Children and their caregivers play at an early childhood development center in Tanxihu community in Xiangyang City of Hubei Province.
CHINA is home to the world’s second largest child population. The welfare of the country’s children has improved markedly over the past 40 years. The partnership between the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the government of China spans more than 40 years. During this period, UNICEF has left many footprints in China, and is currently working in 247 counties across 29 provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities, including remote, rural, and inland communities. Improvements have been made in realizing the rights of children in areas such as health, nutrition, water, sanitation and hygiene, education, child protection, and social policy, with a focus on reducing urban-rural, regional and gender disparities. There is much to be gained by sharing this development experience with other countries.
The Right to Go to School Safely
To help make the return to school safe and healthy for all children, UNICEF, the Ministry of Education (MOE), and the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention worked on a Safe School Return Campaign. For UNICEF, it is part of its work to not only respond to the pandemic, but also reimagine a better world for children in the post-COVID-19 era. The campaign was designed to respond to the needs of children, parents, and teachers. Toward the end of March, UNICEF had surveyed 18,266 students, 27,452 parents, and 4,948 teachers to gauge their understanding of COVID-19 and how it can be prevented, as well as their attitudes and concerns about the resumption of the school year. The materials that were developed as part of the Safe School Return Campaign have been translated into other languages for use beyond China.
“From this pandemic, students seemed to understand that in extraordinary circumstances, it is even more important to care for and help each other,” said UNICEF China education officer Wang Chao. Over eight months after the outbreak of COVID-19, China’s children have returned to their schools, which are now run differently, with frequent temperature checks, hand sanitizing throughout the day, and the cancellation of large-scale activities.
“Don’t tease or bully anyone who has been sick. Don’t blame or exclude those from other regions or countries. Be supportive to each other.” These were the words written on a poster at a rural school in Zhongxian County, Chongqing Municipality. Zhu Youming, a boy in the seventh grade, found the poster helpful. “It teaches us to welcome people coming back from other parts of the country, and make sure we don’t exclude them,” he said. The physical and material supply needs arising from the pandemic are obvious at first glane, but the psychological needs are often harder to see.
UNICEF has also seen the dedication of teachers from rural communities in acquiring new skills and supporting children’s learning through an online teacher’s training program introduced by UNICEF in partnership with the MOE and East China Normal University. This initiative aims to strengthen the ICT skills of rural teachers, providing a practical and replicable online teaching model for teachers to help deal with life after COVID-19 as well as prepare for future emergencies.
Ensuring children’s safe return to school and classrooms is only the first step in fixing the damage which the pandemic has caused to their learning. Children, especially those from poverty-stricken counties, have faced several challenges in remote learning, including the challenge of connectivity, availability of personal devices, and the number of trained teachers to facilitate e-learning platforms. UNICEF advocates for flexible approaches and catch-up strategies to help students recover the lost learning time. It requires a policy response, guidance and tools, and UNICEF is ready to support.
The Right to Early Childhood
Development for All Children
Early childhood development (ECD) is an increasingly important topic across the globe. UNICEF aims to realize every child’s right to high-quality early childhood education to maximize their potential.
Xiao Zeng and her three-year-old son Qiaoqiao are regular visitors to the community ECD center for children aged 0-3 in Yichang City, Hubei Province, which is available for free to all residents. Xiao believes the center creates a close bond between them and the community, and through the ECD center she has learned how to play with her child at home.
Apart from the ECD centers targeted at children aged 0-3, child-friendly kindergartens for those aged 3-6 also make a huge difference in a child’s development. In 2014, the MOE, UNICEF and the local education authorities from five regions in west China, jointly launched a pilot program of child-friendly kindergartens for rural areas, which aims to help local teachers and parents practice evidence-based ECD concepts to promote the physical and psychological development of children aged 3-6. Since 2014, child-friendly kindergartens in China have reached up to 100,000 children, with over 5,000 teachers trained across five provinces and municipalities.
In the remote mountaintop village of Eyi, half an hour’s drive from Mile City, southwest China’s Yunnan Province, Fang Fang’s Eyi Kindergarten was selected as one of the first pilot kindergartens for the program. Fang, the school’s principal, and the teachers received professional training and visited urban kindergartens to observe classes. Provincial experts and trainers also visit on a regular basis and provide guidance. Through the project, the kindergarten has seen enrollment increase from 11 to 60 children. In the yard, children build castles with bamboo poles, crawl through hurdles, and learn to work as a group.
“The project has instilled the idea of learning through games and the environment,” said Fang, who added, “The kindergarten itself has become a wonderland for children, where they can learn through playing.”
In addition, UNICEF and the National Working Committee on Children and Women established child-friendly spaces to provide child protection services after the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008. A total of 58 child-friendly spaces have been established in the provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan.
The Right to Equal and High-Quality Education
China has succeeded in getting almost all its children – 99.95 percent in 2018 – enrolled in primary school. According to UNESCO, China’s net enrollment rate in primary education is 10 percentage points higher than the global average and five percentage points higher than that of upper-middle-income countries. However, significant challenges remain in ensuring every child’s right to equitable quality learning, particularly in regards to vulnerable groups, such as children affected by poverty and migration and those with disabilities. China’s focus now, as highlighted in a series of national education reform and development plans and policies, is shifting to improving the quality of its teachers and teaching practices for every school-age child, particularly in poor and rural areas.
Through a rural teacher training and support pilot program implemented by the MOE, with support from UNICEF, a total of 18,000 teachers in 990 rural schools received on-site support from teaching researchers, trainers, and experienced teachers. The MOE has also developed the Rural Teacher Support Program (2015-2020), which highlights the teacher training and support service as a key model in improving the quality of teaching and learning for rural children in China.
One of the key goals for education is to promote the well-rounded development of children. With UNICEF’s support, the MOE has identified social and emotional learning as one of the core competencies for the future development of children.
Fifteen-year-old Li Jinqiong recently won first prize in two painting competitions. A student in Pu’er City, Yunnan Province, she recently attended the training courses on “Life Skills for Girls” and “Social Emotional Learning,” provided by the UNICEF-CAST Adolescent Education Project. “I’ve always loved painting, but never had the courage to participate in a competition before. I’ve gained confidence and courage through the training courses. I’m quite different now from who I used to be,” said Li.
The Right to Water, Sanitation,
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s call for a toilet revolution has galvanized the government into action and by the end of 2017, 85 percent of China’s population had access to basic sanitation services and 93 percent had access to basic drinking water services. UNICEF works in partnership with national and local governments to realize every child’s right to a clean and safe environment with access to basic water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services at home, in public places (especially in schools) and in health care facilities. In this area, UNICEF focuses on pilot projects that demonstrate innovative technologies and effective methods for communicating and adjusting behavior and social norms relating to toilets.
In 2019, the WASH in Schools program was implemented in 70 primary schools of seven counties in three provinces. Latrine construction has been completed in 46 schools with support from UNICEF and the government, benefiting 27,913 school children in total, with 13,321 girls now having access to gender-sensitive toilets with lockable doors that offer privacy and enable girls to adequately manage their menstrual hygiene. Water-saving toilets and hand sanitizing facilities have been designed to facilitate access and use by children, including children with disabilities, and are being expanded beyond UNICEF-supported pilot schools in Chongqing and Yunnan with the support of local governments.
To bolster innovations in WASH and strengthen public-private partnerships, an inter-regional sanitation learning event was held together with the fifth China Toilet Revolution Innovation Expo in Shanghai in November 2019. Participants from 17 countries interacted with 60 companies that showcased their products, technologies and innovations. Representatives from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Mongolia expressed interest in exploring opportunities to cooperate with companies in China and adapting new technologies to strengthen their sanitation programs.
Water, sanitation, and hygiene are crucial for the prevention of COVID-19. For the last several months, as part of the Safe School Return Campaign, UNICEF has produced guidelines for constructing handwashing facilities, posters, leaflets, and video clips to inform and demonstrate correct handwashing. These materials have been distributed nationwide. In Qinghai, UNICEF also provided preventive supplies such as hand sanitizer, disinfectant, soap, thermometers, and masks, benefiting more than 123,000 children and almost 11,000 teachers. Communication materials were used by 738 primary schools and kindergartens and 132 health care facilities.
Students at Shuicheng Primary School in Tengchong, Yunnan Province, line up at the front of the room wearing alphabet cards on their foreheads as part of a Chinese language lesson on the Chinese phonetic alphabet.
The Right to Live Free from Poverty
In 2016 there were 385 million children living in extreme poverty globally. According to a projection by UNICEF and Save the Children, the global socioeconomic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic could mean that 117 million more children live in monetarily poor households by the end of 2020. In China, remarkable achievements have been made in poverty reduction.
UNICEF has a long history of working with government partners to reduce the number of children living in poverty. In 2007, UNICEF and the State Council’s Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development (LGOP) established a partnership which raised the visibility of child poverty in the policy agenda. The two parties jointly developed a conceptual framework and analysis of child poverty in China that was completed in 2009. In parallel, a series of national, regional, and provincial workshops and meetings were held, to address the differences between child and adult poverty, the multiple dimensions of child poverty, and the main social protection measures to address child poverty. These activities contributed to child poverty being included for the first time in the 10-Year National Rural Poverty Reduction Strategy (2011-2020).
The work that UNICEF is jointly carrying out with LGOP has extended beyond China, leading to deeper engagement in global policy and research debates on child poverty. For eight years, UNICEF and LGOP have been bringing together noted development thinkers and senior civil servants from poverty alleviation and social protection agencies in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the Americas to share experiences, join discussion, and inspire action on child poverty. Most recently, in November 2019, UNICEF and LGOP jointly organized a parallel session on National Pathways to Child Poverty Reduction at the 2019 FOCAC Sub-forum on Poverty Reduction and Development where policy makers and thought leaders from China and a range of African countries exchanged ideas, experiences and lessons on how to address child poverty through national strategies.
Building on years of South-South cooperation — the exchange of resources, technology, and knowledge between developing countries — UNICEF and the government of China continue to provide development and humanitarian assistance to a growing number of other developing countries in Asia and Africa. China’s interest in South-South cooperation presents potential for contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
To fulfill the commitment of both UNICEF China and the government to realizing the rights of every child, especially in the context of COVID-19, there is still a need to do more and do it faster.