Early childhood development plays a crucial role throughout a child’s life, impacting future income earning capacity and productivity, overall health, socio-emotional wellbeing as well as verbal and intellectual development (Calman & Tarr-Whelan, 2005). For children, significant investment in ECD results in greater social cohesion, better academic performance, and an increased capacity to adapt to new technologies (Young, 2000, Evans, Myers & Ilfeld, 2000, Reynolds, 2001). Ensuring healthy child development, therefore, is an investment in a country's future workforce and capacity to thrive economically and as a society (World Bank, n/a). Yet in Uganda, while great steps have been made since the introduction of the National ECD Policy in 2007, too many children fail to receive the best start in life (World Bank, 2012).
For more than twenty years, the Madrasa Early Childhood Programme Uganda (MECPU) has been working with partners to promote community-based, high-impact innovations to enhance early childhood development. The programme works with 97 communities – in both Central Uganda and the West Nile sub-region, enhancing their capacity to optimize child development from birth. MECPU has reached over 14,000 children and trained and supported over 5,500 ECD teachers and 3,000 community members.
Improving awareness amongst parents and caregivers on how to enhance their children’s early development during the 0-3 year age period is is a key approach of MECPU. In recent years, the organisation has piloted the WHO-UNICEF Care for Child Development package in partnership with the local health system aimed at supporting development during these important early years. Yet, MECPU has observed that fathers are under-represented and often absent from awareness activities carried out by Village Health Teams that target caregivers in the communities – resulting in a lack of exposure to key messaging on optimising their children’s cognitive, socio-emotional and physical development. The involvement of fathers is crucial as studies show that children with involved, caring fathers have better educational outcomes. A number of studies suggest that fathers who are involved, nurturing, and playful with their young children results in higher IQs, as well as better linguistic and cognitive capacities (Pruett, 2000).
Studies on paternal child-care in Uganda suggest that in addition to embedded traditional gender roles, the leading negative influences on father’s involvement in child rearing is confidence and motivation (Nkwake 2009). Evidence indicates that interventions targeted at fathers yield results in behavioural change, such as positive discipline, more time spent with infants, and transformed attitude regarding traditional gender roles (Fatherhood Institute 2012; Kocak 2004; UNFPA 2011).
MECPU’s idea is an interactive campaign designed to disseminate key child development messages and promote the importance of father’s involvement in children’s lives using mobile and radio technology. This campaign tackles the issue of low involvement of fathers in the raising of children in MECPU’s coverage areas. This campaign addresses the problem as MECPU will use the technology to reach fathers through interactive mobile technologies, using mass SMS to spread Care for Child Development (C4CD)-modeled messages, surveys, quizzes and bulletins about the importance of supporting young children. Fathers will also be sent interactive play and communication activities, such as stories and games, which they can carry out with their children. Additionally, in order to monitor and ensure fathers’ active engagement in the activities, MECPU will partner with local radio shows to launch an interactive program covering key C4CD themes and encourage fathers to call in to speak about their experience with raising children, share best practices and provide their feedback on C4CD ideas. The radio show would also be used as an opportunity to bring in local experts to elaborate further on C4CD interventions and present fun and innovative ideas to promote children’s early development. The radio program will easily reach a broad number of communities and parents, and serve as an awareness-raising initiative to get more parents engaged in their children’s development. (Updated December 30, 2014)
To increase reach to fathers, and address gaps in confidence and motivation, MECPU will develop and implement a targeted interactive model designed to disseminate key child development messages and promote the importance of father’s involvement directly to 4,300 fathers in Central Uganda using mobile and radio technology. It is expected that an additional 17,000 caregivers and family members will also benefit. Mobile saturation in Uganda has reached almost 100% and radio listenership is high, so the potential to scale the intervention is great. MECPU will partner with local mobile network operators, mobile application developers and local radio companies to develop and test the interactive platforms.
Fathers will also be sent interactive play and communication activities, such as stories and games, which they can carry out with their children. Over the years, MECPU has collected many local-language oral stories that are culturally relevant, and age-appropriate. As part of our initiative of engaging fathers, MECPU will identify a minimum of 10 oral stories, which will be recorded with local actors and storytellers and sent to the fathers via mobile technology. Fathers will be encouraged to sit down with their children and listen to the stories, engaging with their children’s learning and cognitive stimulation.
Through its work in rural and urban communities in Central and North-western Uganda, MECPU has identified a number of challenges parents experience in supporting the development of children, aged 0-3. In particular many parents lack knowledge of the importance on interacting and providing for their children beyond the basic needs (food, clothing, shelter etc). MECPU has identified that in some of their program regions, only 1 out of every 10 parents read to their children, as they are either illiterate themselves or are unaware of how best to read to a child who cannot speak. Particularly in rural areas, parents and caregivers (often women and mothers) are heavily burdened with the domestic duties of cooking, collecting water, preparing gardens while simultaneously caring for children. As a result, parents/caregivers feel that they do not have the time to spend playing and communicating with their young children. Additionally, parents often feel they are unable to play and communicate with their children due to a lack of physical space in their homes and lack of affordable toys. Finally, there is still the large challenge in the engagement of fathers in child rearing, as it is still traditionally seen as a women’s role.
MECPU’s Implementation of C4CD
Beyond the provision of basic needs, quality care for young children means keeping children safe from harm, and providing them love, attention, and opportunities to learn. However, families often need assistance to focus on the most important activities for the development of young children. MECPU takes a systems approach to providing this support by engaging and training local government health workers who then disseminate the C4CD messages and provide ongoing support to caregivers.
The C4CD intervention being implemented by MECPU is based on basic childcare principles: much of what children learn, they learn when they are very young; children need consistent loving attention from at least one person; and children learn through playing and exploring their environment. The reason for the C4CD intervention’s international success stems from the fact that it is low cost, it can be tailored to many different schedules and C4CD involves play and communication activities that caregivers naturally perform. For example:
- C4CD’s play materials are generally homemade and inexpensive, ecologically friendly, easily accessible, and encourage creative thinking from its creators and users – everyday household items like plastic containers, cups and metallic plates are used to initiate play, simulate “grown-up” activities like cooking and construction and encourage increased interaction between parent and child.
- Rather than creating new structures, C4CD ensures sustainability through enhancing the skillsets of existing community-level actors, such as Village Health Teams, Community Resource Teams and formal health providers.
The Challenge of Fathers’ Engagement
Studies show that children who grow up with involved fathers often perform better, exhibit pro-social behaviour and are more comfortable exploring the world around them (Parke, 1996). Studies indicate that fathers exposed to multi-media learning materials demonstrated high retention scores, were able to convey the role of father’s in children’s lives, and in a related study, were more likely to use positive strategies to resolve problem behaviour with their children (Al-Hassan 2009). Given the relatively low involvement of fathers in the raising of children in MECPU’s coverage areas, the project seeks to test whether the use of mobile technology (SMS) alongside local radio programs can be used as a catalyst to motivate fathers towards C4CD messaging and activities with their young children. Through using widely-available technologies, MECPU will complement and bridge the existing face-to-face interactions from C4CD-trained personnel to provide reminders, tools and activities to increase the frequency and scope of key messaging, encouraging fathers through regular interaction to be a daily part of the solution. MECPU will also draw upon the VHTs to aid fathers in establishing peer-support programmes to help men recognize the importance of engaging in their children’s lives in addition to participating in C4CD-training activities. By encouraging the frequency of interaction with C4CD and increasing the likelihood of father-child activities, positive behaviours will be cascaded to other family members, such as older male siblings, making healthy child-rearing a household responsibility that extends beyond mothers. Finally, engaging men as fathers fosters generational change. Evidence suggests that fathers’ positive involvement with their children increases the likelihood that their sons will be more gender-equitable and more nurturing as fathers and that their daughters will have more flexible views about gender as well (Russell and Rodojevic 1992; Levine 1993)
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