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The best investment
Priyanthi, a young mother in Sri Lanka, rushes frantically down a rutted dirt path, holding a small, tightly wrapped bundle in her arms and guarding it fiercely. The slight 28-year-old woman is breathing hard, her steps landing in rhythm with her quickening pulse. Darkness is setting in, and she stumbles over downed branches. But the determined mother presses onward.
Priyanthi carries a precious treasure. In a country wracked by war and poverty, Priyanthi's special cargo has the potential to cure an entire nation's ills. Wrapped in her arms, she holds a resource found in abundance in every country. Allowed to flourish, this resource could bring peace, prosperity, security and promise everywhere it is found. But sadly, this resource is tragically underutilized, even abused.
Priyanthi's treasure is her young child.
Paradoxically, the world's greatest strength resides in its smallest citizens. From birth to age three, the seeds of personhood - indeed, of nationhood - are taking root in every child. Synapses crackle and the patterns of a lifetime are established. In a remarkable 36 months, the brain develops, and children acquire the ability to think, speak, learn and reason. This is the foundation for the values and social behaviour of the adults they will one day become.
These first three years of life offer an exceptional opportunity: Each time a child enters the world, there is the chance to break the relentless intergenerational cycles of poverty, violence and deprivation. By protecting the rights of this child and thousands of others and carefully nurturing them through the earliest stages of development, a nation can give a new generation the keys to unlocking the vast potential that may have been denied to the parents. For a government that wants to improve the lot of its people, investing in the first years of life is the best money it can spend. But tragically, both for children and for nations, these are the years that receive the least attention.
Priyanthi's family is one of the fortunate ones. When 18-month-old Madushika grew weaker and began gasping for air, the young mother bundled her up and embarked on foot on the desperate 7-kilometre journey to the medical clinic. They reached the clinic after dark and were greeted by a young doctor, who diagnosed Madushika with pneumonia. "If you had waited even 15 minutes longer," the doctor said, nodding at the exhausted child, "your baby would have died."
Since that evening, Priyanthi and her children have been part of Sri Lanka's system of early childcare programmes. The mother was encouraged to get regular health check-ups for herself and her children. She learned how talking to her infant during breastfeeding would improve her baby's mind and body. She found out that just cooing and babbling to her child had value: This 'motherese' chatter was helping the child learn to talk.
Priyanthi's family is 1 of 22 in her village to participate in the home-based programme called Sithuwama, which means 'raising a child with enjoyment'. The programme, which is supported by UNICEF, promotes early childhood care, including healthy childcare practices and cognitive stimulation. Priyanthi has learned that good nutrition, home hygiene and sanitation practices and mental stimulation are keys to her children's growth and development. Madushika is now a vivacious, healthy five-year-old. This one family's investment of time and resources in the children's earliest years will pay dividends for generations to come.