Region’s children must be given the chance to thrive
The coronavirus pandemic has been the most disruptive event in recent history. The ensuing economic recession, soaring unemployment rates and impact on services has put a strain on families with children in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). This has stirred up an interesting discussion on the availability of multidimensional services that are fundamental to children’s well-being and development.
A comprehensive situation report, published in February by UNICEF, highlighted the challenges faced by families and children in the MENA region. The pandemic has triggered the loss of 11 million full-time jobs in the region, pushing the total number of children living in monetary-poor households to more than 60 million. Families also had limited access to healthcare services and as many as 15 million children missed their regular immunizations in 2020. Malnutrition remains a threat, with experts witnessing a 40 percent increase in cases compared to 2019. By mid-March 2020, almost all schools in the region were shut, causing learning disruptions to an estimated 110 million children, with 1.3 million at risk of not resuming schooling altogether due to their families’ financial situation and the lack of distance learning solutions.
The pandemic has certainly highlighted the need for governments in the region to reimagine children’s services so that they focus on the well-being of children. Many countries around the world have dedicated ministers, government agencies and strategies that look after children’s welfare. New Zealand’s Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy, for example, aims to make the country the best place in the world for children and young people. The strategy covers action plans in multiple areas of a child’s life, such as education, healthcare, housing, and well-being.
Policymakers rely on an array of child development research to design effective policies and services that meet the needs of this young target audience. Investing in the training of a specialized workforce in different areas of child well-being will help deliver the best possible results.
To start with, urban planners must design cities that are child-friendly. This ensures that local communities are planned so that children have easy access to daycare centers, early childhood education centers, schools, cultural facilities, sporting venues, health clinics, and parks and green spaces. It is equally important to invest in housing programs so that families are able to access affordable accommodation that meets design and safety standards.
Family centers are excellent venues for delivering a multitude of services that promote the well-being of children and their families, such as accessing evidence-based parenting advice, strengthening social networks, designing preventative care plans for at-risk children, and accessing a variety of services centered on child welfare.
Introducing and enforcing family-friendly labor policies will ensure parents are able to work while managing childcare duties. This includes flexible working hours, remote work, maternal and paternal leaves, and child leave. Additionally, putting in place social protection systems is vital to supporting parents and custodians in caring for children. This includes cash transfers for low-income families, child allowances, housing grants, scholarships, and medical assistance.
Investing in setting up accessible, affordable and quality early childhood education centers is imperative for multiple reasons. Research shows that childcare and early education services deliver multiple benefits, such as improved academic performance, enhanced health status, lower school dropout rates, and higher earnings in adulthood.
School education systems need to be updated to reflect current market needs, in addition to enhancing the overall learning experience and keeping students engaged. Home-based technological learning solutions are vital for children to continue their education despite living in conflict zones, refugee camps or pandemic-related lockdowns. Supplementary services include offering extracurricular activities and interest clubs, participating in sports activities, organizing field trips, and hosting inspiring people within the community. Counseling services should also be available to students to strengthen their mental health resilience. And career services are important to help students discover their innate talents and pave a path for their future career plans. Programs for gifted children also need to be considered.
The pandemic has highlighted the need for governments in the Middle East to reimagine children’s services.
Access to affordable, quality healthcare remains a priority. Maternity and child health clinics need to be located in accessible areas, with a dedicated medical team specialized in maternal health services and pediatric care. Much inspiration can be derived from cities that are home to word-class children’s hospitals, such as the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London, the Boston Children’s Hospital and the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.
Many countries have also introduced legislation to safeguard children’s rights. For example, Finland’s Child Welfare Act lays out children’s rights to balance development and well-being, close human relationships, understanding and affection, supervision and care, education that builds on a child’s abilities and wishes, a safe environment free from abuse of all forms, opportunities to be involved in various interests, and respecting the child’s linguistics, cultural and religious background. On the other hand, the UAE enacted the Child Protection Law, known as “Wadeema,” in 2016 to highlight children’s rights with regards to citizenship, education, healthcare, child labor, safety, public social assistance, cultural activities, and well-being.
By reimagining children’s services in the region, governments can ensure children get the opportunity to enjoy a happy, safe and enriched childhood that will enable them to thrive throughout their lives.
- Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature. www.amorelicious.com.