UNICEF calls for prioritization of investments in Early Childhood Development within the COVID-19 response

11 June 2020
31 years old Ravindra attends a parenting session with his children while he interacts with Usha Sitaram and Vandana Dongre at his house in Karmad, Aurangabad.
UNICEF/UNI333140/ Bhardwaj
31 years old Ravindra attends a parenting session with his children while he interacts with Usha Sitaram and Vandana Dongre at his house in Karmad, Aurangabad.

NEW DELHI, 02 June 2020 – As the world celebrates the Global Day of Parents (1 June), amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, UNICEF reiterates the urgent need to prioritize investments in Early Childhood Development (ECD) including focus on parenting within the COVID-19 response. This is critical to minimize preventable child deaths, to prevent violence against children, and to drive economic recovery and productivity in the longer term.

In times of shock, services to support young children are often not prioritized and end up being overlooked, leading to young children being disproportionately affected. Already scarce resources will likely be diverted to the pandemic response. Along with governments, families and communities also need to understand their role and importance of building a nurturing and protective environment for children.

Today, key findings from a UNICEF led formative study ‘Parenting Matters: Examining Parenting Approaches and Practices, to assess knowledge, attitudes and practices of parents, families and service provider on parenting (2019) were released. Some are glaring and point to the need for urgent action - especially the kind and amount of violence children were facing.

  • At least 30 different forms of physical and verbal abuse are reported as part of disciplining efforts.
  • Punishment is a widely accepted method to discipline children for both boys and girls in families, schools and at the community level for both girls and boys. 
  • Girls and boys are raised very differently from a very early age – with the burden of household chores, day to day restrictions, being imposed more on girls by fathers
  • Mothers are the main caregivers for children while fathers are much less involved
  • While male caregivers took children outdoors, mothers are more involved in enabling indoor stimulation through storytelling and singing, among others

The study outlines the various forms of violence against children resorted to in the household – physical violence (burning; pinching; slapping; beating with implements like stick, belts, rods) Verbal abuse (blaming; criticizing; shouting; use of foul language); Witnessing physical violence (towards one parent; towards siblings; outside the family) and Emotional abuse (restricting movement; denying food; discrimination; instilling fear).

Speaking to the media, Dr Yasmin Ali Haque, UNICEF Representative in India said, “Our experience in Ebola crisis shows us that young children are more likely to experience violence, abuse and neglect as families struggle to cope, that could have a lifelong impact on them. Awareness on positive parenting practices are relevant now more than ever to promote both mental and physical well-being of children. Supporting parents and caregivers to provide young children with nurturing care in times of crisis is essential.”

CHILDLINE 1098, which has been declared an emergency service by the Minister of Women and Child Development, has indicated that during two weeks of the lockdown in April, the number of calls of children in distress had increased by 50 per cent. Restrictions in movement and closure of preschools and schools due to lockdown has put immediate pressure on parents for their children’s survival, care and learning. This added stress can lead to potential violence against children.

When a child experiences physical or emotional abuse, neglect, exposure to violence, or burdens of economic hardship, without adult support, this triggers their stress response. Prolonged stress can have a lasting impact on an individual’s physical and mental health—for a lifetime. Research indicates that supportive, responsive relationships with caring adults as early in life as possible can prevent or reverse the damaging effects of toxic stress response. Therefore, parents need practical ideas on positive parenting, as well as dealing with stress and mental health issues.

Under COVID-19, there is an immediate need to designate child protection services as essential services. The response must include provision of critical health and social welfare and child protection services, including mental health and psychosocial support, and alternative care arrangements. These services should be available to all, including children as migrants, those without parents, to ensure the protection for the most vulnerable children.

Communicating with and engaging parents, caregivers and children with evidence-based information and advice is essential. The study recommends building skills of frontline workers to better engage with caregivers. It also highlights the need for quality engagement of fathers in caregiving to support their child’s development.

States like Maharashtra, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Assam, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh are forerunners in implementing innovative parenting programmes, that other states can adopt.  With UNICEF support, parents, especially fathers, are being provided the information and skills to use material easily available in and around their homes. The has led to better and more parental engagement through storytelling, singing and playing with the child – all critical for a child’s brain development. This is being done through training of Anganwadi and ASHA workers, so they can use their existing platforms effectively for parent engagement such as through monthly parent meetings and home visits. States are also organizing community events to involve all parents and caregivers around the importance of Eat, Play and Love, such as Palak (caregiver) Mela, in Maharashtra.

UNICEF, together with partners, is also releasing several tools/resources/tips for parents to effectively engage with children on its website. In 2019, UNICEF reached with several community-based partners 1.2 million parents and caregivers with parenting programmes.


Notes to Editors

During the first 1,000 days of life, babies' brains grow at an astounding rate, creating up to 1,000 neural connections per second. This early brain development determines how children think, learn and behave - their ability to succeed in life. But these connections only come together when a child receives 3 things: nutrition, stimulation and protection. It is estimated that, globally, 43 per cent (or 250 million) children under 5 years of age in low- and middle-income countries are at risk of not meeting their developmental potential. The immediate, underlying as well as macro-level causes of early deprivation perpetuate cycles of poverty, inequity and the neglect of basic child rights.

Early Childhood Development (ECD) has been cited as the most cost-effective equaliser to break the vicious cycle of inequity, if evidence-based interventions are provided for all children and families, especially for those most marginalised. Neuroscience offers compelling evidence on ECD as a critical opportunity to shape brain development and function.

As a multi-sectoral agency, with enormous potential for convergence within, and with civil society partners, private sector and governments, UNICEF is well-positioned to leverage critical resources and expertise to further the ECD agenda.

For additional information on the ‘Parenting Matters: Examining Parenting Approaches and Practices’ study, click here.

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