Lack Of Accessible Child Care Is Keeping Many Brazilian Women In Poverty

Women may be forced to leave work to take care of their kids, sometimes waiting years for spots to open up in local schools.
Darleni Silva with some of her family. 
Darleni Silva with some of her family. 

Darleni Silva gets out of bed before 6 a.m. every day. The 34-year-old walks for about an hour along a dirt road in Macapá, the capital of the state of Amapá in northern Brazil. She holds her daughters Dhaffiny, 4, and Djennifer, 2, by the hand as they navigate mud and puddles, trying to keep their balance as they edge over a sewer pipe and cross a busy road.

There is no time for rest in the 3 miles that separate the family home from the girls’ school in the Jardim Felicidade neighborhood. Silva has just been able to enroll one of her six children in a state school — and being late could mean she loses that precious place.

“I wasn’t able to go to school, and I want her to have an education so that she can have a better future,” Silva, who works as a domestic cleaner, told HuffPost Brazil. “We can’t risk losing our spot. I’m a single mother and count on the school lunch. Sometimes I can’t feed her.”

Silva’s story is far from rare in Amapá. The state has one of the worst rates of access to education in Brazil: About 48,000 children under 4 are not currently enrolled in school. In Macapá, only 104 out of 39,300 children have been able to benefit from the city’s lone state-run child care facility, according to the 2018 education census.

Given these numbers, it’s no surprise that unemployment among Macapá’s women is over 54%. The lack of child care is only one of the many difficulties mothers face in Brazil’s unforgiving labor market.

Only 32% of all children under 3 in Brazil have access to day care. The law mandates that children must be in school from the age of 4, and in 2014 the government set a goal of providing child care for at least half of all children under 3 years old by 2024.

Women are legally entitled to 120 days of maternity leave, which can be extended to 180 days at the discretion of companies (public sector workers are entitled to the full six-month leave). Maternity leave guarantees job stability for a certain period of time, but is not enough to keep women in work in the medium term, according to a December 2016 survey from the think tank Fundação Getúlio Vargas. Mothers between 24 and 44 years of age with children under 1 have an employment rate of 41%, the survey found, while 92% of fathers in the same age bracket are employed.

FGV also found that 48% of the women surveyed had to leave their jobs in the first year after giving birth.

That’s what happened to Gisleine Moreira, 30. She lost her job earlier this year after returning from maternity leave because she couldn’t find adequate child care for her 8-month-old son, Mateus.  

“They said I was missing too many days of work. And I had no one to look after him, so I had to make the decision of not showing up,” said Moreira, who lives in São Paulo and is separated from Mateus’ father.

She is still waiting on a day care spot to open up for her son. “The only way I can make it to work is by leaving him in day care,” she said. “There’s no other solution.”

Brazil ranks 77th out of 179 countries on a list of the best places to be a mother, according to figures released as part of Save the Children’s State of the World’s Mothers report. The ranking evaluates mothers’ economic and education status, as well as children’s health and well-being. Brazil is far behind countries such as France (23rd), the United Kingdom (24th) and the United States (33rd), but it is also lagging behind its neighbors Argentina (36th), Ecuador (61st) and Venezuela (74th).

One Day Care In Town

In Loteamento Amazonas, a poor neighborhood in the north of Macapá that lacks basic sanitation, Vitória Veloso is about to turn 6 without ever having set foot in a classroom. She lives with her parents and eight siblings.

Vitória’s mother, Maria Edina Veloso, said she couldn’t secure a spot for her daughter in either day care or school. More than 4,000 people live in the neighborhood, but it has just one elementary school, which only holds 240 children over the age of 6.

“The only available day care is far away, in a different neighborhood,” Veloso said. “I’d have to take three buses, and I can’t afford it. My older boys, for example, spend two hours every day commuting to school.”

Veloso is a domestic cleaner, and she often brings Vitória and Pedro, 3, along with her — when her employer agrees. The boys’ grandmother also lends a hand in caring for the children.

An empty lot where a day care facility was meant to go.
An empty lot where a day care facility was meant to go.

Not far from the Velosos’ home, there’s a plot the size of a soccer field that was meant to be the site of a new day care facility for the Lagoa Azul municipality. Construction was expected to start in June 2018 and last a year. Ten months later, there are still no signs of the work having been started.

The project is part of the “Fazendo Escola” (Making Schools) program, a 2014 campaign promise from the Rede Party that was signed into law in 2017 by then-Mayor Clécio Luís. The plan was to build 10 day care facilities in Macapá, as well as renovate and upgrade many elementary schools. In the program’s first phase, around 53 million reais (about $13 million) were invested, but only one day care center has been delivered so far.

When questioned, the city’s education department said work had stopped because it is still waiting for funds from the federal government.

“Cities lack the resources to implement public policies and reach goals,” said Francisca Antônia da Costa, Macapá’s undersecretary for education.

The situation is somewhat better in São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city. In the past two years, over 61% of children under 3 have been enrolled in day care. But a survey from this year found that over 34,000 kids were still waiting for a spot to open up.

Adenilda Ramos da Silva, with her children: Jennifer, 21, who has cerebral palsy, and Lorena, 2. 
Adenilda Ramos da Silva, with her children: Jennifer, 21, who has cerebral palsy, and Lorena, 2. 

Hairdresser Adenilda Ramos da Silva, 37, is one of those in line. She has been trying since 2016 to secure a place in a special school for her daughter Jennifer, 21, who has cerebral palsy. For the last two years, she’s also been waiting for a day care spot for Lorena, 2.

“There’s no way I can work and care for them,” she said, with a sigh. “I bake cakes to make ends meet. But only when there are orders, and those are rare.” Her husband works as a superintendent in an apartment building, and his is the sole source of income for the family.

An Ambitious Goal

Reaching the government’s ambitious goal of having 50% of all children under 3 enrolled in day care by 2024 would mean securing places for more than 1.9 million children — an unlikely prospect, experts say.

All of Brazil’s major cities are lagging behind the target, according to data provided by the respective education departments. One possible reason is that investment to build day care facilities is just part of the picture.

“If you spend 2 million reais [around $500,000] on construction, which is the average amount needed, you’ll need the same amount every year to keep it running,” said Daniel Cara, who runs the nongovernmental organization Campanha Nacional pelo Direito à Educação, or the National Campaign for Educational Rights.

Cara said this is one of the reasons for the abandoning of Proinfância ― a program from the Dilma Rousseff administration, which lasted from 2010 to 2016, to build and equip day care facilities.

“Mayors stopped construction works because they couldn’t afford to run the operations,” he said. “They would rather not open them.”

Education budgets as a whole have been shrinking in the past few years, from 1.9 billion reais (about $460 million) in 2014 to 332.3 million reais (about $81 million) in 2017.

And it’s the poor who are hit especially hard by the lack of child care: About 46.2% of richer Brazilians have access to some form of day care, compared to only 22.3% of the poorest 20% of the population.

“These are the most worrisome numbers, as lack of access to day care only reinforces the social and economic gap that divides these families and these children. This perpetuates the poverty cycle,” said Beatriz Abuchaim of the Fundação Maria Cecilia Souto Vidigal, an organization focused on childhood development. “These are mothers who have to care for their children and can’t hold a job, which makes the family even poorer.”

The wage disparities between women with children and women with no children is also telling. The average monthly salary of a woman with no kids is 2,115.39 reais ($516), according to IBGE, the federal government agency responsible for official statistics. Mothers make 25% less than that ― 1,560.50 reais, or $380.

The gap is not as wide among men. Those who have children make 2,000.28 reais a month, on average, while men without kids make 2,228.77 reais ― 11% more.

Even if mothers are able to secure a spot in day care for their children, they face many other obstacles.

After a year trying, Vanderléa Ferreira, 33, finally managed to secure a place for her 1-year-old son, Lucas, in February. But in order to keep up with work and household chores, she relies on her older children to pick up the slack.

Ferreira, who has six kids, leaves work at 5:30 p.m., and her commute takes over an hour. Sabrina, 13, is responsible for picking up her little brother from day care at 4:30 p.m.

Vanderléa Ferreira's 13-year-old daughter, Sabrina, picks up her brother from day care so Ferreira can go to work.
Vanderléa Ferreira's 13-year-old daughter, Sabrina, picks up her brother from day care so Ferreira can go to work.

Public defender Edgar Pierini Neto said the city of São Paulo needs more day care facilities ― and that they should be full-time and closer to where people live.

“Full-time day care is the ideal,” he said. “Mothers would have the opportunity to truly enter the job market, and would be able to drop their children off at day care and pick them up afterwards.”

A Collective Effort

Whether it’s in a metropolis like São Paulo or an area like Macapá, women everywhere are rallying together to make up for the shortcomings of the state.

Nurse Carmem Duarte, 60, welcomes moms and kids at her home in the Congós neighborhood of Amapá’s capital. Hundreds of families there live on palafitas, or shacks supported by stilts and built above a contaminated lake formed by the overflow of the Amazon River. Congós has no electricity or basic sanitation.

“We have seen kids drowning here. Mothers have no alternative but to leave them at home when they go to work,” said Duarte, who oversees tutoring for the kids, as well as capoeira classes and playtime. Her current goal is to have local women take technical classes so they can find better jobs.

In Heliópolis, a poor neighborhood in São Paulo, Roselaine Oliveira Gralha, 46, has been doing the same thing for the past 12 years: caring for kids under 5 while their mothers go to work. She is known as a “mãe crecheira,” or a “day care mom.”

Gralha said she loves what she does, even though it’s an informal occupation. In São Paulo and in Distrito Federal, there have been bills to regulate the “mãe crecheiras,” but they never made it into legislation. Gralha is paid 150 reais a month (around $35) for every kid who spends the day at her place.

She said most local women — regardless of whether they’re mothers — don’t have full-time jobs and rarely make more than the minimum wage, currently 998 reais a month ($243).

“I can relate,” she said. “I’m a mother, too. They still have to pay rent, electricity bills. How are they supposed to make ends meet? There’s no money left, not even to eat.”