By Adedapo Adesanya
The United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) has said at least 40 million children worldwide have missed out on early childhood education in their critical pre-school year as COVID-19 shuttered childcare and early education facilities.
In a new research brief published on Wednesday, the agency looked at the state of childcare and early childhood education globally and includes an analysis of the impact of widespread COVID-19 closures of these vital family services.
According to UNICEF Executive Director, Ms Henrietta Fore, “Education disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are preventing children from getting their education off to the best possible start.
“Childcare and early childhood education build a foundation upon which every aspect of children’s development relies. The pandemic is putting that foundation under serious threat.”
The research showed that lockdowns have left many parents struggling to balance childcare and paid employment, with more burden placed on women who, on average, spend more than three times longer on care and housework than men.
UNICEF said that the closures have also exposed a deeper crisis for families of young children especially in low- and middle-income countries, many of whom were already unable to access social protection services.
It explained that childcare is essential in providing children with integrated services, affection, protection, stimulation and nutrition and, at the same time, enable them to develop social, emotional and cognitive skills.
However, before the COVID-19 pandemic, unaffordable, poor-quality or inaccessible childcare and early childhood education facilities forced many parents to leave young children in unsafe and unstimulating environments at a critical point in their development, with more than 35 million children under the age of five globally sometimes left without adult supervision.
It added that out of 166 countries, less than half provide tuition-free pre-primary programmes of at least one year, dropping to just 15 per cent among low-income countries and many young children who remain at home do not get the play and early learning support they need for healthy development.
The research showed that in 54 low- and middle-income countries, around 40 per cent of children aged between 3 and 5 years old were not receiving social-emotional and cognitive stimulation from any adult in their household.
Lack of childcare and early education options also leaves many parents, particularly mothers working in the informal sector, with no choice but to bring their young children to work, the report said.
More than 9 in 10 women in Africa and nearly 7 in 10 in Asia and the Pacific work in the informal sector and have limited to no access to any form of social protection. Many parents become trapped in this unreliable, poorly paid employment, contributing to intergenerational cycles of poverty, it added.
“Access to affordable, quality childcare and early childhood education is critical for the development of families and socially cohesive societies. UNICEF advocates for accessible, affordable and quality childcare from birth to children’s entry into the first grade of school,” it noted.
The research brief offers guidance on how governments and employers can improve their childcare and early childhood education policies including by enabling all children to access high-quality, age-appropriate, affordable and accessible childcare centres irrespective of family circumstances.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is making a global childcare crisis even worse, families need support from their governments and their employers to weather this storm and safeguard their children’s learning and development,” it stated.
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