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Early Childhood Development as empowerment tool

For the most part, Early Childhood Development (ECD) services have been regarded as a privilege of the few.

But this is not supposed to be the case because the National Policy on Early Childhood Development underscores the importance of investing in children as human capital, singling it out as necessary in promoting sustainable development.

It emphasises that poverty reduction begins with children and that investing in young children aged between 0 and eight years could go a long way in reducing poverty. This is because, according to experts, the early years of life are the most critical to the physical, social, cognitive and emotional development of every child.

However, many children in rural communities of Malawi face obstacles that limit their ability to reach their full potential because of poverty and unavailability of early learning services.

A 2015 United Nations Children’s Fund report indicates that, while Malawi has attained universal access to education, the country also experiences problems such as high levels of dropouts, with only 30 percent of children who start Standard One reaching Standard Eight.

This has been attributed to lack of early childhood education, among others.

But ActionAid Malawi (AAM) says investing in ECD is a reliable and sound strategy for reducing and eradicating poverty in the long term for the country.

It says that ECD education lays a foundation for the holistic development of children which, in turn, prepares them to be productive citizens. Realising the critical role that the early years play in a child’s development, AAM in 2011 embarked on a programme that provides access to quality ECD for vulnerable children with funding from the Roger Federer Foundation.

AAM Education and Youth Thematic Manager, Julie Juma, says the organisation is contributing significantly to early childhood development in Malawi through its ‘Comprehensive Early Childhood Development Project’.

In the project, AAM is focusing on providing modern quality infrastructure, training caregivers, promoting community participation in the management of the centres, provision of water and sanitary facilities after joining hands with the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare and other stakeholders.

“The programme takes a holistic approach to ECD as children are stimulated socially, emotionally, spiritually and cognitively. ECD gives children a good start in life. In the project, a model ECD centre is based on the government-recommended standard for an ECD centre.” Juma says.

Juma, who says a child-friendly environment in ECD centres stimulates the holistic development of children, adds that the second phase of the programme culminated in the introduction of a satellite ECD programme.

These are centres established by the community that are modeled along ECD centres, with each model centre having five satellites.

The satellite ECD centres are supported to improve their existing structures through the provision of cement for flooring and iron sheets for roofing. They are also supported with the training of caregivers, growth monitoring, nutrition, parenting education and mentoring.

Early Childhood Development Manager, Jaynet Kuyeli, says AAM has, through the ECD programme, facilitated the construction of 80 model ECD centres in 10 districts of Malawi.

In turn, these centres have benefitted 62,214 children, comprising 29,770 boys and 32, 444 girls, with access to quality ECD services.

“So far, 3,300 caregivers have received training in early childhood development. The programme is addressing many challenges such as poor infrastructures, poor health and nutrition, inadequate water, hygiene and sanitation facilities, inadequate play and teaching materials and poor linkage between ECD centres and primary schools in the ECD sector,” Kuyeli says.

In April 2017, Roger Federer Foundation Chief Executive Officer, Janine Handel, visited a number of ECD centres in Machinga and expressed satisfaction with the work that AAM is doing under the ECD project.

Anastasia Gondwe, 42, heads a dedicated team of 10 caregivers and is also a mentor of 50 caregivers from five satellite centres that surround Chikwawa model Community-based Child Care Centre (CBCC).

On a monthly basis, Anastasia brings caregivers from the six centres together to share ideas on how to improve the learning environment for children, tackle issues related to resource mobilisation as well as how to deal with other problems.

“The Comprehensive ECD programme has not just increased access to early learning for children in our community but has also changed the lives of many caregivers. Through the trainings on care-giving service, I have not just learned how to stimulate children but I have also learnt how to handle children, especially those with disability; to be patient with children; to produce locally-made play materials; to use the national ECD syllabus, and; to help children learn through play.

“I am a better mother to my children now than I was before I got the training in care-giving. As a mentor of my fellow caregivers, I encourage my team to learn from each other’s strengths and work hard in teaching the children so that we increase interest in education for the children. It is always nice to get feedback from primary school teachers that the children that graduate from the ECD centres excel in primary schools. They are easy to handle, able to read and count and comprehend things easily,” Gondwe says.

She says she has benefited from the project in a number of ways.

“I am very thankful to ActionAid for the many benefits this project has brought in our community. Now our livelihoods are even improving through the revolving fund that this project brought along. I was in the second group of people that received loans in October 2016 and, with the K70, 000 I borrowed, I discussed with my husband, Rogers, to start a business with that loan. We opened a butchery, selling goat meat in our community, and, I must say, our lives have really changed since we started. From selling one goat in two days, our sales have increased to selling two goats in a day— all because we have sessions on business management. We managed to repay the loan in three months and used the proceeds as capital to continue with our business. Eleven months down the line, we have roofed our house with iron sheets and are able to pay fees for our son who is in Form Two at Chikwawa Community Day Secondary School.’’ Gondwe adds.

A Mrs Chimera, Standard One teacher at Chinsapo Primary School in Lilongwe, recognises the difference ECD makes in a child.

“Children who have spent time in ECD facilities are better able to cope with school, have more self-confidence and are more used to interaction,” Chimera says.

ECD in Malawi is coordinated by the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare. It is guided by the National Policy on ECD which was developed in 2006 and a five-year (2009-2014) National Strategic Plan for ECD. A new draft policy is under review.

National ECD Coordinator in the Ministry of Gender , Children, Disability and Social Welfare, Francis Chalamanda, says partners are welcome in the ECD sector.

“We recognise that the government is constrained in terms of resources in that the allocation to ECD has been insufficient; that is why we commend our partners in development, notably ActionAid and others, for always supporting the ministry in the provision of quality ECD services. ” Chalamanda says.

A Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare (2017) report indicates that there is an increase in number of ECD centers and number of children accessing ECD services.

On her part, ActionAid Malawi’s Executive Director, Grace Malera, sees ECD getting entrenched in the country.

“I am impressed with the progress that has been made in the project. Notwithstanding some challenges, the project is on course and will achieve the set targets. This project has contributed to the number of children accessing ECD services in the country currently at 45 percent up from 32 percent in 2011 when the project was starting.

“This project has also helped ActionAid to surpass the target set in its Country Strategy Paper of 2012 -2017, which was to enhance access to quality ECD services for 55, 000 children between three and five years by 2017. We have been able to reach 62,214 children by April 2017,” Malera says.

She attributes this to collaboration with the Ministry of Gender Children, Disability and Social Welfare, other government stakeholders and CSOs working on ECD.

At the rate ECD services are being rolled out, even the sky cannot be the limit.

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