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Childcare is a critical need for women refugees. It must be made a priority

Millions of Ukrainian refugee women now find themselves as single heads of households.

A volunteer holds a boy as he has breakfast in a state shelter in Lviv, Ukraine for children in foster care on 25 March.
A volunteer holds a boy as he has breakfast in a state shelter in Lviv, Ukraine for children in foster care on 25 March. (Zohra Bensemra/REUTERS)

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The importance of childcare has long been overlooked in humanitarian responses, but the war in Ukraine offers a stark reminder of why it needs to be raised up the agenda, both now and for future crises.

The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, estimates that 90 percent of the more than 6.5 million refugees who have fled Ukraine are women or children under the age of 18. In Moldova, which has received the highest number of refugees per capita to date, 65 percent are women and 36 percent are children, with the zero to six age range representing the largest group.

Millions of Ukrainian refugee women now find themselves as single heads of households, shouldering the enormous burden of searching for safety, stability, and opportunities to work while also caring for children and dealing with the psychological toll of the conflict and separation from family members and loved ones.

Given all they are facing, it’s difficult to imagine how women refugees will be able to manage without targeted support in the form of childcare.

Yet, despite the groundswell of aid initiatives that have cropped up along Ukraine’s borders, few efforts are focused on children under five years old. Similarly, neighbouring countries have begun to enrol school-age children into their education systems, but there are few organised efforts to provide childcare to the youngest refugees.

Compared to the absence of investment in the past, it’s an important starting point.

This gap is not unique to the Ukraine crisis: The Moving Minds Alliance, a coalition of UN agencies, NGOs, private foundations, and researchers working to address the needs of displaced infants and toddlers, estimates that only three percent of total development assistance to crisis-affected countries, and two percent of humanitarian funding, goes towards providing quality services to newborns, young children, and their caregivers.

What are the solutions?

To address the childcare needs of Ukrainian refugees and other crisis-affected people, our recently published research shows that governments and aid organisations must:

  • Expand access to safe, quality childcare by establishing childcare hubs along migration routes and integrating refugees into host childcare systems
  • Ensure quality childcare is affordable for refugee populations
  • Promote capacity building to provide trauma-informed support for displaced populations
  • Bundle essential services, such as play-based early learning opportunities, parenting, nutrition, health, protection, and psychosocial support, in the same location

At the end of April, the World Bank, the US, Canada, and Australia, along with a group of private foundations, took an important initial step in raising this issue globally by launching the Childcare Incentive Fund, which will provide more than $180 million over five years to expand quality childcare.

The amount of funding is relatively small – especially spread out over five years. But compared to the absence of investment in the past, it’s an important starting point. And some of the World Bank’s childcare pilots have taken place in emergency settings, such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Côte d’Ivoire. Moving forward, it is vital that this fund be expanded and used as a significant source of support for childcare in other crisis settings, including Ukraine.

One example of a solution in an acute response is Blue Dot hubs, set up by UNICEF and UNHCR with local partners. Positioned along major entry points and registration sites where refugees arrive, these one-stop shops provide a safe space where children and families can simultaneously access vital information, health and nutrition services, psychosocial support, and opportunities to play or just rest.

Member states will need to recognise childcare as a basic need for displaced populations and include it as a focal point in their humanitarian and refugee response plans.

Blue Dots have supported Syrian refugees on the move from the Middle East to Europe, and have recently been set up to support Ukrainian refugees in bordering countries. As of 11 May, 27 Blue Dot hubs are operating in Bulgaria, Hungary, Italy, Moldova, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia. Many more will be needed, especially as the crisis continues to unfold and the initial upsurge in volunteer aid and hosting efforts begins to subside.

From allocation to implementation

As displacement from Ukraine shifts from a new emergency to a more protracted crisis, access to reliable childcare will remain essential. Without it, women will struggle to have the time to find work, secure food and accommodation, and carry out other tasks. Existing childcare centres in host countries will need additional resources to expand services and training on how to work with refugee populations.

Meeting these needs will be a challenge in some EU countries – such as Poland, Estonia, and Ireland – where childcare systems were already strained or underdeveloped.

In this context, enacting policies to support refugee access to childcare benefits and services is essential. In early March 2022, the European Commission announced 3.5 billion euros in emergency support to its member states to cover the basic needs of people fleeing the war in Ukraine, including childcare. But those member states will need to recognise childcare as a basic need for displaced populations and include it as a focal point in their humanitarian and refugee response plans to make sure these funds are actually allocated to address the issue.

Some governments are already taking positive steps. For example, Ireland’s children’s minister is bringing forward emergency legislation to ensure refugee parents from Ukraine will qualify for childcare payments. But more will have to be done, such as subsidising childcare for refugees to alleviate the financial burden, which is a main barrier to access.

Given the sentiments of solidarity spreading across Europe, and the economic strength of the region relative to other emergencies, Ukraine represents our best chance to demonstrate how childcare can be made a core aspect of crisis response and, by extension, to show why it’s so important to prioritise it in other settings over the long run as well.

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Right now, we’re working with contributors on the ground in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries to tell the stories of people enduring and responding to a rapidly evolving humanitarian crisis.

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