Championing a better start for children

Community Health Workers determined to transform childhoods in the North Rupununi

Gaulbert Sutherland
08 March 2022

Searching for answers about why many children were performing poorly in school, parents in Wowetta, North Rupununi, Region 9, met - like they often did - as a community to discuss the issue. “Before this Early Childhood Development (ECD) training, we were talking with the parents at a meeting, why, why, what is causing our children to have low grades, they can’t pass exams,” recalled Yasmin Andries, the Community Health Worker (CHW) for the small indigenous village.

Yasmin is one of over a dozen healthcare workers and Community Service Officers (CSOs) in the Annai sub-district who are benefitting from training in ECD provided by UNICEF with support from Canada. The initial training last November was eye-opening, she said, and participants, who came from Annai, Wowetta, Aranaputa, Rupertee, Kwatamang and Surama, identified many areas where practices could be improved.

“Once we address these gaps, the children will be able to do better, and I want to improve on their nutrition also…I see nutrition is failing. We learned the importance of nutrition during the training,” Yasmin highlighted. During her regular clinics, she said, she found that many children did not eat vegetables at home and also did not do so when this was provided by the schools’ feeding programme. Knowing the importance of vegetables for optimal development, she has been encouraging parents to make kitchen gardens so that their children could have a balanced diet, enhance their wellbeing and improve their performance at school.

Community Service Officers, ECD, Community Health Workers,
UNICEF Guyana 2022
Yasmin Andries, the Community Health Worker for Wowetta

Once we address these gaps, the children will be able to do better

Yasmin Andries

Championing ECD

Other health workers related similar experiences. Following the training last November, they returned to their communities and introduced the ECD programme to parents and villagers. They shared key ECD concepts including that optimal brain development requires a stimulating environment, adequate nutrients and responsive caregiving. Evidence from multiple disciplines has confirmed that investing in early childhood development is one of the most cost-effective ways to improve educational achievement and to increase skills, capabilities and productivity. Based on this research and an enhanced understanding of the complete well-being of the child, ECD is increasingly included as part of the agenda for children’s rights.

There have been some challenges. “One of the parents ask me why is it that we are doing these things when there is a nursery school and my response to that was…it is not easy to start nursery school without training your children with these things; these things are to build up your child’s brain, build up their finger muscles, build up their bodies,” said Joanie Williams, the CHW for Rupertee. Space at some health posts also restricts the number of persons who can be collectively reached, particularly as the communities took precautions against COVID-19 during the past months. The ECD implementers also indicated the need for additional materials to support their outreach efforts. Nonetheless, the ECD implementers, who are mostly women, are forging ahead with championing ECD in their villages.

Community Service Officers, ECD, Community Health Workers,
UNICEF Guyana 2022
Community Health Worker Verna Williams

Supportive communities

After reporting on her participation in the ECD training, Verna Williams, the CHW for Surama, said that the Community Health Committee indicated that a proposed benab – a building traditionally used as a meeting place – could also be used as an ECD space when construction is completed. Yasmin said that Wowetta villagers are also planning to build a benab next to the health post owing to the space constraints and this could also be used as an ECD space and to deliver ECD sessions with parents and villagers. Joanie said that after she discussed ECD with her village, parents made and donated dolls to assist and even helped with making some materials for the children to use.

Just over two months after the ECD training, there has been some change. “In this past two months, I noticed that the parents are bringing out their children. I asked to bring out, especially [those who are] one to three years who are preparing for nursery school. So they are turning out,” Joanie said, adding that the children are making use of the ECD kit and she has been advising their parents on activities they can do to ensure that their children thrive. She said that she plans to do more this year – a sentiment echoed by the other implementers.

They are hopeful that ECD will help improve lives of the children and ensure a better future for them. In February, the ECD implementers gathered again at Annai to share their experiences and discussion solutions. As the programme progresses, they plan to reach the approximately 417 children from the district who are five years and under. They want to go beyond meeting parents at clinics and plan to also work with teenage mothers, fathers and reach out to persons who live on their farms and do not attend clinic regularly.

“When I go back, I want to talk to the headmasters, let them invite us so we can have that chance to talk to the parents – bring the health and the education close so we can be able to thrash out what is making our children grades very low,” said Yasmin. “We want to have our villagers becoming doctors or nurses or teachers, upgrade our people. So this ECD is very good,” she added.

In this past two months, I noticed that the parents are bringing out their children...especially [those who are] one to three years who are preparing for nursery school.

Joanie Williams
Community Service Officers, ECD, Community Health Workers,
UNICEF Guyana 2022
Community Service Officer Joanie Williams

What is UNICEF doing?

With support from Canada, UNICEF, in close coordination with Guyana’s Ministry of Human Services and Social Security, is implementing the Promoting safe and healthy learning and living environments to migrants and host communities in Guyana’s hinterland project. An ECD component aims to ensure children, particularly the most vulnerable, have the best start in life. Thus far, 15 healthcare workers and CSOs from the Annai district have been trained in ECD activities with other identified regions to also benefit. The project will contribute to achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 4: by 2030, ensure that all girls/boys under 5 years have access to quality early childhood development, so that they are ready for primary education. Visit this webpage for more information about our work to ensure that no one is left behind.