Early childhood care and education is the theme of the 2006 ‘Education for All Global Monitoring Report’ to be launched by UNESCO and UNICEF on 26 October. Here is the latest in a series of related stories.
Kindergarten children in Iraq use coloured pencils and drawing books provided by UNICEF.
AMMAN, Jordan, 20 October 2006 – The volatile security situation in Iraq, the difficulties of managing UNICEF country programmes from afar and the high turnover of counterparts in the government there all pose major challenges to the development of an Iraqi national policy on early childhood development, or ECD.
The country’s lack of trained preschool teachers, health workers and social workers – and an absence of data on child-rearing practices – constitute another set of challenges.
“Whether it is education, nutrition levels or access to basic services, the continued conflict taking place in Iraq is affecting all aspects of the lives of children,” says UNICEF Iraq Senior Programme Officer Geeta Verma.
Infant and child health
Despite these obstacles – and the fact that much of UNICEF Iraq’s work is coordinated outside the country due to security concerns – several projects contributing to ECD have been initiated with UNICEF support in the areas of health, education, and water and sanitation.
In fact, major success has already been achieved in the health field – notably on universal salt iodization (to prevent iodine deficiency disorders), reduction of iron-deficiency anaemia and fortification of locally produced wheat flour with iron and folic acid. Improved access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation has also contributed to the reduction of sickness and death from waterborne diseases among infants and young children.
But early childhood education remains especially difficult in Iraq. In a country with more than 4 million children under the age of five, there are 650 public preschools and no available statistics on the number of privately run preschools.
© UNICEF Iraq/2003/Dhayi
Young children play with toys at a UNICEF-assisted camp in Baghdad, Iraq, where war-affected residents, including 600 children, were living after the war began there in 2003.
According to a school survey conducted in 2003-04 by the Ministry of Education and UNICEF, only 5.7 per cent of children between the ages of three and five attend preschools – the majority of which are in urban areas – and the schools are generally of poor quality.
UNICEF has taken several steps to bridge this education gap. For example, the organization has:
Organized a study tour to Egypt in April 2005 for 25 Iraqi ECD professionals
Trained 25 early childhood specialists in conducting household surveys
Distributed emergency kits with supplies designed to enhance infant and young child development.
Better parenting and care
Also with support from UNICEF, the Ministry of Education and the Central Office of Statistics and Information Technology are now conducting a household survey on child-rearing practices. The survey results will contribute to the Iraqi Government’s national policy on ECD, to be implemented in select areas of all governorates.
“They want to build a policy,” notes UNICEF Iraq Education Project Officer Maria Klappe. “But before that, they want to know what the situation is. How are children raised? So we decided to do a baseline on child-rearing practices.”
A National Committee on ECD, established in July, is responsible for promoting better parenting and care practices in homes and communities. Close collaboration between the Ministries of Education, Health, Labour and Social Affairs will be needed to ensure that Iraqi children grow up in a healthy, stimulating and safe environment.
Considering the realities on the ground, the process of establishing a well-managed and funded ECD programme in Iraq will require considerable time and commitment. UNICEF will continue to support its counterparts in enhancing ECD practices so that all Iraqi children can reach their full potential.
“Hopefully, by the end of the year we can build on a national strategy,” says Ms. Klappe. “That's really a start, and from there we go step by step.”
Tim Ledwith contributed to this story from New York.