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Nearly 30 years ago, J.K. Rowling, best-selling author of the Harry Potter series, found herself in wintry Edinburgh as a single parent. Up until that moment, life had been capricious and Rowling had been dealt some hard blows in life. Her mother had passed away from multiple sclerosis when she was 25, her relationship with her father had deteriorated over the years, and her first marriage broke down. Despite those challenges, Rowling wanted to give her daughter a happy childhood. However, finding a job was proving difficult because state-funded childcare was available for at-risk children only. This made going for a full-time job impossible as there was no one available to care for her young daughter.

As a result, Rowling lived on welfare benefits for years, whilst also working a few hours at a local church to make ends meet. During this time, Rowling suffered from clinical depression, feeling the pangs of failure, fear, and poverty gnawing at her. Yet, she pursued her childhood dream and channelled her energy into completing the first manuscript for her book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Rowling is now the world’s highest-paid author, a well-deserved accolade for a truly inspiring writer. Today, she is married with three children, yet she fondly remembers that period, stating in her own words, “I am prouder of my years as a single mother than of any other part of my life”.

Single mums more likely to fall into poverty

Single mothers are a grossly neglected segment in society, despite the myriad and unique challenges they face. According to Gallup, one in eight women worldwide are single mothers, and that figure is slightly higher in the Middle East and North Africa region, where 15 per cent of women are single mothers. The Gallup World Poll, which surveyed 99 per cent of the global population in more than 140 countries during 2014 and 2018, also states that single mothers are more likely to succumb to poverty, finding it difficult to afford housing and food. For example, 44 per cent of single mothers struggled with food affordability, in comparison with 28 per cent of adults. This number is higher for the Mena region, where 37 per cent of single mothers had trouble affording food and shelter for their families.

Single mothers face an increased risk of poverty due to a number of reasons. High costs of living — particularly housing, childcare, and health care — have contributed to their lack of financial security. Welfare benefits in a lot of countries cover a fraction of the overall costs of caring for a child. A 2019 study published by the Child Poverty Action Group in the UK revealed that Child Benefits covered only 15.7 per cent of the total cost of caring for a child in single-parent families.

Mothers have an indelible influence on their children’s well-being. It is essential that we safeguard their well-being and support them so that they can perform this noble duty with as much tenderness.

- Sara Al Mulla, Emirati civil servant

Adequate welfare benefits provide a reprieve for single mothers who are forced into unfair situations where they cannot progress in their careers as they are unable to secure appropriate childcare arrangements for their children. Government welfare systems need to be redesigned with a human-centric approach by designing a holistic system that positively impacts the lives of single-parent families. Welfare benefits need to consider the evolving costs of living when calculating a monthly income that covers essentials, such as housing, childcare, food, clothing, transportation education, and health care.

Single mothers face barriers to full-time employment because of the unavailability and unaffordability of childcare services, limiting their income stream. Thus, it is important for government policies to facilitate employment for single mothers. A suite of interventions must include offering quality childcare services at early childhood care centres free of charge, enrolling mothers in educational and training programmes so that they have a better chance of being employed in well-paying jobs, and matching them with jobs that are suitable for their specific circumstances.

Employers should also be encouraged to adopt family-friendly labour policies that allow working mothers to manage a career while caring for their dependents. These include the ability to apply for child leave to care for sick children, opting for remote working arrangements, and negotiating flexible hours.

Caring for a family single-handedly can be challenging for single mothers. Recovering from a divorce or bereavement can take a toll on the mental health and well-being of both single mothers and children. Also, some single mothers find themselves having to care for a child with a chronic illness or disability, with little financial or emotional support. On top of that, single-parent families face social stigma and ostracisation, sometimes from loved ones, the general public, or the media.

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Multiple researches affirm that single parents suffer from loneliness as well as decreased mental health. As a result of this colossal amount of responsibilities, single mothers have very little time for self-care. Thus, it is essential that mental health services, family consultations, and parenting websites that are rich with expert content are offered to discuss practical and evidence-based advice on how to handle their particular challenges and safeguard the well-being of the entire family.

Additionally, local communities need to come together to support single mothers, by involving them in their local activities, organising play dates with their children, or offering to babysit temporarily while mothers can enjoy some much needed respite.

Mothers have an indelible influence on their children’s well-being. It is essential that we safeguard their well-being and support them so that they can perform this noble duty with as much tenderness.

— Sara Al Mulla is an Emirati civil servant focusing on human development policy and children’s literature.