Home > Occupational Health & Safety > Warwick Junction’s Working Mothers – The Challenges of Balancing Livelihood and Childcare

Sarah Heneck

Imagine this as your everyday life.

You wake up at 3.30am in order to be able to bathe and get dressed before climbing on a 4am taxi to Warwick Junction. The taxi ride takes half an hour and you try to have a nap but you are interrupted by the numerous stops that the taxi driver makes along the way to pick up more commuters. When you arrive, you walk into the market to get a few ingredients that you need for the meals you are about to prepare. It is now 5.30am and you have just finished setting up your workspace on the pavement; a table and chairs, 2 gas stoves, and a number of pots and pans. You begin to cook eggs and sausages for the “breakfast run.” By 8am the morning commuters have polished off all your food and you begin cooking for the lunchtime customers. Bean curry, lamb curry, chicken curry and sandwiches are all on offer for the next batch of hungry people travelling to and from Warwick Junction. By 5pm you have started to pack up and will be home by 6pm to start cooking once again, this time for your family.

Now, imagine this is your everyday life and you have a 6-month old child. The most conveniently located day-care centre is almost impossible to afford and your mother is only available to babysit on the weekends, so your only option is to bring your child to work with you Monday to Saturday.

Some version of the above description is a lived reality for hundreds of female traders who work in Warwick Junction. Oftentimes mothers are excluded from the working world because of childcare duties but there are many mothers who not only provide care to their children but are also the sole providers of household income. Working mothers have two jobs; one generates an income and the other forms the foundation of a child’s life. The act of balancing work and childcare cannot be taken lightly. This double burden that these women carry is far removed from the experience of many mothers who work in the formal sector because as self-employed, informal workers, they do not receive maternity leave or benefits (this is not to say that all formally employed mothers receive optimal treatment either). The fact that they are unable to take any time off after giving birth without losing out on their income, puts these working mothers in a position where they are forced to either put their child in the care of a family member or a childcare facility, or take their child to work with them. Currently, neither of these situations are ideal.

The stress that these working mothers experience on a daily basis, as well as their work environment – in which they are subjected to smoke, car fumes, loud noises etc. – can have health implications for themselves and their children. The first 1000 days of a child’s life are the most important with regard to brain development but unfortunately, the environmental hazards as well as the lack of play equipment and appropriate stimulation in Warwick Junction (and other informal settings) are not optimal for child development. Furthermore, having her child at her workplace may also decrease the amount of sales that the working mother is able to make because her attention is likely to be divided. However, placing her child in a childcare facility decreases the amount of time that the mother and child spend together and incurs a cost for the mother which she may not be able to afford without negative consequences in other facets of her life (for example, she may have to spend less money on food). The quality of childcare in these facilities is also not guaranteed to be adequate. Further issues arise with regard to breastfeeding; while a formal workplace may provide private space for mothers to breastfeed, this is not an option in the bustling markets of Warwick Junction, which service 500 000 commuters every day, so mothers who are uncomfortable with breastfeeding in public may resort to feeding their child formula or other food, which does not offer the benefits to mother and child health that breastmilk does.

This past week was South Africa’s 22nd Child Protection Week and this year the theme was ‘Let us Protect All Children to Move South Africa Forward.’ Within a rapidly urbanising world with more than 61% of the employed population globally (2 billion people)[1] depending on work in the informal economy for their livelihoods, many young children are being raised in urban environments which do not offer them adequate safety, proximity to their mothers (enabling breastfeeding), or appropriate early education.

AeT, through participatory processes (together with partners in Africa and India), are designing urban interventions that will create safer, more stimulating environments for children in urban spaces like Warwick Junction. These interventions aim to protect these children and give them a better start to life, as well as support their mothers whose challenging experiences have been largely side-lined. Forthcoming blogs will elaborate on these projects in more detail, once they are off the ground!

[Feature photo: Mother and her baby at the Bovine Head Market. Photo credit: Jonathan Torgovnik]


[1] International Labour Organization

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