Early Childhood Development turns dreams into reality for parents and their young children in Rwanda

Setting the context

On a recent field trip to Miyove, a remote sector in Gicumbi district, I met Claudette Nyirarukundo, a mother of two lovely children. She said that nowadays, she always starts her day with a smile. Why? Because her two children, aged four and five, have already started their learning process at the Miyove Early Childhood Development (ECD) centre. “I have already seen them counting numbers and recognising colours. They even remind us to wash our hands with soap before eating,” she says with a smile. “ I am thankful to the Government of Rwanda and other partners for making our dreams a reality,” she adds, indicating the support from UNICEF and the IKEA Foundation.

The Miyove ECD centre reaches 218 children from 23 families in this historically marginalised community. The centre teaches much more than just counting, writing and reading; children and their communities also learn basic health, hygiene and nutrition practices. Rwanda is one of the top-performing countries in sub-Saharan Africa in education and has achieved Millennium Development Goal 2 for access to universal primary education.

Emmelyne, a four-year-old girl from Rwamagana District, learns the importance of washing hands after using the toilet and before eating porridge. © UNICEF Rwanda/2016/Park
Emmelyne, a four-year-old girl from Rwamagana District, learns the importance of washing hands after using the toilet and before eating porridge. © UNICEF Rwanda/2016/Park

Rwanda has a net enrolment rate of 97% and continues to expand access to education throughout the country (Ministry of Education, 2014). In terms of gender equality, progress towards Millennium Development Goal 3 has been similarly encouraging, with roughly equal numbers (1.2 million) of girls and boys enrolled at primary level.

Moving towards achievements under the new Sustainable Development Goals, these impressive gains in access at the primary level need to be matched by similar increases in access at the pre-primary level. Data from the Rwanda Demographic Health Survey 2014-15 (RDHS) states that only 13.1% of children aged from three to six years attend an organised ECD programme but the demand for these services, particularly in rural areas, is much higher.

In order to address these problems the government, with substantial financial and technical support from UNICEF and other partners, has completely reformed the curriculum. Launched in 2015, this marks a major shift from learning by rote to a competency-based curriculum that extends from pre-primary through the end of upper secondary.

UNICEF—IKEA Foundation partnership shows promising results

Thanks to generous support from the IKEA Foundation, increasing access to ECD is showing promising results. The contribution is not only at community level, in terms of ECD centres, but also at a policy level. With the development of the National ECD Implementation Plan and Policy, it has become a national priority of the Government of Rwanda.

The partnership has made significant progress towards achieving critical milestones and harnessing children’s potential in early childhood. I have seen for myself that the holistic development approach to ECD is showing results, not only in Gicumbi District but also in Gasabo, Rwamagana and Ngoma, to name a few. To date, the programme has reached almost 5,000 children (aged six and under), in centres and in their homes, in 10 selected ECD sites. Ten thousand people now have access to an improved water supply and 25,000 families have been reached through child protection interventions.

It is not only the children who are benefiting. Parents are also learning and growing as caretakers. “ We have seen women move from ignorance to knowing the importance of having children who you can afford to take care of. Meanwhile, from the ECD lessons, men have learned to support their pregnant wives and provide them the best care possible during pregnancy and after giving birth,” says Martha Uzamukunda, Miyove ECD Centre Co-ordinator.

Chronic malnutrition or stunting, a key public health concern, currently affects the development of 38% of children under five, resulting in delayed growth (2014-15 RDHS). The UNICEF—IKEA partnership has supported more than 71,000 children in five districts with micro-nutrient supplements and other nutritional support, helping to improve the nutrition status of these vulnerable children. “

Per Heggenes, CEO of the IKEA Foundation, sees the kitchen garden and learns of its nutritional benefits for children at the Miyove ECD centre in Gicumbi district.
Per Heggenes, CEO of the IKEA Foundation, sees the kitchen garden and learns of its nutritional benefits for children at the Miyove ECD centre in Gicumbi district.

Children are the future of Rwanda. That’s why we should take good care of them. A good education and proper nutrition are the basis of a great foundation for any kid,” said IKEA Foundation CEO Per Heggenes during his visit to Rwanda in October 2015.

It’s important to raise awareness of the need for good ECD practices to encourage people to change their behavior. Using both mass media and one-to-one communication, UNICEF has reached 180,000 people in rural areas, at least half of whom are families with children.

One of these communication approaches is Itetero, an innovative radio programme, launched in October 2015. Itetero was created for children and by children to teach Rwandan cultural values, improve cognitive development and encourage positive behaviour through plays and stories.

Children at the ECD centre enjoy the illustrated brochure of the Iteteroc hi l d ren’s radio programme ©UNICEF Rwanda/2016/Park
Children at the ECD centre enjoy the illustrated brochure of the Iteteroc hi l d ren’s radio programme ©UNICEF Rwanda/2016/Park

Manirakiza Damascene, a 12-year-old boy from the same sector as Claudette, is visually impaired and a regular listener of Itetero. Though he does not have a chance to go to school, he learns a lot from the radio. “

I like the Itetero programme. I don’t go to school but, because I listen to radio and to other children, I know some addition: 4+4=8; 8+8=16; 9+9=18. When they teach us a letter on the radio, I keep repeating it the whole day so that I don’t forget it.” These programmes are not only changing behaviour, but promoting social inclusion.

Keeping up the momentum

In early 2015, I rarely heard our partners, or even our government counterparts, talk about ECD. But now, it seems to be the “ buzz word” whenever the topic of children is discussed at the national or provincial level. This is due to the efforts made in linking important child-related events with ECD as the theme of those events, such as the Day of the African Child.

The Government of Rwanda recognises that ECD is a vital foundation for addressing all children’s needs. It calls for special attention because children’s rights are their bedrock for a good future. This is reflected in the National Policy and Strategic Implementation Plan, which were updated in 2016 and part of the national priorities.

Under the leadership of the Government of Rwanda, the UNICEF—IKEA Foundation partnership is leading the ECD journey, not only through the ECD centres, but also as a revolution through home-based ECD services and visits. I believe such practices are paving the road to sustainability in Rwanda and the rest of the African continent.

“I am very happy with the way you are owning up to these life-giving practices, and we are very proud to help your children achieve their goals in life, for it starts here,” said Per Heggenes during an interaction with parents. “

To me, seeing people who are behind this ECD centre is a dream come true. We have achieved so much and are still achieving a lot,” said Claudette during Mr. Heggenes’ visit to the centre.

A representative at UNICEF Rwanda once said: “ The early years of a child’s life quite literally present the opportunity of a lifetime.” I believe strongly in this sentiment and I hope these opportunities will be extended to all young Rwandans so that they can thrive to be the best in the future.

The journey continues…