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Near the town of Xunyi, in China’s Shaanxi Province, a woman spreads soil she has just unloaded from the cart where her baby now sits.

Caring for children = caring for women

Emphasizing the care of babies and toddlers means focusing also on women whose physical and emotional condition influences their pregnancies and their babies’ development (see Panel 3). Poor prenatal care and malnutrition in mothers have been linked to low birthweight, hearing problems, learning difficulties, spina bifida and brain damage in children.11 Infants born to underweight mothers are more likely to develop certain diseases and conditions later as adults, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity.12

The 1990 World Summit for Children recognized the importance of maternal health to children when it called for cutting maternal deaths in half by the year 2000. In Vienna in 1993, the World Conference on Human Rights reaffirmed that women’s rights are human rights, and in 1994 in Cairo, the International Conference on Population and Development argued that women’s health, including reproductive health, was essential for sustainable development. And at the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995 and at its five-year follow-up in New York, improvements in women’s health were identified as one of the action priorities for ensuring gender equality, development and peace in the 21st century.

Yet today, maternal mortality rates remain high. A woman in the developing world is on average 40 times more likely than a woman living in the industrialized world to die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth.13 A study in Bangladesh showed that when a woman dies in childbirth, her surviving baby is 3 to 10 times more likely to die within two years than a child who is living with both parents.14 Shoring up care for mothers would protect children. Recognizing this, UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the World Bank, along with their many partners, promote safe motherhood initiatives throughout the world.

Of course, many cultures understand this connection. Bangladesh, for example, established an annual Safe Motherhood Day, recognizing that caring for pregnant women anchors healthy starts for babies. Backed by a mass media campaign, the Government, health care workers and various agencies mobilized to address the social issues behind maternal deaths. Bangladesh’s push to provide safe and healthy pregnancies ultimately strengthens the care of babies.

Educating families about the importance of proper diet and health care for pregnant women is also part of ECD, as is educating men about their important roles in caring for their pregnant wives and nurturing their children (see Panel 4). When fathers, as well as mothers, are convinced about the supports required for healthy pregnancies and child development, harmful health practices can be eliminated.

Women’s gains are children’s gains. If the world fails to honour women’s rights, it will fail to deliver on its responsibilities to all children. Two areas where women’s rights directly affect children are in health and education. Infant deaths are significantly related to the poor nutrition and health of their mothers prior to and during pregnancy and soon after the post-partum period. Improved prenatal care for mothers saves both women’s and children’s lives. In Africa, most of Asia and in Latin America, women’s increased school attendance during the later part of the 20th century contributed to falling birth and death rates.15

With greater emphasis on ECD, including cognitive stimulation and social interaction, women’s access to education becomes even more important than before. A study of Guatemalan women found that the longer a mother’s schooling, the more she talked with her toddler. In addition, she was more likely to take on the role of teacher for her child.16

But women’s rights are human rights, and ECD has benefits for all women, not only mothers. While gender biases and inequalities are deeply rooted in cultural traditions, ECD offers a beginning for correcting gender inequities and improving women’s lives. There is increasing evidence, for example, that services such as parenting programmes for new fathers and mothers change relations in families and their perceptions of what girls might and can do,17 getting to the core of gender bias in its early stages.


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