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Early childhood centres help children affected by HIV in Malawi

© UNICEF Malawi/2008
Children sing and dance at the Kanengo AIDS Support Organization in Lilongwe, Malawi. The centre provides much-needed support in a country where over half a million children have lost one or both parents to AIDS.

By Victor Chinyama

LILONGWE, Malawi, 8 October 2008 – The nondescript building could pass for any other, except on Saturday mornings, when it is transformed into a beehive of activity by children. They sing ‘Let Us Be Glad and Dance’, their voices reaching a delightful crescendo, their joy a world away from the sorrow that defines their lives.

Three hundred and fifty children, many of them orphans, attend a programme at the Kanengo AIDS Support Organization (KASO) every Saturday morning. They participate in drama, song and dance, a much-needed diversion in a country where some 550,000 children – more than half of all orphaned children in Malawi – have lost one or both parents to AIDS.

Founded at one location in 1997, KASO has since opened seven other community-based child care centres, or CBCCs, which serve some 4,000 children.

Support for those affected by HIV
The centres provide activities for children from three to five years of age, home-based care for children living with HIV and a Children’s Corner for those between the ages of 7 and 18, as well as Girl Guides’ activities. There are 5,700 CBCCs reaching more than 400,000 children across Malawi.

But it is the support these centres give to the very young that has caught the imagination of early child care practitioners in Africa. Children develop cognitively through songs, games, stories and other forms of play.

The CBCCs’ learning programmes are run by community volunteers. An elected committee of parents and local leaders oversees the day-to-day management, and learning materials are locally sourced.

At KASO, children learn how to use the toilet and wash their hands, and their play area is equipped with swings. About 190 children attend the centre’s early childhood development classes four times a week. Nutrition is a big part of the attraction.

“The only meal of the day”
“They receive porridge at mid-morning break,” says the coordinator of the early child development programme, Arton Chikaoneka. “We make sure they have lunch here before they go home. For many of these children, it is the only meal of the day.”

© UNICEF Malawi/2008
The Kanengo AIDS Support Organization provides a safe and supportive environment for children living with HIV.

In the last two decades, Malawi and most other countries in sub-Saharan Africa experienced a proliferation of privately owned pre-schools – many of them located in urban areas. These schools were simply beyond the reach of most Malawians.

The AIDS pandemic also left an army of children without access to early childhood care, overstretching the capacity of social welfare officers.

In response, communities began establishing CBCCs. From a total of 649 in 1996, the centres mushroomed to more than 5,000 by 2005. But as they sprang up, many of the centres did not have buildings; their activities took place in borrowed classrooms or makeshift shelters. Few of the caregivers and committee members were formally trained, and the quality of care left much to be desired.

Improving the quality of services

The situation improved somewhat in 2003, when UNICEF helped the Government of Malawi draft a national policy on early childhood development. A five-year plan was subsequently developed to improve the quality of services provided by the CBCCs.

UNICEF has since helped the government to develop a syllabus, training manuals and a caregivers’ guide, which have been used to train volunteer teachers and caregivers. UNICEF has also recently funded an inventory to ascertain the number of CBCCs in the country and the quality of care provided.

Young children attending CBCCs enjoy distinct benefits. They develop their physical, mental and social skills, enjoy a nutritious meal each day and receive psychosocial support and cognitive stimulation – all of which puts them in good stead for primary school learning later on.



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