Johannesburg — Thousands of new-borns will be given a healthier start in life, thanks to the launch of the Window of Opportunity project, which seeks to dramatically improve the critical health and development services for children and pregnant women in South Africa and Mozambique.
Launched on Tuesday, it is envisaged the R200-million project will support 750 000 expectant mothers.
It's a five-year initiative led by the global non-profit organisation for better health, PATH - in partnership with the Departments of Health, Social Development and Women, Children and People with Disabilities - and supported by BHP Billiton.
It expands its reach to help babies, especially in the first two years of life, by transforming the delivery of early childhood development and health in the region.
The project will focus on improving antenatal and new-born care, infant nutrition, child development practices and the quality of health services planning provision.
It will also help foster community engagement and accountability for improved mother and child services in four South African provinces namely Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Northern Cape, as well as Maputo Province in Mozambique.
Speaking at the launch of Window of Opportunity, where a cheque for the project was presented, BHP Billiton South Africa chairman, Dr Xolani Mkhwanazi, said the project would make a real difference in the lives of the most vulnerable.
"One of our core values at BHP Billiton is sustainability, putting health and safety first, being environmentally responsible and supporting our communities... This community development project supports our values in word and deed," said Mkhwanazi.
Accepting the cheque on behalf of government, the Minister for Women, Children and People with Disabilities Lulu Xingwana commended BHP Billiton for raising the bar and demonstrating that social investment was a very critical element of creating a sustainable economy and progressive social development.
"There is no doubt in my mind that our struggle to change the lives of poor children for the better will be half won if more companies and organisations emulate this example.
"As government, we regard private companies as very important potential partners, who are critical in delivering sustained development to the people of this country," Xingwana said.
The minister said the partnership established today between government and the private sector would have far reaching positive outcomes through the consistent promotion of these basic services.
Xingwana stressed that early childhood development (ECD) was on the list of top priorities of South African government.
"The National Plan of Action for Children in South Africa, which we are currently reviewing, provides a comprehensive and detailed account of services that are critical to the development of children."
Margot Davids, Chief Director: Children at the Department of Social Development, said the initiative came just at the right time in the history of ECD in South Africa.
"ECD is seen as a primary programme for the care and protection in development of children. The early years have been recognised as the ideal phase for passing on values that are important for the building of a peaceful, prosperous and democratic society.
"If there is an early and appropriate treatment and care, this can reverse the effect of deprivation and support the development of children in their potential.
"Early intervention makes it possible for children to grow and develop into their full potential, thus reducing the need for remedial ... later in life," she said, adding that ECD interventions were amongst the most cost effective interventions the country could have in human development.
Dr Yogan Pillay, Deputy Director General in the Department of Health, said the first years of a child's life were critical for mobility and mortality, which is why they focused heavily on neonatal, infant and child health.
"If we don't do enough to support children in the first thousand days, any development glide that is the consequence of a lack of development in [that period] is not recoverable," Pillay said.
He also commended the project as a "major investment" by BHP Billiton. He said it could be used as a platform for government, civil society and the private sector to effectively partner together to take care of families and make that no child is left behind.