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Bringing hope to the despairing
In the world's darkest corners - in countries gripped by intractable poverty, violence and devastating epidemics - children peer out from the shadows, wondering if there is anyone left who cares. The rights of young children to survive, grow and develop are threatened when the adults in their lives are too ill, preoccupied or exhausted. It is especially in such forsaken places that attention to the youngest children is needed most: because the youngest children are most vulnerable when societies and families are traumatized.
The most marginalized children can and do benefit from even the most rudimentary early childhood programmes, perhaps more than any other children. In the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, 360,000 refugees flooded in from war-torn Kosovo in March 1999. School-aged children attended classes, albeit cramped and makeshift, that nevertheless provided some sense of normalcy to their disrupted lives. But the youngest children were left with war-traumatized parents in overcrowded conditions. It seemed as if their plight, out of sight and voiceless, would simply go unnoticed.
Within a month, UNICEF and the Albanian League of Women, a local women's organization, dispatched about 150 volunteers who were trained in community work and child development issues. Some 6,500 host and refugee families with 9,000 children were reached with messages and materials about parenting under crisis. The emergency project was able to improve the care and attention the children received, despite the difficult living conditions. The project was also a vehicle for empowering women as active, decision-making partners in the family and in the community. What began as humanitarian relief ended up helping to amplify the voices of women whose views had previously been ignored.
In Malawi, where HIV/AIDS has orphaned about 15 per cent of children, disease and grinding poverty have eroded the ability of families and communities to care for their youngest members. Indeed, 90 per cent of the children who live in rural areas have no access to early childhood care programmes. Their basic right to survival, growth and development is under threat.
In 1999, the Government of Malawi and UNICEF stepped up efforts to improve early childhood care. Local plans were devised and extension workers were dispatched to far-flung rural areas. The community outreach has focused on improving six practices: care for women, breastfeeding, food preparation, psychosocial care, hygiene practices and home health practices. Despite their poverty, many community members contribute food and work in communal gardens to raise money for the local childcare centres. While there are presently few such centres, demand for them is growing, and the benefits of focusing resources on young children and their families are becoming more visible.
It is in such desperate places that early childhood care can shine a ray of hope. It is about the future: By focusing attention on the youngest children, it holds out the promise that the next generation can break the cycles of disease, violence, and poverty that have held their families and communities hostage. Early childhood care acts as a kind of social 'immunization' against the stresses that children may face later in life.
Giving all children a good start in life helps weed out the blights choking human development. What is needed now is a renewed commitment to the rights of the child, a vision of how the world can be for children and the courage to do whatever it takes to unravel the ropes that bind generations to misery.
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