Improving access to early childhood education for children affected by HIV and AIDS


spiwe2Spiwe Ernest was born to a family deeply affected by the HIV and AIDS crisis that has ravaged sub-Saharan Africa.  Her mother was HIV positive, and when revealed her status to her husband, he abused her and fled, leaving her to fend for six children, including their youngest—Spiwe.  Fortunately, Spiwe was HIV negative, due to her mother’s participation in a prevention of mother to child transmission (PMTCT) program in her community.  Spiwe’s mother, unable to take care of six children on her own, sent her—at the age of two—over 10 miles away to live with her elderly grandmother, who is also HIV positive and on antiretroviral treatment.  A farmer struggling to provide daily meals to her granddaughter, Spiwe’s grandmother enrolled Spiwe at Chisomo ECD center—an ECD center managed by TIPOLISO (Tikondane Organization) in partnership with Firelight.

Why early childhood development in Malawi?

Studies show early childhood development (ECD) is critical to a child’s ability to succeed in school and has implications on achievement later in life. This is especially true for children who have been affected by HIV and AIDS. However, few children have access to quality early childhood services in Africa, especially in rural areas.

This is due in part to limited government resources for ECD programs as well as limited capacity, including a lack of trained personnel and the absence of a culturally appropriate curriculum. Even where ECD centers exist, they often operate more as a “day care” for parents during work hours, rather than a robust support to children’s cognitive, emotional, and social development. 

What is Firelight doing to address this challenge?

Firelight has been partnering with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and the Bainum Family Foundation to support 18 community-based organizations (CBOs) in Malawi, Tanzania, and Zambia. These organizations have reached over 80,000 children, parents, and community members across the three countries. This support is building the capacity of communities to strengthen ECD centers and family-based training programs that promote children’s holistic development, especially in areas that are affected by HIV and other challenges. Our funding also seeks to bring community-based evidence into national conversations about ECD and to influence ECD policy and practices at a national level.

We have already begun to see the effects of our partnership.  In Malawi, CBOs have themselves become trainers and leaders in implementing, and supporting others to implement, high quality early childhood programs for vulnerable children. This ripple effect has resulted in higher quality ECD provision for thousands of children in Malawi.

How do CBOs change outcomes for young children?

TIPOLISO, a Firelight grantee-partner in Malawi, currently works with five ECD centers in Malawi.  Firelight supports TIPOLISO with the grant funding and capacity building to allow them to train caregivers, provide children age-appropriate learning materials, build permanent ECD structures, and partner with local government.  With Firelight’s support, TIPOLISO engaged in a participatory research project to better understand how to improve early childhood education for vulnerable children in their community.

From this study, TIPOLISO found that some of the central factors that contribute to school dropout are poverty, lack of ability to pay school fees or purchase scholastic materials, limited family support, and child marriage.  TIPOLISO realized that families needed and wanted an intervention to allow them to better care for their children.  Community members believed a goat pass-on program was the right, long-term solution to serve their children’s needs.

Firelight supported TIPOLISO with the grant to launch their goat pass-on program, which would be targeted at the most vulnerable children in the community.  TIPOLISO held many community mobilization meetings to identify beneficiaries, as two families were to be chosen from each of the five ECD centers.  One of these meetings was attended by Spiwe’s grandmother.  Community members agreed that Spiwe’s family was the right choice for the program so that Spiwe could continue her education uninterrupted.

Spiwe Spiwe’s grandmother was trained by TIPOLISO staff, and in November 2015, she was given a female goat, which provided the family with nutritious milk both to drink and to sell.  Luckily, the goat was pregnant, and in 2016, gave birth to a female kid.  Spiwe’s grandmother enjoys taking care of the goats and feels like a weight has been lifted from her shoulders—allowing her to take better care of Spiwe’s needs and allowing Spiwe to pursue her education.  As of now, the original goat has given birth to three goats, two of which will be passed along to the families of other vulnerable children.

What is the impact of the program?

Today, Spiwe is seven years old and thriving.  She recently passed her Standard 1 exams in third place (in a class of 123), and she is ready to begin Standard 2.  At Spiwe’s school, the top eight performers in the class come from TIPOLISO’s ECD centers.  We at Firelight are deeply proud of Spiwe’s progress and the tireless efforts of our community-based partner TIPOLISO, who fight every day for a better future for children.