“The earliest years of children matter so much,” said Bruno Maes, the UNICEF representative in Egypt, at the beginning of a roundtable discussion organized by UNICEF on July 13.
However, despite the important truth of such a statement, far too many children in the country are not being given the opportunity to develop their minds in order to grow up and positively impact society. That’s why UNICEF’s roundtable discussion sought to bring in the private sector, hoping that companies and businesses could brainstorm and form partnerships based on ideas that would seek to improve early childhood development (ECD).
Early childhood is defined as the period from birth to eight years old. According to UNICEF, children make up 38% of Egypt’s population, a sizeable amount in a country that hosts 93 million people with a population growth rate of 2.3%.
Large portions of children in Egypt face enormous difficulty in their early years, when their brains are developing at a fast rate and quickly adapting to their surrounding environment. That environment doesn’t always nurture healthy growth. UNICEF estimates that 93% of children in Egypt experience violent discipline and 91% experience forms of psychological aggression, whether from parents or the public.
“Inequality is still high in Egypt when we speak about ECD,” said Maes. “You have a challenge because you have 2 million children suffering from malnutrition and who are stunted.”
Despite the dismal statistics, UNICEF hopes that by involving companies in the private sector it can foster an environment that aids early childhood development from all angles, and not necessarily just in schooling. This is particularly important given that only 28% of children have access to pre-primary education (4-5 years) and only 32% of children have access to nurseries.
UNICEF is already working with the Egyptian government to develop a national strategy for enhancing ECD to meet the goals set in “Egypt Vision 2030”, which targets closing a lot of gaps that are leaving children behind. For example, “Egypt Vision 2030” aims to increase enrolment in pre-primary education to 80%, more than double the current national average.
With the private sector, UNICEF created their roundtable in order to foster potential collaborations between companies that could have a mighty impact on ECD. With companies like Carrefour, the Ahl Masr Foundation and Hilton in the room, as well as education centers like Fagnoon and Alwan w Awtar, UNICEF made clear that everyone has a role they can play in promoting the development of children.
“The most rapid time for brain development is in the first few years of life,” said Kerida McDonald, the Senior Advisor for the Communication for Development Sector at UNICEF, noting that the first 1,000 days of a young child’s life are key to how that child’s brain will function in the future.
McDonald said that an attitude change toward ECD must be community driven, given that social norms are powerful and often override the right options for children. “If you’re going to influence people’s change, you have to know their pulse,” she emphasized, asking the room to move beyond looking at the numbers and data and to focus on situational analysis.
McDonald put forth a multitude of ideas for how the actors in the room can become more involved in ECD, from creating a workplace day care center to starting community-based play groups. She explained that companies have the power to honor good parenting skills in order to show that they must become the norm.
Nutrition was also a big focus. In Egypt, only 13% of children under six months old are breastfed, despite it being the best option for a child’s nutrition intake. Creating campaigns that promote breastfeeding and educating mothers about the dos and don’ts could have a heavy impact on a child’s brain development.
McDonald also noted the powerful impact the media can have on ECD. Millions of people in Egypt interact with different forms of media everyday, from televisions to radios to Facebook. The media has a powerful tool it can use to shape ECD, because it has direct access to parents and children in their homes. She contributed examples such as creating characteers with disabilities on TV shows to promote an inclusive environment, or creating dialogue about important issues, like breastfeeding, in order to educate parents.
While the government has its role to play in changing the grim statistics for children in Egypt, UNICEF made clear that with a little brainstorming and companies’ commitments to social responsibility, change is something that everyone has the power to influence.
Photo credit: United Nations