Mbabane — The proliferation of Swaziland's Neighbourhood Care Points (NCP) has had the effect of popularizing preschool education throughout the country in just over a decade.
NCPs were originally a response to the wave of orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) created by the country's staggering HIV rates; with 26 percent of people aged 15 to 49 living with the virus, Swaziland's HIV prevalence is the highest in the world. According to the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, just over a quarter of Swazi children live with both parents; one out of every six children under age 15 is an OVC.
The NCPs, which provide preschool education and nutritional assistance for OVC, began as an urban initiative in 2000 and quickly spread to rural areas, where families have come to view their educational services as essential.
Prior to the HIV/AIDS crisis and the steep rise in OVC, multi-generational family homesteads provided child care. But under the epidemic, coupled with "rural push and urban pull" migration, this system largely collapsed.
Today, an estimated 1,100 facilities around the country cater to between 50 and 300 children each, with sponsorship from both private and public donors. Each community identifies OVC to be placed at the care points, and the children are placed in one of three age groupings: toddlers up to three years old, three- to six year-olds, and older children.
This has been transformative in rural areas, where virtually all residents live in poverty. Although priority at NCPs is given to orphans, impoverished children are also considered vulnerable, and are thus also eligible for the programme.
Rural people have been introduced to preschooling for the first time, and they have completely embraced the concept so they cannot imagine not having these centres
"One of the surprising outcomes of the new network of NCPs is that rural people have been introduced to preschooling for the first time, and they have completely embraced the concept so they cannot imagine not having these centres," Alicia Mthetfwa, an educationalist in the capital Mbabane, told IRIN.
"Preschool was always an urban amenity in Swaziland. Those in town who could afford it sent their children to preschools, which were set up first primarily as day-care facilities to look after children whose parents worked. More single Swazi women raise children than couples," she said.
Once the domain of the middle-class, preschools provide "a head start", Mthetfwa said. "If a child is to have an early advantage or even keep up with the others, then preschool is seen by parents as a necessity."
"They are providing early learning to the children, so there is the opportunity for these children to attend school and learn what other children are learning," Muriel Mafico, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) deputy country representatives for Swaziland, told IRIN. "These children have many needs, ranging from material needs to spiritual needs. They need love. They need care. They need support."
Rural families are now lobbying for the establishment of more NCPs so all can have access to preschool.
Kanya Mabuza, assistant director for the National Emergency Response Committee on HIV and AIDS (NERCHA), told IRIN, "Our principal goal is not to take children away from their communities and put them in institutions but to keep them in the familiar surroundings of their homes and provide them all the basic social services.
"We monitor the children's activities. In terms of psychosocial support, the centres offer a sense of belonging, where the child is not alone but is loved. Children play with other children and are taught basic skills such as how to wash your hands before you eat," she said.
The educational curriculum is similar to what is found at most preschools, with a focus on numeracy, the alphabet, and identifying shapes and colours among three- to six year-olds.
But the facilities, which are staffed by volunteers, require additional support. A weekly stipend for transport and other associated costs has recently been withdrawn by donor organizations.
"In terms of structures, some are getting old, while some are not finished yet. The communities don't have the resources to maintain the structures," Mabuza said.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]