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The child in the family

Maldives: First steps – Gender equality through early childhood development

© UNICEF Maldives/Pirozzi

Maldives has 1,200 islands scattered over the Indian Ocean. Historically, families and communities encounter many challenges – lack of access to basic services, language difference, religious conservatism, and a traditional way of life which often keeps men at sea. The transition of Maldives’ economy from fishing to one depending on the tourism has affected normal family structures, and increased the number of abandoned and neglected children.

Maldives has signed and ratified the Convention on the rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Despite cultural difficulties, progress has been made in achieving child rights and gender equality.

In line with Maldives’s National Development Plan, UNICEF has developed a rights-based approach to address early childhood care and development. In 1999, UNICEF initiated the project First Steps Maldives. The goal is to secure every child’s full physical, cognitive and psychosocial development in a stimulating environment, and to help each child reach his/her full potential. The main objectives are:

  • To create a culture of media for, about and with young children in a manner that is inclusive, sensitive, entertaining and educational.
  • To ensure that parents and grandparents are aware that it is important for both fathers and mothers to be actively involved in nurturing and stimulating their children.

One significant activity of this project was the multimedia campaign of 52 weeks in 2001, using radio, television and posters to reach out to families for early childhood care and development. It was viewed as a social marketing campaign in cutting through the barriers of traditional practices and gender roles. The aim was to make a difference in insular and remote families and communities, and to emphasize the importance for all care givers, particularly fathers to nurture their children. The essential messages of the campaign are:

  • Babies and young children whose fathers spend more quality time with them grow up healthier, brighter and more secure.
  • Children who have fathers that are involved in nurturing and helping with chores learn better and have fewer social or behaviour problems when they grow older.
  • When a father is involved in child rearing and house chores, the child benefits.
  • When both parents equally share responsibilities, the child often develops a healthier
  • Babies whose fathers participate in feeding, bathing and other daily
      routines are more socially and emotionally healthy.
  • There are many ways a father working away from home can show his love.
      The important thing the baby needs is to know that his father loves him. The
      father can make a special toy, record a song, a story or a message for his baby.
  • Small things that fathers do can help their babies in a big way.
       Fathers can interact with and nurture their babies in simple ways. These
       include cuddling, praising, exploring new things with their babies and reading to them.

An evaluation of the “First Steps” project was conducted in mid 2003. The results demonstrated that early childhood development could be achieved by involving not only the Government and media, but also families and fathers. The project was successful by providing non-stereotypical images, with active participation of care givers while respecting gender and cultural sensitivity. Improved child care was apparent in most families observed, e.g. breast feeding, vaccination, the caring role of fathers, children’s psychosocial and cognitive needs.

The Maldives case shows cost-effectiveness of UNICEF’s support for early childhood development. The approach, whether directed at children or at parents, is an accurate reflection of the child’s rights and gender equality. It also lays a sound base for further use of multi-media as a strong communication tool to increase men’s role in child care and to promote shared responsibilities within families and communities



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