Poor children need to be supported from the womb, say experts
Children who will be born into poverty need to be enrolled in child support programmes while they are still in the womb, a representative from a Ugandan child support programme told the Psychosocial Support Forum in Zimbabwe on Tuesday.
“Lessons learnt from previous projects revealed a need to enrol children into this project right from the womb as opposed to [enrolling them between the ages of] five to nine years,” said Alex Mugabe from the Kakinga Child Development Centre in Rukingiri, Uganda.
“Some of the children who enrolled at the age of five to nine years were [already] in poor health, malnourished and had experienced some form of violence.”
He was speaking at the three-day long forum held in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, hosted by the Regional Psychosocial Support Initiative (Repssi). The network hosts the forum bi-annually to promote awareness among governments, civil society, academia and media about the need for psychosocial support for children.
The network has connected organisations in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Malawi, South Africa, Mauritius, Rwanda, Namibia and Zimbabwe.
On the forum’s first day, participants heard about the support gaps in early childhood development (ECD) programmes around psychosocial development and how nongovernmental organisations are implementing programmes to fill them.
First 1 000 days are crucial
Mugabe said Ugandan children experienced devastating effects from poverty, armed conflicts and HIV and Aids – 14% of them are orphans.
The Kakinga Church of Uganda started the Kakinga Child Development Centre (KCDC) in 1999 to address the problem.
Its Child Survival programme is inspired by research that shows the first 1 000 days of a child’s life are the most critical for growth and development, and the mother’s nutrition has the biggest effect on this.
“It was anticipated that providing psychosocial support to a child right from the womb would enhance their growth and development and have a lasting impact on their productivity,” Mugabe said.
He said expectant mothers are given nutritional support and supported to attend antenatal care, deliver in a health facility, attend postnatal care and immunise their babies fully.
“They are also supported to breastfeed exclusively [and] start their babies on an appropriate supplementary diet at a right time.
“Mothers meet regularly for fellowship to enhance their spiritual wellbeing.”
Helping the moms (and dads)
Mothers are taught the importance of a balanced diet, food preparation to preserve nutrients, and preparing and maintaining kitchen gardens. In addition, caregivers are trained in income-generating skills such as baking and knitting.
He said infants are started on “socialisation through participation in childhood games and sports”.
He told participants about Annet, a mother of three. One of her children had been enrolled in the programme while she was still in the womb.
She said: “I have realised this child is different from my other children, who did not benefit from [this programme]. She started walking at 10 months. She started speaking early, she seems to be very happy. She is very active and fast, unlike the other children”.
The programme supports 1 430 children at present.
It targets female and male caregivers and caregiver sessions cover a wide range of topics, including “family strengthening; child protection, care and support; HIV prevention … harmful cultural practices like child marriages; child rights including property rights for widows and orphans; and prevention of violence against children”.
Caregivers are taught about child growth, behaviour and development. Esther Okoth from the Parenting in Africa Network said 80% of the brain develops before the age of three, when children are in early learning centres, so the network aims to strengthen the link between “early childhood development centres and other community, zonal, divisional and district level stakeholders to create a supportive environment for development and well-being of young children”.
Okoth said the network provides guidelines that promote “skilful parenting”, child protection and positive discipline strategies.
Fathers are strongly encouraged to become more involved in parenting and families are encouraged to include children in “decision-making, life skills and family conflict resolution”.
She said the outcomes of learning and resource centres incorporating these guidelines were “improved family relations”, which showed up in better communication between couples over family issues.
“Parents were increasingly giving children space to play; providing items for play, which greatly improved the learning environment; [and] parents were more involved in children play activities.”
More children were enrolled in, and stayed in, school.
The network’s intervention showed how the design of child development programmes changed for the positive.
They promoted “active involvement of fathers or male caregivers, [there was] integration of parenting with other sectorial projects [such as] food security, education ...”
“Programs [are] targeting the family as a unit as opposed to specific members of the family,” Okoth added.
Building character from an early age
Daisy Reddy, education specialist in the Eastern Cape education department, said most childhood education experts “agree that building a child’s character must begin at the formative years of childhood development”.
“During this period, children can be easily shaped and guided to learn about what is right and what is wrong, and to learn to live a value-filled life.”
She said research showed that character traits such as caring, respect, self-control, sharing, empathy, tolerance, perseverance, giving, comforting, fairness and conscience are all learned. Children don’t hear as much as they should, she said, about the compassionate, humane gestures people do for others.
“Instead, too often they are exposed to images of hate, cruelty, violence and plain vulgarity. They are being literally bombarded with an unremitting assault of immoral messages from sources such as media, television, movies, the internet and peers.”
But she warned that children learn best through play, dramatisation and role modelling. “Parental modelling is the best way … parents set an example through their own behaviour and actions,” she said.
“Constantly reward children for good behaviour and effort, monitor television viewing and internet use, model good values.” She said parents “can set examples of courteous acts to children like respecting people with different cultures, religions and races, valuing honesty and showing compassion and care when others are grieving”.