the temple precincts for a crèche in one village. Soon after the centre started, when the temple authorities learned that most of our children were from the dalit community, we were told to vacate the premises. In several villages, mothers objected to one or the other crèche teacher because of her caste. Or they objected to children of all castes eating and playing together. In one or two villages we were even forced to close down the centres in the face of villager’s strong opposition.

But we held our ground. We are unrelenting on the issue of caste-class-community and gender equality. And we feel that our firm stand has paid off. Our position was clear and unequivocal – and had the full backing and appreciation of the poorest of families and communities. Also, slowly, other families came around to appreciate and then actively support our views, our values and our crèches.

When children, girls and boys, of all communities come together, they learn to live and work together and are exposed to ideas and values which stay with them for life. SEWA’s crèches incorporate values of gender equality, equality of all people’s ‘sarvadharma’ respecting all faiths and the dignity of labour. Truth, non-violence, honesty, hard work, simplicity and ‘swadeshi’ are also bedrock values at our creches. These are the values that Gandhiji promoted, that we share with our members and carry forward to the next generation.

Children begin their day at our centres with an all faith prayer and pledge to live by the values Gandhiji outlined for us via the 11 vows, incorporating the elements mentioned above. They learn to work and play together, breaking down stereotypes of gender, religion and caste. Thus, the foundations of living and working together in peace and mutual respect are laid down from a very early age.

After the communal violence in Gujarat in 2002, we have started eight crèches in some of the worst-affected areas. Now young children of all communities come together at these crèches, as do their parents. These crèches have now become the focal point of peace and constructive activities in their neighbourhoods.

Indicators for Effectiveness

As a result of sustained capacity-building on quality, we have become more conscious of what is “effective” with poor children and what is not, what works and what does not. We have been sharing this information in our monthly technical team meetings and then with our spearhead teams, crèche teachers and parents. The process has been challenging – encouraging us to be analytical and to identify the gaps in our knowledge and skills. This then has given a boost to our efforts at capacitybuilding – strengthening our knowledge and skills and implementing new ideas on early childhood education. We hope that the process that has been triggered off will ultimately lead to stronger services and finally, to the overall development of our children.

We have slowly begun to explore some indicators as to what is “effective” vis-à-vis the child, some of which are: inculcate joy of learning, curiosity, atmosphere of learning; inculcate sense of

Economic and Political Weekly August 26, 2006 individual exploring; promote creativity and creative impulses; promote atmosphere of learning by doing; promote learning through play and fun; ensure healthy growth of the child; ensure access to health services when required; ensure nutrition of the child and monitoring of her growth and development; ensure 100 per cent school-going at age 6; promote active involvement of parents; local organisations can run crèches independently; self-reliance;promote sense of self-worth, self-esteem, self-confidence; centre should be open according to mothers’ hours of work; capacity-building and empowerment of crèche teachers and childcare team; generate demand for childcare at local level; and effect policy changes in favour of the child.

Community Development

Crèches act as an interface between the organisation (union or cooperative) and local families, especially mothers. Parents leave what is most precious to them – their children – at our crèches. This builds up a relationship of trust and a special rapport with crèche teachers and their organisation. In Kheda district, through crèches SEWA came closer to its members. This not only helped start other activities like savings and credit groups, healthcare and insurance, but also proved useful for unionising. When women were reluctant to speak out against the main injustices they faced at the workplace (non-payment of minimum wages, no identity cards or proper attendance registers), it was some of the mothers attached to crèches who finally spoke out. At Rasnol village, site of one of our first crèches in Kheda district, women defied the authority of the tobacco growers and factory owners for the first time ever in the district through a mass dharna (sit-in). The dharna went on for days and many of the leaders of the struggle were women whose children had been or were in the village’s crèche. That the struggle ended with a successful outcome and payment of their dues, only strengthened women’s commitment to organising, SEWA and the crèches.

Similarly in Ahmedabad, Surendranagar and Patan districts, we have found that crèches bring us closer to women. They share their concerns, issues and even private lives with us. The bonds between women and between them and their organisation are thus cemented.

This bond of trust and solidarity then serves to develop activities aimed at overall community and economic development. Rasnol village has an active nursery-raising programme to provide women with steady work and income, several savings and credit groups, it also issue loans to women thereby building assets, insurance and health services. Educational activities for older girls and union members are also undertaken.

Over the past five years our members, particularly in the poorest districts have had to face repeated natural disasters. Surendranagar and Patan districts have repeatedly faced drought, epidemics, cyclone, floods and the devastating earthquake of 2001. For already impoverished families with low health and nutrition levels, these disasters have had a serious impact. They have been able to survive because they already had their own union, SEWA, and their respective district-level organisations in place. As part of this organising, these two districts had 25 functioning creches.

The creches not only took care of the children, but also acted as a point of disbursement of emergency relief materials

– food, water, shelter (tents) and medicines. These were physically stored in and distributed from the centres. Again, this ensured that the most vulnerable people – children, women and men from the poorest families – actually got the relief packages. This also then helped set up a chain of longterm rehabilitation activities.

During the drought, in both districts, nutritious food was made and provided to people, thus preventing possible starvation and rapid decline in nutrition levels. We were able to organise health camps – diagnostic and treatment services via mobile clinics – in these areas. Children and women with night blindness, anaemia and undernutrition were easily identified.

Self-Employment through Childcare

In the changing world of work in India, there has been a tremendous growth of the informal economy. Over 92 per cent of all Indian workers are informal workers or “self-employed”. Of the female workforce in India, 94 per cent are “selfemployed” (“self-employed” includes those workers who have no employeremployee relationship whatsoever, or a shifting one, i e, no permanent employeremployee status).

Further, within the informal economy, there is significant growth of the service sector. There is a big demand for services

– childcare, healthcare, cleaning, household work, to mention a few. The demand for childcare cuts across all classes and communities. SEWA-promoted childcare cooperatives, with 10 to 15 years of experience, which are in an ideal position to provide services to working class women. There are virtually no other sources of these services, except for a few NGOs. In rural areas, these services are still fewer, although the demand, if anything, is greater.

Through our two childcare cooperatives, Sangini and Shaishav, more than 400 women are getting regular work and income as childcare providers. These are women who were either partially employed, underemployed or unemployed earlier. Most are themselves workers once engaged in the informal economy – tobacco workers, bidi workers, garment workers, incense stick rollers (agarbatti workers), agricultural labourers, street-vendors, construction workers and others. They are now fully engaged as childcare providers, earning considerably more than they did earlier or would be earning, if they were in their traditional occupation. Besides, they are now truly self-employed – answerable only to their own cooperatives of which they are workers as well as owners.

Our experience shows that childcare is a huge and yet, quite unexplored area of employment, especially self-employment, for poor women. It provides work and income and with a special purpose and social objective – the well-being of our children.

Building Women’s Organisations

Childcare is an essential need of women and children. And when this is provided to them in an appropriate and affordable manner, it builds relationships of trust. It results in credibility and faith between the organisers and the organisation which developed the services. It serves as an entry point for further organising, organisation building and for promoting overall community development.

Earlier, we mentioned how, in Kheda, childcare strengthened the workers struggles and their movement in that district. Similarly, in Surendranagar district, organising crèches for salt workers’ children promoted women’s organising in this very poor district. It also encouraged

Economic and Political Weekly August 26, 2006

them to form their own district-level economic organisation which they called “Women and Children’s Development Mandal”. Today over 20,000 women have been organised in this mandal, providing financial services (banking and insurance), support to employment (salt manufacturing), healthcare, water-related services, nutrition, housing and other services, in addition to childcare.

SEWA’s first two childcare organisations, Sangini and Shaishav, are not only steadily growing in terms of activities but also bringing more mothers into the fold. Both these cooperatives are showing how childcare can be developed in a sustainable way, with support from government and others, and with, first and foremost, contributions from the workers themselves. Through the cooperatives and other associations engaged in childcare, women learn how to run their own organisation and be capable managers. They are elected to their own boards and thus are exposed to, and learn about, democratic functioning and concepts of shared leadership. Childcare work thus can serve to build people’s organisations and act as “laboratories” for democratic functioning, promoting women’s leadership and empowerment.


SEWA’s childcare centres are run and managed by the workers themselves through their own local organisations. This is neither an easy nor automatic process. It takes years of planning, encouragement training and re-training. And it is usually quite a slow process. Our colleagues are either unschooled or have barely attended primary school. Few are graduates. Only a handful are college educated. And all are working class, and like women everywhere, they have not been encouraged to step out of the home or to be managers in addition to childcare providers.

SEWA has started a special “school”, Balanand Shala, for in-depth and ongoing capacity-building of the childcare teachers and team. We experiment with new activities for the children and sharpen teachers knowledge and skills on various issues – child development, health, social sciences and geography, to mention a few.

Women find the learning and capacitybuilding programmes to be very valuable experiences. They feel challenged and stimulated to develop themselves and their services more fully in the service of young children. We see the changes in our colleagues. Once withdrawn and even fearful, they develop into strong teachers and service providers. They are themselves more at ease and enthusiastic and convey this new-found energy to the children with whom they work.

But capacity-building has to be an ongoing process, moulded to the needs and requirements of the team members, and always bearing in mind the ultimate goal of converting learning into action which benefits the children. It also has to be monitored for quality, content and followup. It requires the childcare team leaders to be vigilant at all times.

Policy Action

SEWA has always stressed the need to combine grassroot organising with policy action. We learn from our organising experiences at the grassroot and share these issues with policy-makers and the general public. The objective of sharing our experiences is clear – we hope to effect policy changes and action in favour of infants and young children, particularly those from the poorest of families.

We find that policy changes not only make women more optimistic and hopeful, but also fuel the process of further organising and development of services and other activities.

In childcare, there have been numerous examples of policy change, promoting further grassroot action which in turns pushes for policy change. This is a continuous process. Perhaps our earliest policy breakthrough was one involving ICDS. When the government offered ICDS to SEWA, it insisted that all the teachers had to be high school graduates. It took us two years to convince the authorities that higher education levels did not necessarily mean that a woman was a strong childcare worker. Finally, the strict educational criteria were relaxed according to SEWA’s suggestion. It was a small breakthrough.

Similarly, starting crèches for salt workers children was a breakthrough. Funds were available in the salt workers welfare fund but no one thought of utilising these for the children of the desert in Surendranagar district. After protracted negotiations, the first crèches for these poorest of workers children were started. And right by the salt pans in the desert. Women’s dream of childcare at their doorsteps was realised at last.

More recently, the Central Social Welfare Board (CSWB) which supports 10 crèches in Ahmedabad city asked us to stop collecting fees from parents. On the one hand, their grants were very modest compared to the actual costs of running a fullday crèche. They had not revised their budgets for over a decade. And on the other hand, being full-fledged all day crèches services, they should certainly contribute towards these. The CSWB even said that they would discontinue supporting us if we continued with fee collection.

For us it was a point of principle. Sangini cooperative’s entire board went to Delhi to meet the CSWB’s executive director. She gave us a sympathetic hearing and promised to help. But soon she was transferred to another government post. We persisted and kept up a steady flow of correspondence and telephone calls. Finally, one and a half years of persistence paid off! We now have a letter permitting us to collect fees for extended crèche services. It is a small but important policy change.

Next, our biggest and longest ongoing struggle is to get space for crèches in village and municipal schools. We have been meeting our education minister regularly. We have explained that education starts at birth, and if we want to promote school-going, especially among the poorest of families, then what better way than having crèches physically in the schools? And, of course, it solves the problem of cramped, poorly ventilated rooms for our crèches.

Despite the fact that we have a letter from our minister supporting our request, the response from the school authorities has been one of open resistance. They just don’t want “messy” creches in their premises! And so this long-standing struggle continues, with many meetings, representatives and negotiations. But we are determined to pursue this road linking childcare and school attendance.

Finally, after some months of discussion, our state has set up a special forum with government, people’s organisations and NGOs to meet regularly and discuss the needs of young children, monitor ongoing programmes and plan future ones. This action was undertaken after a letter suggesting the creation of a childcare forum was sent to the state government. Also, we had been pressing for a state plan of action for the child in Gujarat which has now been developed. It is awaiting final approval from the government.

In sum, our children taught us that childcare is an essential economic input for

Economic and Political Weekly August 26, 2006 poverty reduction, as well as a right of all parents and young children, especially of families of the working poor. If we want our children to attend school, especially our daughters, and stay there, then childcare is essential. The older siblings and particularly girls, can attend school and also care for their younger sisters and brothers if the crèche is located in the school compound. This will promote school-going among all children in the family.

Childcare is not a low cost activity. Apart from nutritional and health inputs, it requires intensive care by trained persons and different child development activities for young children’s overall growth. But it is an essential activity providing a useful service, employment for local women and encouraging our children to experience the joy of learning, first at their crèche, and later at school.

Thus, decentralised childcare programmes including ICDS, preferably run by people’s organisations, are a must, if families are to emerge from poverty and equip their children for a better future.



Economic and Political Weekly August 26, 2006

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