Pre-school for children of nomads in Bhutan's remote Lungo village
Reaching the unreached: UNICEF, Ministry of Education and the community establish the first-ever early childhood care and development centre in the hard-to-reach Lungo village in Laya, northern Bhutan
Lungo is one of the most remote settlements in Bhutan at almost 4,000 meters above sea level. There is no road to Lungo. People trek for two days - up and down, traversing, descending and ascending through mountains and rivers - to get to Laya gewog (block) and then to Lungo village.
And in this far-flung village, surrounded by snow-capped mountains and yaks, lies a centre for early childhood care and development (ECCD) filled with laughter of children between the ages of 3 to 5.
UNICEF and the Ministry of Education inaugurated the centre in April this year thus, providing the opportunity to more than 15 children of the nomads to have the best start in life. This is the first time that an ECCD has been set-up at such a remote and hard-to-reach community on a high altitude. The temperature drops to minus 6-degree Celsius even during spring time.
“This is in fact a perfect example of ‘reaching the last mile’. For us, every child is important. A child in Lungo should have access to the same services and opportunities as a child living in Thimphu. The establishment of the ECCD centre is a testimony to that commitment,” said UNICEF Bhutan Representative, Rudolf Schwenk.
The centre was built with support from both UNICEF and the local community, which makes this centre even more special with strong ownership of the nomadic community. Since its inception, the centre has developed into a lively place where children and families learn, share and play together from 9am until 2pm. The centre caters to 64 households with a catchment area of three villages, including lungo.
“We are very happy that our children can come together play, interact with each other and learn,” said Pego, a 32-year old mother to one of the children attending ECCD for the first time. Pego said that the children usually followed their parents to herd the yaks, moving from one pasture land to another and didn’t have the opportunity to interact and play with other children. “We are also busy with our work that we could hardly give them quality time,” she said.
In 2017, UNICEF and education ministry carried out the study ‘Early Childhood Care and Development in Bhutan: A Case for Investment’. This report presents a compelling case for the need to increasingly invest in ECCD programmes, with emphasis on quality, equity and sustainability. A child’s most important steps happen before they set foot in a primary school. By their fifth birthday, children’s brains are 90% developed and the foundations for success at school and in later life are in place. This makes a child’s early years a critical window of opportunity – to set the foundations for life-long success, first at school, and later in life.
Within a short span of time, Bhutan has made impressive progress in providing essential ECCD services – from 3% in 2011 to more than 23% in 2018. On average, one thousand new children gained access to ECCD centres each year in the past five years. However, much remains to be done. In Bhutan, only 1 in every 4 young children is enrolled in pre-primary education or ECCD centres, just as the case in other low-income countries.
“We hope to be able to provide access to 50% of all children aged 3 to 5 by 2024 and 100% by 2030. So, if we are able to achieve this target, we would have made substantial contribution to children’s development and preparation for school,” said Karma Gayleg, Ministry of Education’s ECCD focal. “And as a nation that promotes Gross National Happiness it is our duty to ensure that all children have a good start in life and that all children develop to their full potential.”
According to a new report UNICEF released on 9 April, more than 175 million children globally – around half of pre-primary-age children – are not enrolled in pre-primary education, missing a critical investment opportunity and suffering deep inequalities from the start. Early childhood education in its best form gives opportunities for children to learn through playing. It brings their ideas to life, builds relationships and broadens their world. It sets in motion a positive cycle of learning throughout a child’s life.
Globally, UNICEF is urging governments to make at least one year of quality pre-primary education universal and a routine part of every child’s education, especially the most vulnerable and excluded children.
In addition, a transformational shift this year is that UNICEF in partnership with the education ministry are trying to set up a multi-sectoral ECCD committee and multisectoral ECCD strategic plan to influence upstream policy making. UNICEF and partners are also exploring alternative models of early childhood care and development and not centre-based approach alone in order to reach every child.
“UNICEF will continue to work together with partners in Bhutan to ensure the best start in life for every child not just here in Lungo or Laya but in every part of Bhutan” said UNICEF Bhutan Representative Rudolf Schwenk. He said that it’s a moral obligation that children in remote areas, like here in Lungo, have the same opportunities. “I think that it is very important also for the future of the country to strengthen its human capital, the cognitive capital.”