Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Reaping The Bitter Fruits of Neglecting Early Childhood Development

The system condemns them to failure at an early age, but the ramifications have a touch of patience because they largely manifest themselves when adulthood awns on the kids.

“We are talking of Early Childhood Development (ECD), one of the areas overlooked in Malawi’s national development policies,” says ECD expert, Charles Gwengwe.

In a country where only 1.5 million kids (aged between one and eight years) out of 4 million have access to ECD services, representing 38 percent, the situation is nothing short of a national disaster.

Gwengwe says Malawians have been sitting on a ticking bomb, in terms of preparing their children for life’s cognitive challenges, a development he says has a way of manifesting itself in development endeavours.

Gwengwe, who is the executive director for the Association of Early Childhood Development in Malawi, says what compounds the situation is the fact that caregivers are also in short supply.

“Our country, with its population of over 14 million people, only depends on 26, 000 caregivers to impart skills to 38 percent of the kids who are able to access ECD education at the moment,” Gwengwe says.

On the negative impact of neglecting ECD, Gwengwe says one of the effects is seen through the behaviour of politicians, whom he accuses of behaving in a strange way by, among other things, raising sentiments that do not add any value to national discourse.

He says most politicians behave he way they do because they did not have access to ECD in the early stages of their lives.

Child rights activist, Kenwilliams Mhango, says what has been happening in the country, in terms of access to ECD, can best be described as a “violation of human rights”, imploring the government to treat ECD as a critical area in national development.

“Child neglect takes many forms, including when we deny children their rights. Denying children access to learning opportunities is like condemning them to a precarious future. How can they develop if their foundation, in this case education, is shaky? Mhango queries.

Mhango, who is the country director for the African Network for the Protection and Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect- (Anppcan) Malawi Chapter, observes that, for a long time, policy makers have regarded child abuse, neglect, child trafficking as the only challenges facing children, a development that had left other issues unattended to.

“Of course, we should continue the fight against the various forms of child abuse, but we should not neglect ECD. The problem is that most of the times we fight issues that have a clear negative bearing on child development and growth, including issues such as child trafficking, forgetting that we can also fight against abuse by taking a proactive approach. Increasing access to ECD is one way of taking such a proactive approach,” Mhango says.

He says organisations such as Anppcan-Malawi Chapter have tried to play their role by introduce child-friendly programmes, citing the implementation of ‘Child Social and Financial Education’ in Blantyre Rural and City as well as Uliwa in Karonga.

Mhango, who is also a board member of the Human Rights Consultative Committee- a grouping of over 90 human rights organisations- says the initiative just underlined the commitment of Non-Governmental Organisations towards the promotion of child rights.

“If we want development, we should initiate pro-child programmes while the children are at a tender age, and they will grow with the knowledge. As they grow with such progressive knowledge, the nation grows with them,” Mhango says.

Coincidentally, his sentiments are shared by Principal Secretary for Gender, Children and Social Welfare, Mary Shawa, who sees the value of ECD in national development.

Sealing the holes

“ECD helps us identify gifted children at a tender age, thereby increasing our chances of nurturing them into geniuses,” Shawa says.

While observing that the country only has 26, 000 caregivers, of which only 16 percent are trained, Shawa says the government has put in place programmes designed to reduce challenges faced by children in accessing learning opportunities between the ages of one year and eight years.

“Our target is to reach 70 percent of the population that is eligible for ECD education,” Shawa says.

Information sourced from www.africaecd.org, a website run by one of the organisations that promotes ECD in Africa, the story of ECD in Malawi dates back to 1964, “when the first ECD center was developed in Malawi”, further observing that efforts were being taken to improve the situation.

“With a growing realization of the importance of the early years for a child, the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) in collaboration with the Government of Malawi and other partners are taking an active role in strengthening the programmes and services available to children aged 0 to 8 and their families,” observes a report on ECD.

Adds the report: “Since 1983, the Government of Malawi in partnership with Unicef and other partners have been drafting materials for Community Based Child Care and ECD Services. Although materials have been developed, it was felt that there was need to review and revise the materials in order to reflect a more integrated approach to early childhood, placing special emphasis on children 0 – 5 years.”

Indeed, as part of such efforts, the government launched the National Policy for Early Childhood Development and the National Policy on OVC On March 1, 2004. The National Policy on ECD aims at “promoting the provision of high quality ECD services to the Malawian children to ensure his/her survival, growth, and development that would lead to his/her active participation in national development”, among other things.

Apart from Unicef, Save the Children has also been running similar programmes since 2001, with the organisation’s Malawi website indicating that, “we support the government’s efforts to improve the quality of early childhood development by training caregivers and by strengthening management committees”.

“We are also testing new approaches to strengthen services for children under age 2 and continue to replicate enrichment activities for children ages 3-6. Currently, we are assisting more than 200 community-based childcare centers, each with an average enrollment of 50-70 children,” says the organisation.

Whether these efforts will tame Malawi’s political roving politicians remains to be seen, though.

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