© Blog First Steps, IDB’s Social Protection and Health Division 

by Lucrecia Santibañez

Mexican children

Intelligence is not a fixed attribute. Learning begins at birth, and during the first six years of life, the brain is extremely malleable. Both genetics and children’s experiences influence brain development. Experts in fields ranging from neurodevelopment to economics have concluded that a solid foundation in early childhood increases the likelihood of positive outcomes in the future, while a fragile one increases the odds of later difficulties. 

While it is never too late to remedy a turbulent start, the reality is that children who do not develop properly in their early years are less likely to reach their full potential as adults. The early years are, therefore, of utmost importance.

Understanding the significance and urgency of the issue, the organization Mexicanos Primero (Mexicans First) [link in Spanish] prepared a report [link in Spanish] that synthesized public literature as well as data from secondary sources. The results for Mexico were surprising, even to some specialists.

In many cases, Mexican children are practically invisible!

According to recent estimates by the Red por los Derechos de la Infancia en México (REDIM) (Mexican Children’s Rights Network) [link in Spanish], 18% of children under the age of 1 have not been registered. Officially, they do not exist. In some of the poorer states such as Chiapas and Guerrero, this figure exceeds 40% [link in Spanish]. In other words, in the eyes of the system, four out of ten children do not exist. Consequently, these children cannot receive the official services and care that may be most needed.

A figure that adequately conveys the scale of the problem is the fact that, according to the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (CONEVAL) [link in Spanish], 56% of Mexican children aged 0 to 6 live in poverty while 16% live in overcrowded conditions.

In the case of nutrition—a recurring theme in Latin American countries that Mexicans thought they had already overcome—figures show that one in seven children is malnourished. The prevalence of malnutrition in Mexico is four times greater than the World Health Organization’s (WHO) standard for this indicator. In indigenous areas, one in three children suffers from chronic malnutrition.

In fact, improvement in this indicator has lagged so far behind that the prevalence of malnutrition in indigenous children [link in Spanish] in 2012 was nearly 10 percentage points higher than that of non-indigenous children in 1988. In almost 30 years, indigenous children have not been able to bridge the malnutrition gap with non-indigenous children, as indicated by the table below.

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Source: Thébar et al. (2014) in Mexicanos Primero (2014). Includes information from ENSANUT (several years)

With regard to education, perhaps due to the lack of subsidized child care services, about 80% of children are cared for by their mothers. Preschools (public and private, but mostly public) serve only 6% of children in the relevant age range (0 to 6 years). An additional 4% to 5% are served by non-formal early childhood services that are provided to parents by the National Council for Educational Development’s (CONAFE) [link in Spanish] rural education promoters.

Taking a moment to talk about moms, according to the National Employment Survey (ENOE) [link in Spanish], approximately three-quarters of Mexican women lack social security. Of those who have social security, less than half have access to maternity leave when they need it.

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Source: ENOE, 2009

The conclusion reached by the study Los Invisibles (The Invisibles) is that waiting until first grade to provide care and services may be too late to have an impact on children’s futures.

Lucrecia Santibáñez is the Special Projects Director at Mexicanos Primero. She has been a researcher at RAND Corporation and Research Professor at Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, A.C. (CIDE). She also works as a consultant for The World Bank, OCDE and IDB. She has published extensively in subjects such as teachers, teachers’ incentives, school leadership and management and early childhood development.

Download the complete study Los invisibles [link in Spanish].

Download the IDB’s publication Early Childhood Development in Mexico [link in Spanish].

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