On the first day after winter break, my four-year-old son comes home from daycare joyful and happy that he’s back again to play with his friends and his favorite teachers. To see him so content makes me grateful for the luck we had finding a high-quality kindergarten where children are being positively stimulated and can thrive in their early years. In the Palestinian Territories (West Bank and Gaza, WBG), where we live, the reality is quite different for too many children under five years of age, who make up 14% of the Palestinian population:
- Only 34% of children in the Palestinian Territories are attending early childhood care and education programs.
- Only 46% of children in WBG are experiencing any development activities at all and 96% are being violently disciplined, leading to important deficits in their social and emotional development.
- Inequality for a child’s development exists on many different levels in WBG, especially in the areas of nutrition (stunting affects 12% of children), development activities and education.
- No public system exists for early childhood institutions, such as nurseries and preschool. They are mostly private and can choose their own curriculum and are only available to a limited number of families.
But Things Are Changing!
The message about how important the early years are in a child’s development is spreading quickly. The Palestinian Authority, the governing body of the Palestinian Territories, is putting ever more emphasis on investing in Early Childhood Development (ECD) and Early Childhood Intervention (ECI). In 2017, the “National Strategy for Early Childhood Development and Intervention”, a pioneering document in the region, was approved and endorsed. The Strategy prioritizes the holistic development of young children from pregnancy until the age of five.
The focus on ECI is important to the Palestinian Government. Recognizing children at risk and with developmental delays early is vital to introduce services that will enable them to catch up with their peers and prevent life-long disabilities and exclusion in many cases. Many social and health programs in the Palestinian Territories, where the average disability prevalence rate is estimated to be 6.9% (WHO estimates suggest the rate is even higher), target children with disabilities and their families. But these programs face problems to achieve better outcomes. Also, until recently, there had been no early detection tools in place to identify children with development delays that enable early interventions. Hence, development delays are recognized late, often only when children enter school.
The approval of the National ECD Strategy has brought in a momentum of action to roll out ECD activities throughout the Palestinian Territories. The commitment towards ECD and ECI is high and many tools to improve ECD and ECI outcomes have already been developed:
- Creation of a National ECD Working Group and a Gaza ECD Working group.
- Introduction of and training for Developmental behavioral scales/developmental screening and monitoring tools for children aged one month to six 6 years.
- Guide for developmental behavioral scales.
- Parent Education Curriculum at zero to three years and three to six years.
- Training (in-situ, lectures, supervision, mentoring sessions) of health and education professionals.
- Educational materials for parents and educators.
- Data base monitoring on child development.
- Creation of supervision checklists.
Despite These Achievements, Many Challenges Remain
Cross-sector collaboration and networking among all stakeholders, including the local community, require improvement. Challenges include shortage of health and specialized staff, such as psychosocial workers, pediatric neurologist, and speech therapists. Also, more and high-quality capacity training for service providers is needed.
More advocacy and awareness-raising activities are needed to transmit knowledge on the importance of early learning activities and positive parenting for a child’s development. UNICEF’s Knowledge, Attitudes, and Practices (KAP) Study on ECD in Palestine found that over half of the interviewed parents (56%) declared never reading to their child. Strong distrust of outside-home care prevails – only 50% of parents trust ECD practitioners with the social and emotional development of their child. Hence, the importance of nurseries and kindergartens needs to be better promoted, as they often represent the only space where children experience adequate stimulation and early learning activities.
Awareness-raising efforts need to target the importance of nurturing care, gender equality in parenting behavior and violence-free parenting styles. Oftentimes, parents don’t know about different parenting options and are not aware of the impact violent discipline can have on the development of their child.
Making ECD an Investment Priority
By 2017, the Palestinian Territories had been formally added to the second wave of countries to track and monitor progress in the World Bank Early Years Initiative Agenda. In addition, the UNICEF/World Bank Group Strategic Partnership Framework was signed in March 2017 and makes efforts in investing in the early years a priority.
In a society living in a conflict situation, helping children to thrive and succeed beyond all odds is a challenge. In view of the particularity of the Palestinian situation and the everyday difficulties Palestinians experience which make life here so complicated, it is exciting to see all this action and commitment towards ECD. I hope the international community will continue to support the Palestinian people in their efforts to invest better and more in their children.
If you know of other initiatives to advance ECD in this part of the world, share it in the comments section or mention @BIDgente on Twitter.