Caregiver Circles ease the burden of poverty on the country's youngest
Yamin and Lamin Khine, twin four-year-olds sisters, live with their parents and five siblings in a house they share with three other families in the sprawling urban township of Thaketa, on the outskirts of Yangon. The family’s existence is hand to mouth.
Their father U Min Khine, a water carrier, earns a living selling drinking water in the neighbourhood. The work is physically gruelling and his daily income fluctuates depending on demand. Sometimes he makes barely any money at all, yet he still has to pay for the use of the rickety trolley he rents to transport his wares. His wife, Daw Pyone Yee, joins him, when not looking after the children or gathering watercress from the large pond close to their house, which she sells to neighbours to help make ends meet.
Too poor to afford a grass mat, the entire family sleeps on a bed of packed earth. Without access to clean water, they rely on the pond for their needs. They have no electricity and are unable to afford health care or education; none of the four older children go to school.
Their eldest daughter, Thazin, dropped out of school in seventh grade and is a casual labourer, making candles or repairing fishnets, depending on what is available; their second girl, 15-year-old Ingyin, left school in the second grade to sell watercress with her mother. She is so enterprising and persuasive that much of the responsibility for earning money for the family is now on her shoulders.
The couple’s only son, Thura, who is 10, completed the third grade before dropping out. He now spends his time doing household chores with his eight-year-old sister, Saba, who has attended school for just one week of her entire life.
The many aspects of child poverty
Poverty has exacted a heavy price on these children. Their childhoods have literally been taken away from them – compromising their prospects of a full and productive life.
Yamin and Lamin did not receive the care and nurturing they needed in their earliest years. By the time their mother brought them to the Caregiver Circle or mothers’ group annexed to the local primary school, both girls were emaciated, disheveled and listless. Neither talked. Nor could they summon a smile. Personal hygiene was unknown to them.
Early childhood development is a relatively new concept in Myanmar. Public and private day-care services outside the home are available to less than 8 per cent of children between the ages of three and five in this country, and there are virtually no childcare services for children under the age of three.
Most of the available services do not integrate health, nutrition, psychosocial care and interactive learning – the basics that children need to reach their potential. Poor communities often do not have the resources to renovate buildings that can house pre-schools or to finance teacher salaries and other expenses.
A project for change
The Network Early Childhood Development Project aims to change that. The project came about following the Ministry of Education’s 1998 policy encouraging primary schools to open pre-school centres within school compounds to serve the developmental needs of three-to five year-old disadvantaged children.
Once a pre-school is functioning, Network Community Support Groups facilitate the formation of home-based Caregiver Circles for children aged 0-3 in each primary school. The groups, established in consultation with local parent teacher associations in each community, are also responsible for managing the pre-school centres.
Each Caregiver Circle is comprised of 10 children and parents. Three facilitators, trained in early childhood care, are provided to each circle through the Network community support group to teach parents about better health care, nutrition and the importance of play for children through activities designed to stimulate their imaginations and creativity. Every day, children receive a nutritious 500-calorie meal, as well as regular vitamin supplementation and deworming.
A national non-governmental organization, Pyinnya Tazaung, is responsible for the overall planning and management of the project that operates in six poor townships – five in Yangon and one in Mandalay.
So far, in Yangon, the project helped establish 51 community-supported pre-schools and 705 home-based Caregiver Circles, providing day care to some 9,600 young children. Over 3,025 parents and caregivers have been taught how to provide effective early childhood care.
In Mandalay, the network has reached some 1,550 children in 19 schools and communities. For the next phase of the project, another 150 Caregiver Circles will be established in the original five townships, with an additional 20 pre-schools and 200 Caregiver Circles introduced in two new townships.
A new lease on childhood
In the six months since their parents began bringing them to the Caregiver Circle, Yamin Khine and Lamin Khine have undergone a stunning transformation: They have gone from merely surviving to becoming healthy, thriving children. They have regained their childhood, as well as their chances for a better future.
Both girls have gained weight and their clothes, though faded, are clean. They receive regular deworming treatments and are given vitamins and minerals to help them grow and to protect them against disease. Initially the girls were nervous around strangers but, over time, through interactive play and learning, they have gained confidence.
Their parents have become aware of the importance of good hygiene practices and immunization. They are learning that nutrition is vital to ensuring their children’s growth and development. Their home environment is cleaner and healthier. They are beginning to appreciate that children learn better when their physical needs are met and when they feel safe and secure.
The challenge remains to ensure that both girls are able to attend and complete primary school in order to break the cycle of poverty that has deprived their elder siblings of a healthy childhood and an education.
“There is a great deal of need in these poor communities. Families struggle to provide, but they cannot meet all of their responsibilities alone, no matter how hard they try,” said a community worker who has been associated with the project. “But the project can fill some of those needs and we have seen the difference it has made in people lives.”
UNICEF plans to expand this successful project further into rural areas to benefit many more vulnerable children, again using schools as a base to reach the community. Shortages of teachers pose a challenge, as does ensuring the regular attendance of children from migrant families.
Critical to the success of the project is the interest, understanding and support of community leaders. In communities and villages where there are no schools, faith-based organizations or ward leaders can be approached and empowered to provide monasteries or community buildings for pre-schools and Caregiver Circles.