The government on Monday launched a $56.5-million interministerial initiative to improve the nutrition, mental development and education of young children around the country.
Prime Minister Hun Sen announced the ambitious program, called the National Policy and Action Plan for Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD), at the National Institute of Education in Phnom Penh.
“I appeal to officials who implement the duties involved with children—authorities in the cities, provinces, districts, communes and villages—to…pity and love children, because they are Cambodian nationals, and they will be our successors,” the prime minister said.
Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron, who will serve as the chair of the National Committee for ECCD, said there are clear links between early-childhood nutrition and performance in school, a relationship the new scheme aims to address.
“Research shows that even with improvement in the income level, the problem of nutrition is still important, and affecting 40 percent of Cambodian women,” Mr. Chuon Naron told reporters following the prime minister’s remarks.
“That has resulted in low improvement in the nutrition sta tus, just because in some parts of Cambodia, people get used to some nutrition that is not supporting the development of children,” he said.
“For that reason, we are going to work together to provide fortified food, but also to provide the social safety net to the household, focusing on poor households.”
The education minister said that as part of the initiative, the government would be constructing new preschools around the country, while also working closely with existing schools and health centers.
Rana Flowers, country representative for Unicef, said the action plan would see 11 ministries “working together on an integrated approach to early childhood care and development.”
Ms. Flowers said particular emphasis would be placed on the needs of children up to the age of 6.
“We see such high levels of stunting and wasting,” she said of children’s poor physical growth, which is often due to the improper introduction of solids in a baby’s diet.
“What we see with breastfeeding is beautiful growth on the chart. Once we get to six months, and [parents] start complementary feeding and they are only serving salty soup or not giving a good mix of vegetables and protein, then the growth drops off…but it’s also the moment when the baby’s brain is developing,” Ms. Flowers said.
“It’s a crucial moment, and if we don’t capture that time…if we let that slide by not stimulating and giving them nutrition they need, we see the results in their education achievement,” she said.
Ms. Flowers said the new national policy would also seek to put an end to open defecation, which poses a major hygiene risk and can result in the contamination of water sources.
According to the ECCD committee, at least 2,300 children die every year from diarrhea, which is frequently the result of poor sanitation or a lack of access to clean water.