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Price of parenthood - 03/10/2008

A pregnant woman using a laptop whilst holding a baby

Childcare still big problem for working mothers in EU, says report.

For years parents in the EU have struggled to find good, affordable childcare facilities. In 2002, EU leaders declared childcare a high priority and, to show they meant business, set specific targets. They agreed to make childcare available for at least one third of children under 3 and 90% of children between 3 and school age.

Now, six years later, most countries are still far from reaching those goals, according to a progress report.

The EU report is part of a larger package to help working mums. One proposal would give new mums 18 weeks of paid maternity leave, four more than they are entitled to under existing EU laws.

Another proposal gives self-employed women the right to paid maternity leave through their country’s social security plan. And women who work for a family business, like a farm, would be entitled to social security to help make ends meet if they are widowed or divorced.

Only five EU countries have surpassed the childcare provision target for children under 3 – Portugal, the UK, France, Luxembourg and Slovenia – although a few others are getting close. Eight countries have fulfilled their promise where older children are concerned – Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Sweden, Estonia and Italy.

The childcare shortage is a problem both in terms of equal opportunity and economic growth. It’s one reason why birthrates are falling in much of the EU; couples are reluctant to have children for fear they won’t be able to find a nursery school.

With the population greying, the EU desperately needs women to expand the labour pool. But mums often end up leaving their jobs to care for their children. Only 66% of women with dependent children are working, compared with 92% of men.

The pattern is frustrating EU efforts to close the gender gap. Women continue to earn 15% less than men and get fewer top jobs. “Too often, having children costs women their income and their job prospects,” said employment commissioner Vladimir Špidla.

Responsibility for childcare falls to individual countries, but they can get funding from the EU to develop childcare facilities. About €500m is available for 2007-13.

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