Guest Author

On March 8, International Women’s Day, Grand Challenges Canada features two women Innovators who are helping other women to overcome the struggles and issues they face.

Raquel Bernal is a Professor at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá (Colombia). She leads a
Transition-to-Scale project under our Saving Brains program, along with a team of experts from different parts of the world that includes Professor Orazio Attanasio from UCL (UK) and the Institute for Fiscal Studies (London), Professor Costas Meghir from Yale University (U.S.), Professor Helen Henningham from Bangor University (UK) and University of the West Indies (Jamaica), and Marta Rubio-Codina of the Inter-American Development Bank and the Institute for Fiscal Studies (London).

Poverty remains a problem in many remote and rural areas in Colombia. Thousands of children between birth and age 5 are living in poor conditions, making them much more vulnerable than their peers residing in urban areas. Their families are significantly poorer and these children exhibit a tremendous development lag.

Take language development, for example. It has been shown that young children from rural areas are lagging approximately 20 months in language development in comparison to children in similar socioeconomic conditions in urban areas. This means that, at the age of five, these children start formal schooling with a considerable disadvantage that does not really get resolved throughout elementary and secondary education. Part of the explanation is substandard parenting practices and a limited knowledge of early childhood development in households in socioeconomic vulnerability.


Less than a third of rural parents reported reading to their young children at least once per week.

Recent data by the Colombian Longitudinal Survey (ELCA) indicate that 70% of parents do not use early childhood services because they simply don’t want to, and not because of logistical constraints. Furthermore, 40% of parents believe that children will eventually develop the same set of abilities, regardless of what parents do and regardless of the circumstances surrounding them. About one third think that playing with their children is not a crucial element for early development. Another common misunderstanding is that talking to babies is useless because they won’t understand anyway. Only about 30% of parents in rural areas report reading to their young child at least once a week.

Close to one third of these Colombian families with children ages birth to 2 can access a public parenting program called FAMI (Family, Women and Infancy). The aim of this program is to promote early childhood development by improving parenting skills in a home setting. FAMI serves socioeconomically vulnerable children with one monthly home visit and one weekly group meeting. Each program facilitator serves approximately 12 to 15 beneficiaries in their community. Recently, the Colombian government has developed a comprehensive ECD strategy, “De Cero a Siempre” (From Birth to Forever) which aims to increase the number of people participating, but more importantly, to improve the quality of the existing services. While the latter component of the strategy has been more easily extended to urban areas through centre-based care, it has been more difficult to incorporate it in the rural context, due to institutional capacity, financial and human resource constraints, and lack of economies of scale in dispersed areas.


Optimizing mother-to-child interactions: from birth to forever.

Our Grand Challenges Canada Transition To Scale project contributes to this national ECD strategy by incorporating a variety of quality enhancements to the FAMI program, ultimately improving the well-being of young children and their parents in rural Colombia. The enhancements include pedagogical contents in the form of a developmentally sequenced set of activities to promote child development. This also aims at promoting optimal maternal-child interaction and maternal self-efficacy, and providing nutrition education and supplementation.

Our contribution also includes a thorough coaching and follow-up system, to continuously support program facilitators. Finally, it comprises a complete set of pedagogical materials to use along with the curriculum: books, puzzles, blocks, sorting and matching objects, and materials to build home-made toys. This intervention will be rigorously evaluated in 91 rural towns in Colombia from 2014 to 2016. The pilot will enroll close to 1,700 parents of children younger than two in these areas, and approximately 300 pregnant women. In most cases, the FAMI group sessions (as well as the home visits) are attended by the mother of the child. Close to 40% of them are single mothers and/or teenage mothers, whose children run a much higher risk of ending up in a poverty trap if their education process is postponed or discontinued. By working with these mothers, and by promoting self-efficacy, self-esteem, motivation and better knowledge about the needs of their children, we hope to improve the lives of both mother and child.

Five months into the project, we have now trained 172 facilitators in 46 rural towns in the central region of Colombia. Our perception is that, after training, program facilitators are motivated and committed to serving their beneficiaries with more knowledge and better tools. They are enthusiastic about the possibility of having a meaningful impact on the lives of mothers and children, thanks to the knowledge acquired. Moreover, we witnessed that more people are attending the program sessions since the new pedagogical content was introduced. And mothers reported that they perceived faster progress in their children’s development process since they started learning more specific activities to practice with their children at home. The program will run for another 15 months and, while it’s too early to determine final results and effect, both the program facilitators and the beneficiary mothers feel that what they have learnt and practiced has been tremendously useful.

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