African Mothers Who Work Face Dilemma

By Lang, Susan S. | Human Ecology Forum, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

African Mothers Who Work Face Dilemma


Lang, Susan S., Human Ecology Forum


When African women work outside the home, their families reap more income but often with potentially "deleterious consequences on the health of their very young children," according to new research.

Although the extra money African women earn apparently raises household food consumption more than extra earnings from men do, the diminished quantity or quality of child care may have serious adverse consequences for the health of their preschool-age children.

This is not the case for the small proportion of women who can command good incomes in the labor market, since their higher earnings compensate for the reduction in child care time, making the overall health effects of maternal employment positive, says David Sahn, director of the Cornell Food and Nutrition Policy Program, a social science research institute and one of the largest institutes in the world doing economic policy research on Africa.

Most women, however, fare poorly in the labor market because, relative to men, they have little education, which is a major determinant of earnings. The schooling of girls, in turn, is hindered by low household incomes and domestic responsibilities, such as child care, which impinge on their ability to attend school but do not affect boys.

"When women work, they usually must spend less time directly caring for their children, including breast-feeding, preparing nutritious foods, and getting medical care," Sahn says. "Our analysis provides evidence that these time constraints have a small but significant negative effect on the nutritional status and health of their children under five years of age."

These finding are based on research undertaken by Sahn and research associate Peter Glick in Conakry, Guinea, a very poor but typical African city, in 1990-91.

"The net impact of maternal employment on the nutritional status of young children, accounting for both changes in income and time allocation, is generally negative for the poor in Conakry, though the effect is not very large," Sahn says. "This creates a dilemma: Our results, and other research, show that maternal income is much more valuable to children than father's income, because women are more likely to allocate their earnings to food and 'child goods,' but the foregone time in - and possibly quality of - child care that results from greater labor market participation has negative effects on the health of young children. …

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