When I was invited to visit a day care centre in Matsapha town, just outside the capital city of Mbabane in Swaziland, I had a mental picture of a spacious, colourful, roomy space where children played happily on the floor. The walls would be covered by popular animal characters, rainbow-coloured building blocks would be scattered on the floor, and a number of well-trained child minders would be, well, minding the rambunctious and happy children.
What I encountered could not have been further from the truth. A small, dark room held 19 children, with a small mattress on the floor where the four youngest babies, one three months old, were fast asleep.
The other children, ranging from age 2-5, milled around in the hot and stuffy room. A table braced against one wall held several milk bottles and some pieces of bread, which I was told was the total sum of food dropped off by mothers in the morning and which would feed the children in the course of the day.
Nothando Mndzebele, 52, is the sole caregiver for the 19 children. She lives on the same apartment block and rents the room specifically for this service.
“The mothers drop off their children at 6am, and return for them at 6pm,” Nothando explains. “It is hard work to look after all the children but I love children and I do the best I can for them,” she adds. Outside in the small courtyard, Nothando has fashioned a sole play swing from an old tyre and rope, where the children go to play.
Most of the mothers who use Nothando’s day care service come from poor rural areas to work in the garment factories of Matsapha. With few resources, their earnings are used to support their families back home. The mothers have no one to look after their children while they work, so they seek affordable ‘day care centres’ (at a fee of around $15 per month). In reality, the ‘centres’ are local women who look to supplement their income by offering to look after children for a fee. The child minders, with little or no training in child care, either look after the children in their own homes or, like Nothando, rent extra space.
A local community organisation called Siphilile Maternal and Child Health is now reaching out to these caregivers to provide skills on how to better look after children. With a grant from UNICEF, Siphilile trains mentors to seek out women like Nothando and equip them with basic skills on hygiene, child health, safety and cognitive skills development.
“We started off focusing on maternal health and prenatal care for expectant mothers who worked at the factories and lacked proper health care,” explains Thandi, a programme manager at Siphilile. “We however realised that once these women gave birth, they had no proper means to take care of their babies. Some needed to return to work in less than three months after having babies or risk losing their jobs. With no one to look after the babies, the mothers turned to community child minders who offered day care service.”
Siphilile is recruiting more day care centre mentors to reach the 106 centres dotted in and around Matsapha town. The organisation has bought and distributed toys for children, organised community sensitization meetings on water, sanitation and hygiene, and continues to advocate for child safety and protection practices.
“With UNICEF funding and support from other partners, Siphilile plans to educate care givers about child rights, and to equip them with ways to enhance cognitive skills in the children they care for through play, songs, storytelling and picture books,” says Matsebula Themba, the monitoring and evaluation officer.
At the national level, early childhood development (ECD) is just beginning to be acknowledged as a critical contribution to building the foundation for subsequent learning. UNICEF is advocating for more resources to be assigned to assist such day care centres so they can provide children with early stimulation, enrolment in pre-school and nurseries, and participation in other learning and school readiness activities which also help children to develop and perform better when they enter primary school.
Tanya Radosavljevic, UNICEF Swaziland Deputy Representative and head of the early childhood development programme, says the organisation is working with the Early Childhood Network to increase access and coverage of integrated ECD services that meet national standards, especially for the most vulnerable children.
This includes strengthening the capacities of the Government, parents and caregivers to provide appropriate early learning and nurturing approaches in formal and non-formal settings, and monitoring all ECD centres to ensure that they meet minimum standards on safety, care, nutrition and early stimulation, and integrate early learning and school readiness.
Back to Matsapha, Nothando is bottle-feeding one of the babies who woke up hungry. The other children crowd around her, demanding to be fed too. She calms them in a practiced manner, and hands them copies of old picture books to distract them while she finishes with the baby.
“I would like to have more mats for the children to sleep on, more toys and to have food to cook for them,” she says with a smile, as she looks fondly at the children around her.
Rebecca Wabwoba is a Communication Officer in the UNICEF Private Fundraising and Partnerships Division.