Early childhood development
The earliest years of a child’s life are the most crucial for his or her development. With proper nutrition and health care, as well as social and emotional support and caring, children are able to thrive physically, mentally and emotionally. However, when these factors are not present and learning opportunities are inadequate to provide stimulation, development can be seriously impaired, affecting not only the future of the child but also her or his family, community and society as a whole. Poverty is the underlying cause of these situations, and early interventions that take a holistic approach in promoting the conditions that foster well-being are the most effective in breaking cycles of poverty.
Why partner with religious communities for early childhood development?
As already illustrated, every major religious tradition stresses the inherent sanctity of life and dignity of every person, including the child. This translates to the importance of caring for a child’s well-being and offers holistic perspectives on how that can be done. Understanding, respecting and building on these beliefs can reinforce integrated and organic early childhood development programmes. Religious leaders have access to the most intimate social unit: the family, where early childhood is shaped. They can be crucial partners in providing information, guidance and support to families of young children that can promote each child’s right to healthy development.
What can religious communities do to promote early childhood development?
- Provide or support early education for children that includes elements promoting healthy physical and emotional development, as well as gender equity, especially for poor or marginalized children who may not have other opportunities for such exposure.
- Include peace education and teachings of mutual respect in early childhood education programmes.
- Bring important early childhood development information into the family setting, stressing families’ obligation to provide for their young children, offering information on how to do this and supporting them when they face difficulties.
- Include references to scripture, special prayers and discussion of the elements important in early childhood development in worship services, study sessions and particularly at special events such as the celebration of childhood rites of passage.
- Develop peer education groups for women’s and men’s associations to share information about early childhood development, and support members whose children are not accessing appropriate services through, for example, referral and financial assistance.
“Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2: 15–17)
Emergency contexts such as conflict or natural disasters can greatly exacerbate existing child rights concerns and create significant obstacles to fulfilling these rights. During emergencies children are especially vulnerable to disease, malnutrition, violence and separation from family or caregivers. Education can be disrupted through displacement and loss of infrastructure. Sexual and gender-based violence usually become more prevalent, placing children and women at particular risk of physical and emotional trauma.
The Core Commitments for Children in Humanitarian Action (CCCs) are the main policy guidelines for UNICEF’s work in crises, whether these are of a sudden or slow-onset nature, natural disasters or conflict situations. According to the CCCs, humanitarian action encompasses preparedness and response, which includes early recovery.
In emergencies UNICEF works in collaboration with local and international partners to ensure comprehensive and effective delivery of humanitarian assistance that permits the diverse array of programmes necessary to address the full spectrum of children’s rights. Partnerships are a key cornerstone of effective humanitarian action. However, in certain contexts – in particular those marked by armed conflict, human rights violations and/or civil and political unrest – there are particular challenges to partnerships that should be taken into account. Most importantly, when delivering humanitarian assistance in conflict settings, actions by all actors must be consistent with the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and humanity. In partnering with religious communities, this should be taken into consideration and a risk analysis conducted around any proposed partnership based on the specific context.
Why partner with religious communities in emergencies?
In emergency situations the roles of religious communities can be even more clearly advantageous in providing immediate and sustainable support to affected people.
- The expansive reach of religious communities’ presence means that they are likely to have structures or systems in place in many areas that might be inaccessible to humanitarian actors. This also gives them an inherent capacity to mobilize community resources.
- Most religious communities are community-based service providers already, providing care and support for vulnerable persons, such as foster and other care for children without adequate parental care, and emergency support such as food and shelter.
- Religious leaders have the trust and presence within their communities to provide spiritual support and stability during difficult circumstances.
A greater understanding of a community’s religious as well as cultural beliefs and practices is also important in planning emergency response actions. Determining appropriate supplies of food and shelter and the design of shelter and WASH facilities should, to the extent possible, take into consideration the local religious codes of conduct in order for them to be utilized effectively.
While religious differences are used to justify and fuel conflicts, this should not be a reason to avoid engaging with religious leaders. Sensitivity and a deeper understanding of the religious as well as socio-economic and political dimensions of a conflict are essential. In these situations, inter-religious mechanisms or associations may be very effective in creating space for humanitarian assistance as the trust bestowed on religious/spiritual leaders can allow them to play significant roles in mediation and reconciliation.
It is also important to recognize that in situations in which conflict is centred on or around religion, child protection actors can play an important role in facilitating inter-religious coordination by acting as impartial conveners around child-centred issues and initiatives.
Discrimination based on gender or sex denies children opportunities for development and the realization of their basic rights and deprives the world of the proven and multiple benefits for all from gender equality. While gender discrimination can affect boys and men in many ways, it disproportionately affects girls and women in much of the world, denying them access to education, health care, participation in governance and decision-making, and protection from violence and abuse. The impacts of discrimination extend beyond individuals to their families, communities and societies at large, preventing them from developing to their full potential. The SDGs cannot be achieved in the absence of equal outcomes for girls and boys.
UNICEF integrates gender equality into all aspects of its programming as well as into its commitments with partners at all levels. Promoting equal outcomes for girls and boys is an element of all partnerships, and some partnerships may be entirely focused on such outcomes. Where partners’ commitments to gender equality are not yet substantial, UNICEF supports efforts to further develop these and the institutional capacity to act on them.
Engagement with religious communities can provide rich opportunities for confronting discrimination and promoting equal outcomes for girls and boys. Tapping into the deeply held values of dignity and the sanctity of life shared by most faith traditions, religious partners can mobilize assets for change that child rights organizations would not be able to do alone.
It is important to acknowledge concerns that many religions and religious communities themselves discriminate against women and marginalize them from formal religious spaces. “[M]any religious traditions are patriarchal, denying women leadership positions in their organizations. Women are often prevented from gaining access to senior formal clerical roles or pursuing education that allows them to interpret their religious traditions with authority.” In most cases religious leaders justify these barriers – which are characteristic of social norms and cultural beliefs that often pre-date religious traditions – by scripture as well as precedent. Dialogue with religious leaders and educators can be instrumental in unpacking these complicated and nuanced concepts.
It is also important to see how women in various faith communities assert their rights or express their viewpoints, which may be via parallel systems to men’s or through channels that are recognized as women’s pathways in their religious tradition (i.e., they may have nominal leadership in some instances and an influential role in others).
Some considerations in promoting gender equality in working with religious communities are:
- How do different members of the religious community – women, men, youth, children, leaders, lay members, etc. – understand and talk about gender discrimination? Is it discussed at all?
- What are the values, principles, tenets and teachings of the religious community vis-à-vis gender roles, expectations and relationships?
- Are prevailing social norms based on culture and traditions or certain interpretations of religion?
- How are these values expressed in the daily functioning of the religious community? Is gender equality evident in the structures and systems of the community – for example, in access to leadership roles and services provided?
- Does the community have organizational codes or processes to ensure gender equality in its functioning and service to its members?
- What are the strategic entry points for addressing gender equality and ensuring its prominence in the partnership?
- Are there groups or individuals in the religious community who are initiating gender-inclusive policies and practices?
- Is the religious community implementing programmes that are, or with support could be, models of gender equality in action – for example, diversity training and mentoring, or programmes demonstrating equal outcomes for boys and girls in the areas of education, HIV or early childhood development?
- Many religious communities have a disproportionate number of men in the higher levels of leadership. What might be some strategies to confront this and include them in the process of promoting gender equity?
Children’s participation can play a crucial role in furthering their protection from violence. Through their participation, girls and boys can raise awareness of the violations they experience as well as positively contribute to preventing and addressing violence and abuse.
Participation offers opportunities to strengthen children’s and adolescent’s capacities to better protect themselves, to address discrimination and to access the means to improve their own and other children’s lives. It also builds on children’s resilience and can help girls and boys in the recovery process. In addition, taking into account the views of children and adolescents is important to ensuring that relevant policies, programmes and services are child friendly, adequate and appropriate.
Religious communities are multi-generational and are in a unique position to encourage the participation of children by creating opportunities for them to express their thoughts, ideas and solutions for promoting and protecting their rights. Children’s participation not only facilitates their healthy development but also benefits the religious community as a whole.
Promoting a partnership culture in settings where adults have usually been in positions of power in relation to children can create a space for the insights and experiences of children to play a major part in identifying solutions to problems they face. This has special implications for very young children and those who have traditionally been marginalized or excluded from decision-making such as girls, children with disabilities and those from minority groups. Being given an opportunity to share their views in a meaningful way with a respected religious person can be a very empowering experience for them.
Some considerations in working with religious communities to promote meaningful child participation might include:
- What are some of the ways in which children participate in the religious community?
- Do they have distinct roles in worship services, rituals or special holidays?
- Are older children and youth involved in the religious education of younger children?
- What barriers to participation do children in the religious community face?
- What is the source of these – for example, religious teachings, administrative structures and systems, particular opinions of adult leadership?
- What preparation and support do children need to participate in a meaningful way?
- What training and support is available to adults in the religious community to facilitate children’s meaningful participation?
Some suggestions for actions in partnership with religious communities to enhance meaningful child participation are:
- Provide information, support and training to equip adults in religious communities to work with children and young people in ways that respect children’s age, development, safety and well-being.
- Support initiatives for children to become fully conversant with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and raise adults’ awareness and understanding of it. This should include discussion about how religious values shaped the understanding of children’s rights enshrined in the Convention.
- Provide space for children to develop their own ideas and activities to address issues of importance to them.