Most of them are not qualified, but trusted by their communities to prepare children for lifelong learning.
The forgotten volunteers’ cries for training and stipends remain unheeded.
For 10 years, Ennette Mhango, 45, has been volunteering at a community-based childcare centre (CBCC) in Usisya, Nkhata Bay. She and an assistant caregiver have no formal training in caregiving, but they care for 170 children.
“I only do this for the love of our children in my areas who had no early childhood development [ECD] centre. I come up with my own lessons and ways to deliver them,” says Mhango.
The caregiver lacks motivation.
“I have four children, but I don’t get any pay. Well-wishers in my community pay for my children’s school fees and give me food and clothes,” she narrates.
Maria Mhone, one of three untrained caregivers at Viwemi CBCC in Choma, Mzimba, has been volunteering since 2008.
For 14 years, she has seen over 500 children at the CBBCC without any formal curriculum. These include an 11-year-old girl with special needs.
Mhone does not possess any skills in inclusive teaching and learning.
In May, she attended a government-approved caregivers’ training at Elangeni, Mzimba, facilitated by Luke International. Upon completion, she received a CBCC curriculum to follow.
Luke International works with 11 CBCCs in Mzimba in partnership with Zawaya and Fiskani community-based organisations.
“Prior to the training, the CBCCs had no trained caregivers. This is a common challenge and it leaves children in the care of volunteers without necessary skills and motivation to providing quality and comprehensive ECD services,” says Luke International country representative Rebecca Kaunda.
Out of 3 600 care givers, only 205 are properly trained according to government standards.
“This affects the delivery of ECD services because caregivers who don’t know what they are doing cannot facilitate development and learning, according to government recommendations,” says Mzimba North senior assistant social welfare officer Lickson Ng’ambi.
According to him, Mzimba North has about 17000 children in 386 CBCCs and 204 private centres. About 100 are children with special needs.
“Most of these children miss out on quality ECD to improve their cognitive and physical development. They don’t get a good start for their primary education,” explains Ng’ambi.
In 2018, the Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare reported that about half of the children nationwide (48.7 percent) access ECD centres. Only 36 percent of new primary school entrants have preschool learning while 17 percent of three to four years old are on track in terms of literacy and numeracy, the report states.
ECD Coalition national coordinator Joylet Genda said untrained caregivers may not know nor understand ECD concepts and appropriate ways to facilitate the development of children’s skills and growth through play, caring and communication.
“Ultimately, the children may not get the required care and skills development support,” she says.
Genda also lamented that most trained volunteers drop out in search for better opportunities.
“Employing the caregivers would help motivate, attract and retain the trained caregivers,” she says.
Unicef Malawi communications officer Rogers Siula says nearly all caregivers in the country work on voluntary basis and more than half of them lack basic skills on standard ECD package. This affects the quality and sustainability of the ECD services, he says.
He underscores the urgent need to support the provision of adequate training and incentives for the caregivers to offer every child quality ECD services.
However, the country’s ECD budget is hugely supported by development partners as national allocations remain low. It constitutes 0.77 percent of the total budget, down from 0.93 percent in the 2020/21 budget.
Siula commends the government for allocating K480 million for honoraria of certified caregivers in ECD centres.
“This allocation needs to be increased in future national budgets to motivate more caregivers. Communities must also be encouraged to find ways of incentivizing caregivers to ensure sustainability and retention of caregivers,” he says, calling for children-centred national budgets to complement development partners’ contributions.
Siula said deploying certified caregivers to ECD centres would help improve service delivery because untrained ones do not “effectively nurture, stimulate and educate children for their improved well-being”.
“They may not effectively facilitate children’s learning as they transit from ECD centres to primary school. In the end, we may not achieve the intended child outcomes Malawi aspires to achieve.”
Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare spokesperson Alfred Simwaka says although only 40 percent of children access ECD services, it is praiseworthy that 90 percent of them complete ECD lessons.
According to the ministry, about 60 000 caregivers across the country assist almost two million children in ECD centres. Three percent of these children have special needs, which call for trained caregivers.
“We are planning to introduce 2 000 caregivers on the payroll,” says Simwaka.
The global Sustainable Development Goals call for bold action to ensure that every child has equitable access to quality ECD and early learning opportunities by 2030. This starts with leaving no child behind.