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Investing in a Better Future for Zimbabwe’s Vulnerable Children

A woman and child at a table with a sewing machine.
A seamstress in Chitungwiza, Zimbabwe, speaks to her son as she makes curtains in their home on November 9, 2016. © Mary Turner/Getty

“I used to think that my daughter was not able to say a word,” said one mother during a recent meeting at the Jomupani Primary School in the Sanyati District of Zimbabwe. “But now she can say many words. This program is like magic.” Her daughter, Anisha, was 17 months old at the time.

The program she was referring to is a unique initiative that works with caregivers to create stimulating environments for vulnerable children in Zimbabwe. At the meeting, participating caregivers from the village were given a chance to share their experiences after a month of home visits from the program’s trained staff.

Before the initiative began, many of these caregivers—parents, grandparents, and other guardians—were using baby talk with their children, believing that they would not be able to understand otherwise. But the program emphasizes that toddlers need early exposure to rich vocabulary and more complex sentence structure to develop their speech. Now, these caregivers are reporting improvements in language and communication similar to Anisha’s.

After participating in activities such as playing with blocks, doing puzzles, scribbling, jumping, and reading picture books, the children also show advances in how they handle sorting, matching, and identifying shapes and colors, as well as better motor skills. They recognize the uses for everyday objects like cups, spoons, and combs, and have increased attention spans.

These may sound like small gains, but emotional security, social competence, and the ability to learn as adults are largely dependent on experiences beginning in infancy, according to a 2010 Harvard study [PDF]. A 2005 policy mandated that all Zimbabwean public primary schools introduce two years of early childhood development education, but many findings demonstrate that it makes a big difference to start interventions even earlier. That’s why the JF Kapnek Trust—an organization that focuses on family health and educational development—created this community-based pilot program.

The first participants, who we started working with in July 2016, include nearly 190 families with children between 12 to 30 months old from around Sanyati, in northern central Zimbabwe. Many caregivers were not previously aware of the far-reaching benefits of early learning for children under the age of three; engaging with their young children was seldom a priority.

As in many rural areas, these families are impacted by high levels of unemployment and poverty, particularly given economic instability and agricultural decline in the country over the past two decades. The responsibility for child care during the day often fell to older siblings, and lack of toys and electricity meant that there was little stimulation for infants and toddlers.

Through our program, based on a model developed by the University of West Indies in Jamaica, early childhood development paraprofessionals conduct periodic home visits and lead stimulating activities with the families. The goal is to bring them closer together and to give each caregiver the tools to raise their children in a happy, encouraging environment. We also help caregivers better understand what constitutes neglect and abuse, and how this affects their children’s development.

In addition to the visits, we run group meetings for the caregivers. Held in colorful classrooms at local schools, these meetings cover topics such as discipline, personal hygiene, and nutrition, and provide a communal space for caregivers and their children to learn together. Participants also make toys out of basic materials, such as milk cartons and bottle caps, to take home.

The impact on these young children will echo throughout their adolescence—with better chances for improved self-esteem, positive social interactions, and school performance—and the rest of their lives. Early childhood development initiatives at the school level are key, but children also need opportunities to start at home. That’s where caregivers can make all the difference.

As we continue to roll out the pilot, we are also collecting data on the program’s effectiveness. This data will help to scale up the program throughout Zimbabwe and hopefully across sub-Saharan Africa—the first steps toward a better future for the next generation.

The JF Kapnek Trust is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

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