The high number of pre-school children is mainly the result of the Neighbourhood Care Points (NCPs) which have been set up across the country. These centres were built as a response to the surge in orphans and vulnerable children created by Swaziland’s HIV/AIDS epidemic. With over a quarter of adults infected with the disease, one in every six children is classified as vulnerable or an orphan.
From 2000, the NCPs were set up to support local communities and they provide pre-school education and nutritional assistance for young children. Though they were originally created to address needs in urban areas, they quickly spread to rural regions. Before the HIV/AIDS epidemic hit the country, young children in Swaziland would usually have been looked after in the home. However, the caring environment offered by the NCPs is often seen as a vital service by many households affected by the loss of loved-ones.
Speaking to the news agency IRIN, a spokesperson for the UN’s Child Agency UNICEF in Swaziland said that young children in the country “have many needs” and particularly require love, care and support. The NCPs provide a local place where the children can be looked after in a loving environment, which also keeps them “in familiar surroundings” and offers “a sense of belonging”.
At the same time the centres provide all the kinds of learning which children in a normal nursery school would receive. So for example, children are taught basic numeracy, the alphabet and how to indentify shapes and colours, among a range of activities designed for three to six year-olds. Many families have come to view the services provided as essential and a way to give their children a vital head start in education.
There are currently over 1,000 NCP facilities across the country, catering for between 50-300 children each. The centres are run with sponsorship from both private and public donors. However, they are staffed by volunteers and weekly allowances for transport and other costs are not always available. In addition, the UNICEF spokesperson says that many of the buildings are old and there is no local funding to repair them. So this vital service needs support if it is to continue to help communities in the future.