Access to child care is a human right

By Emma Slee, Amnesty International Australia Intern

Childcare is back in the news. While in the process of introducing a $1.7 billion childcare package announced in the latest Federal budget, the Australian government remains mired in debate around the place of childcare in modern families.

On 22 June, the Coalition party room meeting descended into chaos when discussing the merit of benefits under the proposed childcare funding boost. An explosive comment from one male MP described working women as “outsourcing parenting” by enlisting the help of child-care services.

This debate distracts from a crucial point: access to child care is a human right. Rather than villainising women in the workforce or denigrating the unpaid labour undertaken in the domestic sphere, the conversation around child care should frame the service as a crucial entitlement for families. As such, it should be protected and defended by the government in accordance with their international human rights obligations.

International standards

A range of international human rights standards recognise the importance of child care for both parents and children, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child references childcare in Article 13, which dictates that all states must “take all appropriate measures to ensure that children of working parents have the right to benefit from child-care services and facilities for which they are eligible.” The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights demands the “widest possible protection and assistance” to be provided for families, by virtue of their care-taking role over children. These conventions frame child-care as a right for the benefit of children with working parents, ensuring their safe development and well-being.

Other agreements explicitly outline child-care as a right to ensure women’s freedom from discrimination and freedom to participate in public life. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women extends this idea to encourage a network of child-care facilities, enabling “parents to combine family obligations with work responsibilities and participation in public life”.

Children’s rights and access to childcare

The provision of affordable, accessible, and high-quality child care is crucial in ensuring the full rights of children. Children, as rights holders, are entitled to education and conditions to best serve the development of their “personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential”.

Quality play-based learning in the early years of a child’s development is crucial to their flourishing in later years. Restricting access to such learning based on financial need denies children the equal opportunity to thrive as they grow.

Women’s inequality and access to childcare

While international law posits that men and women have equal responsibility over the care of their children, the reality faced by Australian women today does not quite reflect this premise. A study conducted by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) confirms that, on average, women spend a substantially longer amount of time engaging with unpaid care work compared to men, spending one hour and 48 minutes to every one hour of men’s unpaid care work.

This imbalance hinders women’s ability to participate fully in paid employment, contributing to the significant gender pay gap. Bolstering the affordability and quality of child care can help re-balance this dynamic by allowing more women the option to re-enter the workforce upon having children. This can help combat the crippling effects of economic insecurity, and feed into progress regarding discrimination against women in the workplace.

Financial dependence is often cited in cases of domestic abuse as playing a significant role in restricting the freedoms and rights women are entitled to as human beings. Restricting available care arrangements through insufficient or prohibitively expensive child care services helps perpetuate the vulnerability of women to violence and exploitation, and can result in women staying in abusive relationships for fear of economic insecurity.

Just as women bear the majority of unpaid care responsibilities, so too do they face the most economic insecurity, social isolation, and vulnerability as a result of expensive, insufficient, or inaccessible child care.

To protect the human rights of women, children and the broader community, child care must be resourced and accessible.