The Convention on the Rights of the Child established the right of all children to a full development of their potentialities. Early childhood, understood as the phase encompassing pregnancy and the earliest 4 years of children, is an especially crucial period, with a strong impact on their emotional, physical, and intellectual development.
To invest in early childhood is the best decision that a country may make, since it allows to simultaneously achieve objectives of equality and efficiency. In addition to the aspects already mentioned, the social return of investments in early childhood amounts to approximately 17 dollars for each dollar invested. Moreover, policies centred on early childhood allow to tackle the intergenerational transmission of poverty and to pave the way for a more integrated society. This point must be given an absolute priority.
Notwithstanding this, inArgentina as in the whole region at large, children aged 0-4 years have to face the most dangerous situations of vulnerability: poverty concerns 27,2% of the children of that age bracket, as compared to the 10,9% of the whole population. This phenomenon, called infantilization of poverty, also increased during the 2000s, although the decade was one of economic growth and sustained increase of social expenditure: the gap between the rate for the 0-4 year age group and the total population went from 1,6 in 2003 to 2,5 in 2013 as concerns poverty rates, and from 1,2 to 1,6 as concerns extreme poverty rates (data provided by CIPPEC, on the basis of SEDLAC). It must be added that biological reproduction is slanted in the two quintiles of the population with lower incomes.
Different factors may explain this phenomenon, which is complex and multicausal. Historically, families took on themselves (as concerns the time and money to be spent) to take care of and provide opportunities for their offspring, and such work was mainly the task of women. The demographic changes occurred in gender roles, and the transformations undergone by labour markets, adding to a lack of appropriate child care systems, resulted in higher levels of child poverty (Filgueira and Aulicino, 2015).To leave early childhood development to the context, the capabilities, and the resources of families means to negate basic rights to children and to reproduce inequality.
Argentina has achieved some important legal advances: among those outstanding we may mention the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child with a constitutional value,and the provision of Law no. 26.061, which determines the establishment of the System for the Comprehensive Protection of Children and Adolescents. Both instruments set out a new paradigm for social protection in the national legislation. This implies that children are recognized as legal subjects and promotes a new institutionality, which involves a series of organizations, bodies, actors, and services of the three levels of governance that are related to early childhood.
Furthermore, progress has been made concerning the creation of a multiplicity of public policies, some of the most outstanding being the Universal Child and Pregnancy Allowance (conditional cash transfers), the SUMAR Plan (universal coverage for health care),the mandatory nature of the of nursery schools and, with an unfledged potential, the creation of the Commission for Advocacy and Assistance of Child Development Centres, charged with the implementation of programmes, projects, and services aimed at regulating the operation of all spaces totally devoted to the care of children from 45 days to 4 years of age.
The current picture shows an extended access to health care, although hindered by important challenges as concerns the quality of services and by nutritional issues: 30,5% of pregnant women and 34,1% of children from 6 months to 2 years of age suffer from anaemia. In the age group from 6 months to 5 years, 8% are under height (their height is below the standard range for gender and age) and 10,4% are obese (ENNyS, 2005). Both stunting and anaemia are more widespread in households with lower socioeconomic levels and they are the manifestation of multiple deprivations (chronic stress, recurring infections, polluted environments or lack of water and sanitation services.)
On the other hand,the cares that newly born children receive are determined by the formal or informal labour integration of their fathers, their occupational category, and by the province where they are employed, in the event they do have a formal job.Only 1 of 2 workers has maternal (50,4%) or paternal (49%) leave (EPH, 2nd quarter term of 2013), and the duration of such leaves depends on national legislation (with variations from 90 to 180 days for maternal leave and from 2 to 30 days for paternal leave.)With regard to transfers, although undeniable progress has been made, the population segments with lower incomes are still the most disadvantaged and some groups are completely excluded: over 25% of the minors belonging to the poorest quintile and 20% of those belonging to the second quintile are deprived of any form of transfer or monetary support, whereas in the fifth quintile the percentage is reduced to 11% (ENAPROSS, 2011).
Lastly, there is still a persisting challenge as concerns the offer of quality public child care services. Today, only 32% of children aged 0-4 may access educational and child care services, both those provided by the formal public and private educational system and those contingent on social development areas and managed by NGOs, community organizations or foundations. In the age group from 45 days to 2 years, the coverage only concerns 11% of children. Even in this instance, data highlight the inequality between population segments with higher or lower incomes and the variations registered in different geographical areas. Moreover, the wide range of the institutional offer presents an important challenge to ensure common quality standards.
Thus in the country there is still a significant gap between the set of rules ensuring the rights of children and the actual exercise of such rights. The advances made in public policies targeting childhood are incomplete, due – among other factors – to the fragmentation of interventions, to the lack of coordination among different sectors and levels of government, and to the difficulties of technical-operational management.The typical difficulties of Argentinian federalism add to this and include institutional weak spots in many governmental areas charged with the implementation of public policies, with significant variations among the technical and fiscal capabilities of the different provincial and municipal States. To move forward towards an integrated approach, as required by early child care policies, is still an outstanding debt.
At CIPPEC we have formulated a proposal for an integrated and federal public policy (available at cippec.org/primerainfancia), in the attempt to contribute to an effective enjoyment of rights in three key dimensions:health and nutrition, time and money for caregiving, and child care and pre-school education, which all require to be supported by an appropriate institutionality. Specific recommendations for early childhood range from the creation of new physical infrastructures to the reformulation of programmes, the drawing up of specific strategies, and the strengthening of the operation of public institutions in their federal dimension. These are, above all, ideas and evidence that can be used to fuel a public and political-technical debate. An exercise related to their viability and costs was also implemented and attached to the proposal, to make sure that the recommendations there in contained are feasible and practicable.
To tackle early childhood issues in all their complexity and to ensure the right to full child development implies new progress in integrated and high-quality public policies. To proceed on this pathway also means to face structural patterns of inequality, as the labour conditions of workers, or the heterogeneous subnational and local capabilities, to take on our responsibilities in this matter. Furthermore, this presupposes an important cultural change towards a greater co-responsibility concerning early childhood, involving families as well as communities, the market and the State, and which also implies a fairer reallocation of roles within households. To include this theme in the core of the public agenda is an indispensable and urgent step.
Carolina Aulicino, Coordinator of CIPPEC's Social Protection Program.