By Francisco Ochoa

Brazil’s Congress will create a legal framework to guarantee the sustainability of early childhood policies, which have gained importance in federal, state and municipal programs in recent years. This is the main resolution that arose from the conference Marco Legal da Primeira Infancia (Legal Framework for Early Childhood) held the week of April 15 in Brasilia, in which legislators, experts, representatives from civil society, and entrepreneurs from 11 countries participated. According to the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Henrique Eduardo Alves, the first step will be the creation of a Special Commission on Early Childhood. This commission will be responsible for pushing through a law framework before the end of this year and will aim to create a Statute on Early Childhood to complement the existing Statute on Children and Adolescents.

The conference was attended by high-level political figures including five federal ministers. They underscored the complete alignment of President Dilma Rousseff’s government with initiatives to protect children ages 0 to 6. In this sense, acting Minister of Strategic Affairs Marcelo Neri reminded us that poverty among children ages 0 to 15 declined considerably in the last 10 years, mainly thanks to the Bolsa Familia program. This effort also received a major boost in 2012 with the launch of the program Brasil Carinhoso, which supplements the income received by families with children between the ages of 0 and 6.

Despite this progress, Neri acknowledged that the policies of the three levels of government must be better aligned in order to give priority to this most vulnerable of age groups, which has the highest level of poverty in Brazil. About 52% of children ages 0 to 3 live in poor or extremely poor households, according to Brazil’s 2009 National Household Sample Survey (PNAD). Furthermore, while almost 80% of children ages 4 and 5 attend preschool, just 22% of children between the ages of 0 and 3 have access to day care centers. This percentage is even lower among the extremely poor, with only 11.4% reporting access to day care centers.

In 2012, the government launched a plan that seeks to build 6,000 new day care centers and preschools in order to reduce this gap by 2014. A key point discussed during the conference was that future legislation must stress the issue of quality, for example, the training of staff members who serve children (teachers and caregivers). The importance of strengthening health initiatives and prenatal education was also discussed.

Some of the challenges identified during the conference were the lack of coordination among the policies developed and regulated at the federal level and the limited technical and financial capacity of the municipalities, which are primarily responsible for the implementation of projects. Several local governments have taken the initiative to create their own programs to strengthen local child care, as in the case of Rio Grande do Sul through its program Primeira Infancia Melhor or the city of Rio de Janeiro’s program Primeira Infancia Completa. This is why it was recommended that coordination between areas of the federal government responsible for services and programs aimed at children ages 0 to 6 be strengthened, and at the same time, it was proposed that a single entity assume responsibility for coordinating, managing the budget, and evaluating early childhood policies.

Francisco Ochoa is a Social Protection Specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank based in the Brazil country office. He is responsible for projects focused on youth, employment, and the provision of health and basic social protection services for low-income households.

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