Childcare for Working Mothers in Rwanda

Childcare for Working Mothers in Rwanda

Publication info

Allen Clinton

In Kamonyi district in southern Rwanda, farmer Sylvie Nyiransabimana stands tall and wields a long wooden-handled hoe to dig small holes to plant vegetables – a chore she once had to do with a baby on her back. “It was extremely hard,” the mother of two recalls, taking a short break to retie her bright red head wrap. “Today I don’t get as tired and am much more productive at home.”

While women like Sylvie are hard-working and keen to learn, she says they are often distracted by everything that needs to be done each day. Without other child-care options, mothers have no choice but to try to manage working while taking care of their children. They feel torn, because they know their children need attention and positive direction. However, their families also desperately need the food and income their work provides – and women like Sylvie need the self-respect their work gives them.

Relief came last year when Sylvie and seven other mothers formed a daycare group they named Utunyange (Angels). The “Angels” work in pairs. Two mothers take turns on weekdays from 7 a.m. to noon looking after all 12 infant children of the mothers in the group, including Sylvie’s 1-year-old daughter, Ingabire. The daycare’s site is a room in the home of one group member, Leoncie Dusabeyezu. It was renovated for proper sanitary conditions with support from CARE’s early childhood development (ECD) project.

Before the two mothers on duty today serve a nutritious meal of hot porridge promptly at 10 a.m., the children wash their hands to help ensure good hygiene. Sylvie, the group’s treasurer, collects 300 Rwandan francs ($.50) or an equivalent amount in food such as maize, soya, sorghum and sugar from members twice a month for the porridge.

It Takes a Village

Sylvie’s group is one of more than 80 home-based care groups formed in the area to help families care for children under age 3 and free their time to work and increase their household income. According to the CARE project team, this is an important pilot initiative: half the children in Rwanda are chronically malnourished and at least 22 percent of the country’s households are food insecure. Although largely at peace with a stable and growing economy, life for most Rwandans in the countryside remains a struggle, particularly in rural areas like Kamonyi.

Many children who participate in home-based daycares come from families too poor to pay the required $3 a year for government health insurance. CARE pays the health insurance premium for numerous group members, including one mother from the Angels, identified as “the most vulnerable.” CARE has also partnered with community health workers to monitor the children’s health and nutrition once a month. “Three children were malnourished when our group formed,” says Leoncie. “Now all our children are healthy thanks to the support and training we’ve received.”

As an established group with members who trust each other, the Angels want to start a cooperative, selling produce at the local market on Fridays to improve their food security and earn more income to pay for clothes and future educational expenses.

When the children reach 3-6 years old, they transition from home-based care to one of nine CARE-supported ECD centers where they learn to draw, count and learn the alphabet in preparation for elementary school. CARE helps organize parent-teacher associations and trains parents on child rights and the benefits of family planning to help women of all incomes – in Africa’s most densely populated country – make appropriate choices regarding their fertility, which helps reduce child and maternal mortality rates.

Facing a Better Future

A mile down the road at the ECD center – situated on the top of a hill beside the village primary school – Vestina   Niyigena, a 23-year-old kindergarten teacher, describes the daily schedule, which is posted at the entry of the classroom. The ECD center doesn’t merely provide balanced meals, Vestina says, but parents have an opportunity to collaborate with community health workers to identify and help malnourished children in the community. Parents, teachers and children also organize school clean-up and community beautification activities. Outside in a small courtyard, the ECD center has a playground equipped with swings, slides and a climbing wall, which local families had never seen before CARE installed them.

“Parents are working together to improve the health, education and social skills of their children,” says Vestina, who was selected by parents to work at this ECD center two years ago and earns a modest salary through a community collection. “Children here are protected, not abused. They are encouraged to play and learn instead of being raised to only work in the fields. Before, women weren’t allowed to leave their homes without their husband’s permission. Now that has also changed.”

ECD Parent Association President Annonciata Umukundwa knows all too well about the challenges poor families and women face in Rwanda. She’s an example of perseverance – and her 7-year-old daughter has flourished as a result.

“When we started this center, it was a dream,” says Annonciata, whose daughter graduated to the first grade after attending the ECD center for three years, “but now parents in our community understand that exposing children to early stimulation activities, such as playing, singing and counting, helps them acquire fundamental skills to become a creative and productive person.”

When Annonciata heard CARE was organizing the community to construct and manage the center, she wanted to get involved but says, at the time, her husband would rarely even let her leave the house on her own. After several weeks she convinced him to let her register their daughter, Diane, and for Annonciata to walk her to the ECD center. After seeing the ECD and its effects for himself, Annonciate’s husband agreed she should start working for the center. “Now his behavior has changed and he supports my leadership activities,” says Annonciata. There are 172 parents in this ECD center’s parent association, including her husband.

Annonciata and other parents explain that at the start, children, including Diane, weren’t used to being around other children and had anxiety about being separated from their mothers. The children used to cry a lot and often picked fights. But now the children enjoy being there and the program has brought together a once divided community that’s still haunted by the effects of the 1994 genocide.

According to Annonciate, Diane always wanted her attention and wouldn’t let her work in the field. Moreover, when Diane started attending the ECD center at age 3, health workers said she was “moderately malnourished.” She was sick all the time and didn’t like being around other children but at the ECD center, Diane quickly learned social skills and, because of the balanced meals she ate there, her health quickly improved.

Diane just got her first grade report card. She made 88 percent marks, placing her near the top in her class. Even at an early age, Diane has big dreams. “I want to go to a university and become a doctor,” says Diane, looking up at her mother with a smile.

A Good Investment

According to Joseph Ngamije, CARE’s local ECD project manager, “Seventy-nine percent of ECD children from last year now attend primary school and most are girls. Each year the numbers continue to increase as more parents get involved in their children’s education.”

Adequate stimulation in a nurturing environment is essential for brain development during the first six years of life, and ECD services are  a proven solution to help fight malnutrition and make young children more socially and emotionally healthy. International economists have ranked such services as one of the most effective social and economic investments any government or donor can make. As a result of CARE’s successful work over the past three years during a “pilot” phase, the organization now looks to double the scale of the ECD program in the next two years.

“We haven’t met the donors who fund the ECD project and they don’t know us, but we really appreciate how they’ve helped our children,” says Annonciate. “We don’t have anything to give them in return except our gratitude.”

Leaving the village, the children raise their thumbs and shout "Komera. Komera," a local saying that means, “Be Strong. Be Healthy.”


Early Childhood Development in Rwanda