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The best investment

Priyanthi, a young mother in Sri Lanka, rushes frantically down a rutted dirt path, holding a small, tightly wrapped bundle in her arms and guarding it fiercely. The slight 28-year-old woman is breathing hard, her steps landing in rhythm with her quickening pulse. Darkness is setting in, and she stumbles over downed branches. But the determined mother presses onward.

Priyanthi carries a precious treasure. In a country wracked by war and poverty, Priyanthi's special cargo has the potential to cure an entire nation's ills. Wrapped in her arms, she holds a resource found in abundance in every country. Allowed to flourish, this resource could bring peace, prosperity, security and promise everywhere it is found. But sadly, this resource is tragically underutilized, even abused.

Priyanthi's treasure is her young child.

Paradoxically, the world's greatest strength resides in its smallest citizens. From birth to age three, the seeds of personhood - indeed, of nationhood - are taking root in every child. Synapses crackle and the patterns of a lifetime are established. In a remarkable 36 months, the brain develops, and children acquire the ability to think, speak, learn and reason. This is the foundation for the values and social behaviour of the adults they will one day become.

These first three years of life offer an exceptional opportunity: Each time a child enters the world, there is the chance to break the relentless intergenerational cycles of poverty, violence and deprivation. By protecting the rights of this child and thousands of others and carefully nurturing them through the earliest stages of development, a nation can give a new generation the keys to unlocking the vast potential that may have been denied to the parents. For a government that wants to improve the lot of its people, investing in the first years of life is the best money it can spend. But tragically, both for children and for nations, these are the years that receive the least attention.

Priyanthi's family is one of the fortunate ones. When 18-month-old Madushika grew weaker and began gasping for air, the young mother bundled her up and embarked on foot on the desperate 7-kilometre journey to the medical clinic. They reached the clinic after dark and were greeted by a young doctor, who diagnosed Madushika with pneumonia. "If you had waited even 15 minutes longer," the doctor said, nodding at the exhausted child, "your baby would have died."

Since that evening, Priyanthi and her children have been part of Sri Lanka's system of early childcare programmes. The mother was encouraged to get regular health check-ups for herself and her children. She learned how talking to her infant during breastfeeding would improve her baby's mind and body. She found out that just cooing and babbling to her child had value: This 'motherese' chatter was helping the child learn to talk.

Priyanthi's family is 1 of 22 in her village to participate in the home-based programme called Sithuwama, which means 'raising a child with enjoyment'. The programme, which is supported by UNICEF, promotes early childhood care, including healthy childcare practices and cognitive stimulation. Priyanthi has learned that good nutrition, home hygiene and sanitation practices and mental stimulation are keys to her children's growth and development. Madushika is now a vivacious, healthy five-year-old. This one family's investment of time and resources in the children's earliest years will pay dividends for generations to come.

The global agenda for children

Opportunities present themselves at three critical stages of a young person's life that are unmatched in their potential for change: early childhood, the primary school years and adolescence.

Support and interventions at each of these points build upon and reinforce themselves and hold enormous promise for breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty and underdevelopment that threatens children and women. And they present the exciting possibility of breaking this cycle within a single generation.

UNICEF believes the following three outcomes for children deserve priority attention:

A good start to life

All infants should begin life in good health, and young children should be nurtured in a caring environment that enhances their physical, emotional and intellectual capabilities.

A quality basic education

A quality education - one that encourages children's participation and critical thinking and is infused with the values of peace and human dignity - has the power to transform societies in a single generation.

The fulfilment of a child's right to education offers a protection from a multitude of hazards, such as a life consigned to poverty, bonded labour, domestic labour, commercial sexual exploitation or recruitment into armed conflict.

While the majority of the world's children are attending school, more than 110 million are not. Nearly 60 per cent of the children left behind are girls, who fall victim to the view in some societies that girls do not need to be educated to be wives and mothers.

All children should have access to, and complete, basic education in learning environments that are clean, safe and intellectually stimulating and that build confidence and life skills.

Adolescents who are caring, productive and responsible citizens

Adolescence is a time of both promise and vulnerability, and young people should be guaranteed a safe and supportive environment providing ample opportunities to participate in the community and develop their full potential.

Protecting the rights of adolescents is an effective 'immunization' that helps prevent sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS, and reduces school drop-out rates, drug abuse and violent behaviour.

Young people themselves are often in the best position to reach and move their peers. Adolescents, like all children, have the right to be heard and to participate in matters affecting them and in which they have an interest, in accordance with their age and maturity.