Family-Friendly Policies: A Winning Investment for Children & Society
It's a fact: Babies and young children who are talked to, sung to, read to and played with have happier childhoods and grow up to be smarter, more productive citizens.
The first 1,000 days of life offer a unique opportunity to shape a child's brain and her ability to learn, grow and contribute fully to society. Parents and other caregivers are the main providers of the nutrition, protection and stimulation that babies need for healthy brain development. Yet family-friendly policies like paid parental leave, breastfeeding breaks, quality child care and child benefits are not yet a reality for most parents around the world.
To give parents the time they need to build their babies' brains, UNICEF is working to support family-friendly policies around the world, and calling on businesses and governments to redesign the workplace of the future by investing in these policies.
Quality early child care helps parents maintain a balance between their work and family lives. In Bangladesh, UNICEF supports day care centers and Early Childhood Development (ECD) centers in workplaces to help parents spend more quality time with their children. Above, Shumi Akhter, 20, looks on as her husband Jamal Hossain, 26, plays with their 2 1/2 -year-old daughter, Jui, at their home near the Northern Tosrifa Group garment factory where they work in Gazipur, outside Dhaka.
Jui attends an in-factory day care center provided by the Northern Tosrifa Group and supported by UNICEF Bangladesh through partner organization Phulki. "It's a great opportunity for us that our daughter can be looked after by our company," says Hossain, a cutter at the factory. "I get to check in on her at least once a day. When she was still breastfeeding, Shumi would come and nurse her three times daily." Shumi, the line leader for a team of 20 sewing machines, received four months of maternity leave — two months before Jui's birth and two months after.
"We know a lot of working familes who have kids, and they need to leave their children back in the village," notes Hossain, seen above playing with Jui in the garment factory's day care center. "Being a father means so many responsibilities. The most important of them is to build Jui's life so that she's educated and healthy. At the end of the day, it's to ensure that she is a good human being. That she has chances and can lead an even better life. I dream that one day she will be a doctor."
Studies have shown that ECD programs can break the cycle of intergenerational poverty, yet in Bangladesh, only 13.4 percent of children between the ages of 3 and 5 are enrolled in early childhood education. Above, Mohammad Jahirul Islam, 28, a firefighter, smiles as his daughter Jisha, 3, plays in fire protection gear on the grounds of the Fakir Fashion Ltd. garment factory where he works in Narayangonj, outside Dhaka.
Jisha's mother, Moshumi, 21, above right, is also employed at the factory. Islam works 12 hours a day, six days a week — but the highlight of his day, he says, is returning home to read stories and practice the alphabet with Jisha. "I play with her whenever I can," he says. "We play ball or sometimes just draw flowers in the dirt with a stick. Her favorite book is about a child who travels around the world."
During most days, Jisha stays busy at the ECD center located at the garment factory. The center provides play-based learning in a safe, supervised environment supported by UNICEF Bangladesh and partner organization Phulki. In the village where Islam and his wife grew up, there were no day care centers or preschools. Women stayed home to raise the children and fathers were seldom involved in child care.
"My father was a farmer and a businessman," says Islam, seen above playing with his daughter outside the family's one-room apartment. "He didn't have time for the kids — we didn't play much. He was only focused on his work and there was domestic pressure and fighting at home. We were poor and it was always tense.
"As a father, I think it's very important to educate Jisha so that she can grow up and have a better life than we did. If I'm close with her, I can teach her the norms and values I believe in. And those will help to make her a better person. She'll be able to think of me as an example — to remember me, and to tell people that her dad was a good guy."
"Before this generation, raising children was considered to be women's work — and thus women couldn't have a professional life," says Islam. "My wife working helps us to earn and save more. As it is, we're able to send 6,000 taka (US $71) home to our families in the village. They count on us for it. If we had to hire a nanny, we would be lucky to send half as much. And it's not just good for us. Having women work outside the house will help society as a whole, and give opportunities to children of this generation. I feel proud of my wife for being a working woman — and I believe she and my daughter will make society a better place."
Thirty years ago, world leaders made a historic commitment to the world's children by adopting the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) — an international agreement on childhood. The CRC states that every child has the right to life, survival and development (Article 6) and says that the foremost institution in society for the protection and development of the child is the family.
Supporting parents so they can nurture their children in the first stage of life, with good nutrition, play and care is critical to fulfilling this right. Investing in family-friendly policies is a price we can afford because it's an investment in the well-being of children and families — and a way to accelerate the Sustainable Development Goals.
For over 70 years, UNICEF has been putting children first, working to protect their rights and provide the assistance and services they need to survive and thrive. With a presence in 190 countries and territories, UNICEF has helped save more children's lives than any other humanitarian organization in the world.
Top photo: Jamal Hossain, 26, and his wife bring their 2 1/2-year old daughter, Jui, to work with them at the Northern Tosrifa Group garment factory in Gazipur, outside Dhaka, Bangladesh. Jui spends her days playing and learning at the onsite day care center supported by UNICEF through partner organization Phulki. All photos © Brian Sokol for UNICEF