Early Childhood Care and Education – giving whole communities a new lease on life
September 1, 2009
Rekha Begum thinks she's 40 but is not really sure. Anyway, her age is the least of her worries – she is more concerned about where her next meal will come from, whether her home will survive the coming floods or how she and her community will save the local pre-school and bring about lasting and beneficial change.
Rekha and her family live in one of the most isolated and impoverished areas of Bangladesh – the mid-char region - in the village of Dalilkandi, Bogra District. They have been participants of CARE Bangladesh's SHOUHARDO program, supported by local Partner Organisation Gram Bikash Sangstha (GBS), since 2007. Rekha's household was identified as extreme poor, along with 228 others in Dalilkandi, and she has been taking a passionate and pro-active role in her community ever since.
SHOUHARDO aims to sustainably reduce the chronic and transitory food insecurity of 400,000 of Bangladesh's most vulnerable and impoverished households across four regions. SHOUHARDO addresses not only the availability, access and utilisation issues which lead to food insecurity, but also the underlying social problems, including lack of participation, injustice, and discrimination. The Program helps poor and extreme poor people to realise their full potential in leading healthy and productive lives and focuses on building the capacity of participants and communities to effectively solve their own problems with the assistance of responsive local support structures. Due for exit in 2010, the focus of SHOUHARDO is now turning to ensure the sustainability and durability of interventions beyond the life of the Program.
And this is where people like Rekha can really make a lasting impact.
Although her four sons are all too old to attend the local Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) school, due to her status as an experienced mother and a recognised leader in her community, Rekha was selected as the chair of the ECCD School Management Committee (SMC). "I feel very happy to represent my community and to help make a difference", she says. Although her own children all attended school and she herself attended until class five – which was at least enough to learn to read and write - through her involvement in SHOUHARDO Rekha has learnt much more about how and why schooling is important beyond simply reading, writing and arithmetic. She can see how the behavioural and emotional changes in children, promoted by ECCD, can also help improve their social status and help bring them out of poverty.
The SHOUHARDO ECCD component believes that giving an early start to children aged three to six provides them with the tools they require to make informed choices throughout life. Key skills in social and emotional development such as playing, singing and interacting with classmates are encouraged in ECCD classes as much as learning to read, write and count. Children attend Shishu Bikash Kendra (SBK) – Learning Through Playing - and preschool classes, taught by a volunteer recruited from the community. ECCD also works in collaboration with other empowerment focused initiatives such School Management Committees (SMC) and Empowerment, Knowledge and Transformative Action (EKATA) groups where women and adolescent girls are members, leading to a whole of community change process, of which Rekha Begum is a good example.
Rekha really feels the difference the ECCD is making in the community and knows positive change and improvement will continue as long as children are able to stay at school. 25 out of last year's 30 preschool students have enrolled in the local primary school which is just a few metres down the road from the ECCD. Five of the students were considered too young to start at the primary school and will stay at the ECCD until they are old enough. The headmaster is apparently very happy with students coming from the ECCD and their knowledge, behaviour and attendance is very good. According to Rekha, "before, the children were either afraid of going to school or they found school-like activities boring. But ECCD is fun and encourages playing and singing." People now understand that having fun can actually be good for the children and helps them learn, grow and develop properly. "The kids didn't listen to their parents before, but now there is better discipline with less force – relationships are working better. Children are happy to sit calmly and practice their reading and writing, with support from their parents." Rekha is really happy with the impact ECCD is having and the way it works.
ECCD monthly parenting sessions have also contributed to these changes. Parents learn about the developmental stages of children and the importance of being involved in their kid's education. Many mothers have also gained literacy skills through SHOUHARDO's EKATA intervention, and so feel more motivated themselves to be involved in and understand the education process. Rekha also says that since SHOUHARDO, issues such as violence against women, early marriage and polygamy are spoken about openly in the community and are no longer accepted. Having married as a very young age herself, Rekha knows the importance of these shifts in attitude. "You can feel the change" Rekha explains, "mothers communicate better now – with their husbands, their children and each other".
As a leader, Rekha believes strongly in the power of participation. "Listening to and involving all the SMC members and parents at meetings is very important. People want to be heard and to be able to voice their opinions." Before SHOUHARDO, this was not always the case – the community was not united and only 'powerful' people had a say in things. Rekha says she is always sure to approach other community members when looking to solve problems as she recognises power in unity. She also listens for advice outside in the wider community and likes to know what is going on in other committees to see how these decisions might affect her. Rekha uses a holistic approach in her leadership.
Beyond ECCD, Rekha is also on the Project Implementation Committee (PIC), helps with food distribution to pregnant women and is a member of the Union Disaster Management Committee (UDMC). As a UDMC member she must attend the Union Parishad(UP) meetings once a month. This gives her the opportunity to interact with other people, exchange ideas, voice opinions and raise issues in a different forum. Before SHOUHARDO she knew about the UP and the services it offered "but I didn't give it much importance." Having new, first hand experience with the UP has allowed her to appreciate how it can be useful to the community. "SHOUHARDO and BSG have taught us who and where to go to get the right answers." The community now has a close working relationship with the UP Chairman through initial connections made through SHOUHARDO. Rekha also feels she has gained greater mobility since SHOUHARDO – she gets around and knows more people and places than ever before. She is also known to others. But this is not enough – "I still want to play a broader role. I know where I can make more contributions and want to be involved in improving my community." She feels that people know her and are coming to rely on her for help and assistance. She wants to be able to offer this to them.
Although Rekha considers herself empowered and sees that in her community, levels of awareness and understanding about important social issues are improving - and that more children then ever before are attending primary school - she, her family and many in her community, still face the daily struggle to survive. Access to food and regular employment are still the biggest issues affecting most poor and extreme poor people in Bangladesh's char regions. This is why sustainable and long term change needs to be encouraged - and why interventions such as the ECCD – offering hope to the younger generations – are so important. "After SHOUHARDO, we will run the school on our own. We cannot let it go now – it is too important and has made too much of a difference in our lives for it to fail." The ECCD SMC is currently thinking of ways in which they can do this. All households with children currently attending the school say they will be able to contribute something, no matter how small, to keep the centre running. They are working on a savings plan and a way in which they can continue to pay the teacher her full wage. "We will take control," says Rekha.
But hopefully, just for now, Rekha and the Dalilkandi ECCD SMC won't have to go it totally alone. Once SHOUHARDO exits in late 2009, Partner Organisation GBS has made a commitment to continue their support of ECCD with the help of BRAC. GBS, who have been working in the area since 1991 supporting poor and destitute women, children, elderly and disabled people, helped establish ECCD centres in 24 SHOUHARDO target villages across the region. They admit that although 100 per cent of these schools may not survive post-SHOUHARDO, the majority will. The far reaching and positive impact that ECCD is having on whole communities means that people are willing to work hard to secure the future of their centres. Some communities have even applied for access to khas land for their schools, ensuring their children will have secure and permanent places to continue ECCD.
Rekha's story is not just about the success of one SHOUHARDO intervention – the ECCD and the continuing success of the education of children in Dalilkandi village – it is about how such interventions lead to wider change, motivation and empowerment within whole communities. Rekha is a shining example of how CARE SHOUHARDO interventions have a wider impact on community – on all people, however old they may be. Rekha may not know how old she is exactly, but she certainly knows that she still has a lot to give. "Now we are learning by doing" she says, as the people of Dalilkandi village work together, taking control of their own lives in the hope of a more positive future.
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