Early childhood care crucial to eliminating gender inequality, UNICEF warns
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) today called on governments and others committed to universal education and gender equality to remember that the earliest years are the most critical for children’s development.
If many of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are to be reached, the cycle of negative gender stereotypes must be broken earlier in a child’s life rather than later, the agency warned, referring to the ambitious targets for slashing a host of social ills such as extreme poverty, hunger, maternal and infant mortality, and a lack of equal access to education, all by 2015.
“Gender equality must be addressed right from the beginning of life,” UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Rima Salah told the closing session of the UN Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI) partnership meeting in Cairo. “Huge steps can be made to empower girls if we begin the movement for gender equality in those first years of a child’s life.”
Although universal primary education for all boys and girls is one of eight MDGs, the majority of the estimated 115 million children not attending school around the world are girls, a startling statistic that will have negative repercussions on an entire generation.
Girls who are kept out of schools are not only denied their own right to education, but if they later become mothers, they are more likely to raise children who remain uneducated, unvaccinated and more likely to contract HIV/AIDS, UNICEF told the meeting, which brought together other UN agencies, donor governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
The universal primary education goal is closely linked to that of promoting gender equality, empowerment of women and global development. The theme of the UNGEI meeting – Gender and Early Childhood Care and Education – placed particular emphasis on supporting families and gender-focused policies and scaling up of quality early childhood care programmes.
Quality programmes focus on well-trained teachers, well-informed parents, and child-centred community care. By covering issues ranging from pre-school and parenting techniques to school nutrition and breastfeeding advice, they particularly benefit children who need them the most: girls living in poverty.
Girl children may be required to care for younger siblings, a responsibility that prevents them from getting an education of their own. Early childhood care programmes are key in closing this discrimination gap. When younger siblings are in pre-school programmes, their older sisters are free to pursue their own studies. And by setting children out early on the road to learning, early childhood education can be instrumental in breaking the cycle of poverty and preparing children for success in school.