Op-Ed by Dr Rownak Khan, UNICEF Representative in BiH
The Early Childhood Development Services remain priority for UNICEF and should be prioritised by all
The month of June is being marked worldwide as a parenting month. In UNICEF, the parenting month is an opportunity to highlight the critical value of parenting – one of the most challenging role played by fathers, mothers, grandparents, caregivers and extended family members. At the same time, UNICEF, through global experts, resources and tools supports the parents to help them give the best start of a child’s life – from birth to adolescent through Integrated Early Childhood Development (IECD).
Why is Early Childhood Development (ECD) important?
There is a growing recognition fed by the number of scientific evidences on the importance of ECD, as a foundation for lifelong learning and adult productivity. Compelling evidences tell us that in young children, neurons in the brain form new connections at the astounding rate of 700 to 1,000 per second. These early synaptic connections form the basis which underlies a child’s physical and mental health, lifelong capacity to learn, adapt to change, and develop psychological resilience. In simple words, over 80 % of a baby’s brain is formed by the age of three and therefore, relevant support and stimulation, during this period are the best investments for the rest of the life of the child. Simple acts such as providing proper nutrition, interacting with the babies and creating a loving and supporting environment can make a huge difference in a child’s life .
The Hackman’s theory on economic returns informs us that the earliest investments in children results in greater productivity and consequently reduce social spending later. Data shows that for every US$1 spent on early childhood development, the return on investment can be as high as US $13.
Where are we in Bosnia and Herzegovina?
Child development and wellbeing in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), especially for the vulnerable groups of children such as Roma, children without parental care, children with disabilities and refugee and migrant children, particularly in the early years, is being compromised by the lack of resources, a poor understanding of the importance of investment in early childhood development. The lasting impact of inadequate health and nutrition, neglect, poverty and violence negatively impact development and well-being of these children. COVID -19 pandemic and lock down, exacerbated further deprivations to some children and families.
Most parents, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, need support in caring and nurturing for children’s development, which they often do not receive. Sometimes, the parents/caregivers do not have adequate knowledge to assess developmental milestones in children resulting with detection of developmental delays and subsequent interventions, when it is too late. Other challenges include limited professional knowledge and expertise in early childhood development and interventions and inadequate and outdated skills of service providers, including health and social workers.
During the past decade, UNICEF in BiH has supported 49 municipalities to introduce innovative and sustainable IECD services by opening ECD centers, that include family counselling on nutrition, immunization, detection of developmental delays and early intervention. These comprehensive services are integrated either into the health, education or social sectors.
The survey results conducted in Tuzla canton show that children receiving IECD services had significantly better outcomes for children’s development, enhanced mother-child interactions, home environment and reduced parenting stress, and better emotional well-being, compared to the children with no access to IECD.
A key element in the delivery of ECD services, especially services on early detection of developmental delays and early intervention, are the expert workforces. It is necessary to have an adequately trained workforce with knowledge, skills/competencies to promote and support the adoption of all of the essential aspects of nurturing care.
Call for actions:
Awareness : all the representatives of governments, assemblies and parliaments at all relevant levels should be fully aware about the importance of ECD and economic benefits that result from it.
Integrating the services: multi-sectoral model of integrating ECD services should be endorsed in the existing public health, education and social services systems and including development of referral mechanisms at the local levels.
Introduce and implement family friendly policies: Paid maternity and paternity leave should be granted to parents, while the baby friendly practices and spaces should be introduced at working places.
Budgetary allocation: necessary budgetary allocations in education , public health and social services should be made at all levels.
Community Engagements: local ownership and community engagement including parents’ demand for inclusive, quality ECD services within all services are essential .
UNICEF in BiH stands ready to support government authorities, parents, private sector, religious communities, media and partners to help implement holistic and Integrated early Childhood development.