25 Oct 2019

UNICEF to boost resources for young children in Pacific

4:48 pm on 25 October 2019

The establishment of a new Pacific Regional Council for Early Childhood Development has been announced by UN children's agency UNICEF in Fiji.

A UNICEF report has found that four out of 10 children in the Pacific are not enrolled in pre-primary education.

A recent World Bank study found children born in 2019 may only reach half their full potential as adults if access to critical public services like health and education is broken. Photo: Unicef

A range of government ministers from 15 Pacific island countries have been holding a forum in Nadi to discuss how to boost resources for young children in the region.

Fiji's Minister for Health and Medical Services said now that the council and its steering committee were in place, the hard work could begin.

Dr Ifereimi Waqainabete, who is also the Chair of the Ministerial Roundtable meeting, praised the multi-sectoral nature of the council and its 10-year work plan.

The head of UNICEF, Henrietta Fore, opened the forum with a video message stressing how important early moments are in a child's life.

"Early moments matter. The nutrition her parents give her. The love care and protection she gets and the early brain stimulation she receives through playing and interacting with friends and family. Together these ingredients wire her brain for success. They connect neurons at a once in a life time pace. They benefit her, her family and her society."

Ms Fore questioned why more countries were not following the initiative shown by the Pacific region by investing in early childhood development with a science-based structured programme.

A recent World Bank study found children born in 2019 may only reach half their full potential as adults if access to critical public services like health and education is broken.

Stunted physical growth affects one out of every three children in most parts of the Pacific, and island nations have the worst rates of arrested development in the world.

A Solomon Islands nurse who works with UNICEF, Glenda Rathamana, sees patients such as 14-month-old Dorcas, who is 31 percent smaller than average for her age.

She had intervened with a plan to correct the child's nutrition at a crucial window in time.

"Stunting and malnutrition can have a major impact on children as they get older. It causes problems like learning difficulties in schools and non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, heart problems, obesity. So if we don't correct it at this stage when they are still children, they will develop these problems when they're older."

Specialist health clinics for young children to help educate parents with life saving information on child nutrition and health are likely to be extended further regionally as part of the 10-year plan.

Underlining the importance of the council, Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General, Dame Meg Taylor said the future of the Blue Pacific was not guaranteed.

"Our young people are confronted by what are being increasingly identified as non-traditional human security challenges. Improving access to early childhood development needs to be addressed within a complex environment where our children also need improved access to health including vaccine and hygiene services. Furthermore, our children need greater protection against abuse and exploitation."

Pacific Representative for UNICEF, Sheldon Yett, said establishment of the Council was timely.

"The first one thousand days is that critical window when we really need to make sure a child has access to good nutritious foods, has a loving and supportive family, and is getting ready to go to school. It's really a very critical window when those neurons and when the synapses in the child's brain really start to form.

"That's why its so important to intervene agressively and intervene early."

Pacific children needed action - not just words and commitment, Mr Yett said.

UNICEF was working with regional governments, and stands ready to support governments in the Pacific to assess how policies, systems, services and programmes, can better provide for children in the Pacific.

The Pacific Regional Council for Early Childhood Development represents 15 Pacific Island Countries and territories, including the Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Republic of Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tokelau, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

UNICEF, Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Council for Early Childhood Development, is hosting the forum this week, with funding support from the Government of New Zealand and in collaboration with the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, the World Bank and regional partners.

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