Early maternal work and child vocabulary development: evidence from Ethiopia

Waterhouse, Philippa and Bennett, Rachel (2023). Early maternal work and child vocabulary development: evidence from Ethiopia. Journal of Family Studies, 29(2)

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/13229400.2021.1957981


This paper uses Young Lives Survey data to examine the relationship between early maternal work and child vocabulary development at age 5 in Ethiopia. In bivariate analysis, early maternal work in agriculture, self-employment and single or multiple work activities are negatively associated with vocabulary development at age 5. However, when children are matched on child, maternal and economic context characteristics using entropy balancing only maternal work in multiple activities remains significantly associated. Analysis of the association between the matching variables and maternal work characteristics indicates that children whose mothers did not work in their child's first year of life belong to wealthier households, their mothers have higher levels of education and they are more likely to reside in urban areas – factors which are all also strongly associated with better vocabulary development. Our results suggest that in the case of most maternal work types, it is the factors which select mothers into work, rather than maternal work itself, which are negatively associated with vocabulary development. Particular attention needs to be paid to mothers who juggle multiple work activities alongside caring for young infants, and more broadly policy should focus on enabling low-income women to access high quality and equal education and employment opportunities.

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