COVID-19: Bringing the “Shadow Pandemic” to Light

Written by Janti Soeripto, President and CEO, Save the Children

While the world is paying rapt attention to the daily rise and fall of the numbers of cases of COVID-19 around the world, there’s another part of this crisis that is not getting the action that it needs: gender-based violence.

UN Women is calling it a shadow pandemic, with the risk of gender-based violence to girls and women surging higher as COVID-19 has forced them to stay in their homes – some trapped with their abusers and isolated from support – and put both economic and psychological stress on families. Girls around the world are living in grave risk of violence. And they need our support right now, especially girls living in humanitarian settings.

Reports just last week by humanitarian responders confirmed that even with the limited quantitative data available, there is cause for extreme concern in humanitarian settings. The Global Protection Cluster, which coordinates the UN’s humanitarian response on gender-based violence and child protection, reported increased rates of gender-based violence related to COVID-19 in 90% of humanitarian field sites where they are responding; over 60% report it having a severe impact on affected populations. 

We know that adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable because of the intersection of their age and gender. For example, during the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, school closures led to increases in sexual violence experienced by girls. This contributed to a 65% increase in adolescent pregnancy in some districts in the country; and because they were pregnant, those girls were banned from returning to schools when the outbreak ended due to a policy that has since been changed, compounding the impact this violence had on their lives.

Guidance from the UN and gender-based violence practitioners have long called for humanitarian actors to assume that gender-based violence is happening, regardless of whether data on incidence or prevalence is available. That’s both because collecting the data can further endanger women and girls who are experiencing violence, and because even in the best of circumstances, violence is under-reported due to the enduring stigma.

It’s therefore vital that we learn from past experiences – such as the Ebola outbreak — and apply that learning to our current crisis.  We are long past the time where we can pretend we are unaware of the risks of gender-based violence. We have the knowledge and the tools to respond.  We urge the humanitarian community to harness the will to act now to protect a generation of girls from gender-based violence:

  1. Create a specific objective on gender-based violence prevention and response in the final update of the global humanitarian response plan for COVID-19 and mandate the collection, analysis and use of sex, age, and diversity-disaggregated data across all assessments and interventions.

We’re extremely concerned that despite experience and the evidence we do have, gender-based violence is still glossed over in a litany of risks in the global COVID-19 humanitarian response plan. But it’s not too late.

The UN Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) holds the pen on the global plan to address the impacts of COVID-19 in humanitarian settings. They are releasing a final update to the plan next week and have the opportunity to act quickly and make a life-saving difference for girls at risk.

There is broad based support across the global community to do just this, demonstrated by this letter[LA1] endorsed by 576 international and local NGOs, governments, partnerships, institutions and UN agencies.

  • Increase funding for gender-based violence prevention and response in humanitarian contexts proportionate with the extreme need.

Gender-based violence remains grossly underfunded within humanitarian crises, despite evidence that indicates it’s a widespread occurrence. In fact, it only accounts for 0.58% of the current budget for the global response plan for addressing COVID-19 in humanitarian settings — and even that paltry sum has yet to be funded. Donors must back up their rhetoric with funding commitments and programs tailored to address the needs of adolescent girls at risk in humanitarian settings.  This includes not only targeted programs to address gender-based violence, but also integrating it into other programs, such as training frontline health workers so that they can identify and respond to gender-based violence.

  • Prioritize the safe and meaningful participation and leadership of girls and women on the frontline of this crisis in humanitarian decision-making and COVID-19 response efforts.

Recent research from CARE International has shown that despite commitments by the UN and government actors – women’s rights organizations at the local level are still not being meaningfully included in humanitarian decision-making during the COVID-19 response. In addition, local women’s rights actors, essential to the COVID-19 response are not receiving the funding support they need.  Women and girls must be included in decision-making at all levels and receive the funding they need to provide critical gender-based violence prevention and response services. 

Beyond the direct health impacts, COVID-19 is risking decades of progress on gender equality and girls’ rights with devastating consequences for years to come. This is a “shadow pandemic,” that must be brought into the spotlight. Enough is enough.


Promoting Brain Building Moments™ Within Community Traditions and Cultural Practices

Written by Amee Barlet, Save the Children Washington Deputy Director
and Rochel White, Early Steps to School Success Early Childhood Coordinator

Early Childhood Coordinator Rochel White sings a traditional Twulshootseed butterfly song during a home visit while a mother engages her child in back-and-forth interactions through drumming.

Save the Children’s Early Steps to School Success (Early Steps) program and Vroom® celebrate parents and caregivers as their child’s first and most important teachers. Vroom, an early learning initiative from the Bezos Family Foundation, empowers parents and caregivers to play a proactive role in their child’s brain development by turning everyday moments into Brain Building Moments®.  

Save the Children has integrated Vroom’s science-based tools and tips into our early learning programs to advance educational outcomes in some of America’s most isolated and low-resourced communities. By celebrating a community’s strengths, cultural traditions and values – Save the Children is able to foster community-wide commitment to early learning while bringing Vroom’s Brain Building Moments™ to cultural celebrations and traditional practices.

In Washington State, we partner with the Quinault Indian Nation to promote healthy childhood development. Rochel White has served as an Early Steps Early Childhood Coordinator since 2017 and has two decades of experience in early learning. She speaks English and Twulshootseed (the language of the Puyallup Tribe and Southern dialect of the greater Lushootseed language) and takes Quinault language classes.

Taholah, where the Quinault people have lived for time immemorial, is the main village of the Quinault Indian Nation. It is an isolated community – with one road in and out – set on the coast at the mouth of the Quinault River. Services are difficult to access, the nearest library is over an hour away, and while there is a Tribal Health Clinic on the reservation, many families must travel for at least an hour for primary care and speciality and support services. There is also a dearth of pediatricians and reproductive health practitioners in the county.

Fish runs through the Quinault River have been low lately due to climate change, hurting families that rely on them for income and subsistence. To make early learning more accessible to more families, Rochel implements Early Steps around the working hours of those involved in the hunting fishing, and shellfish industries, which follow schedules set by the tides. This has led to an increase in enrollment and engagement with the program and the visits. 

Over the past year, Rochel has hosted a series of Vroom events for families with young children throughout the community. At each event, she has shared brain development information and has used the five Brain Building Basics™ to support culturally centred parent child interactions.

At one event, Rochel hosted a button blanket activity. Button blankets are traditionally worn by northwest coastal tribes. The blankets typically feature a family crest and abalone buttons. “The buttons signify your wealth – how much you have to give away and how large your family is, as those were traditional Native American determinants of prosperity,” Rochel explained. Rochel handed out felt squares, traditional shapes and buttons. Parents were encouraged to talk about their families, count buttons in English and Quinault, make patterns and talk about shapes, textures and colors.

Rochel shared, “The buttons had Velcro on the back so families could rearrange their designs. We used felt pieces for the little ones and buttons for children ages 3-5. I showed how it was an opportunity to count with little ones and how families have always used cultural practices to teach their children. I posted the 5 Brain Building Basics and discussed with families how they were able to include these when they are counting, asking their little ones where they want to place their buttons or what crest they wanted, and talking about what button blankets are. Each family took home their button blanket and a copy of the Brain Building Basics sheet. I suggested families hang their blankets up or use them with a baby doll.”

Rochel noted, “One grandparent sat down and counted in Quinault with her grandchildren while they chose their buttons. I was so happy to hear this and told her how much brain building she is supporting by doing that with them. She remarked ‘I don’t often read to them anymore, on account of my bad eyes, but I tell them stories every day.’  We chatted about how much eye contact and facial expressions are utilized in storytelling.”

After the activity, Rochel posted information about the event on Facebook and a parent commented, “I loved the craft! I can’t wait until it’s all dry and the kids can redecorate it over and over.”

The vast majority of the 100 students at Taholah School struggle to meet grade level standards in Math and English Language Arts. The school superintendent reached out to Rochel to plan and implement early childhood activities to build family/school connections and help children feel more comfortable the day they start kindergarten.

During a recent family math night, Rochel planned a shape sorting and pattern activity that incorporated formline – a feature of the indigenous art of the region. One participating family included Leo[1], who was almost 3, his parents and his older sister, a kindergartener. Both parents had consistently read to their son, but now talk to him more and make a point of keeping eye contact, as Rochel had encouraged them to do. “Leo’s mom was one of the first parents to really get involved in the Vroom activities. She consistently asks for more ideas each week and lets me know how Leo liked them, and if he needed more support,” said Rochel. “I see that dad, as well as mom, is engaged in asking questions about growth and development as well as wanting to learn more activities to help support Leo,” says Rochel.

Rochel uses the Early Steps Plan and Play curriculum, elements from the Positive Indian Parenting curriculum and her own creative ideas to enrich her home visits and parent child groups with a cultural focus. Rochel has taught parents to use heirloom cradleboards (traditional padded frames for swaddling babies) to soothe their infants. She has shown parents how drumming and singing songs can be a way to bond and develop language, math and listening skills.

“Rochel has helped us learn how to teach our children in so many ways. When we started the program my husband and I had disagreed on a lot of parenting and learning stuff, but I have become more confident teaching them now,” shared an Early Steps mom.

During the current pandemic, Rochel continues to engage and support the Taholah community in fostering healthy childhood development. Rochel integrated early learning resources and critical hygiene materials into the school’s distribution efforts. She held a book fair while families were picking up laptops for their school-age children. Families arrived at staggered times to collect their laptops and choose from a large selection of recently donated children’s books. The event reached over 50 families, and about 170 children received books. Additionally, Rochel created early learning Boredom Buster resource kits and brought them to families who were staying safe at home.

The connections that Rochel has forged are proof of the impact she has made in the community and her dedication to raising the quality of all programs serving Quinault children. She has developed strong relationships with families as well as other agencies serving them. Rochel is frequently asked to plan an activity, drum, sing or be a storyteller for events at the school and at Early Head Start and Head Start programs.

The Director of Taholah’s Head Start program asked Rochel to join their policy council, providing her with another opportunity to share her expertise on early childhood and her deep knowledge of incorporating culture into routines, curriculum and interactions. Through the Early Steps Book Bag Exchange program, community read-alouds among other endeavors, she is able to mentor other professionals and model best practice. Amee Barlet, Save the Children’s Deputy Director for Washington shares, “I am inspired by Rochel’s approach to relationships, culture and mentoring. I believe Rochel is an early childhood leader creating high quality culturally appropriate learning opportunities for children in the Taholah community. She is an advocate for all children.”


[1] Child’s name has been changed.

Monitoring and Evaluation Plan Key to Basics Uptake and Scaling

This post is part of a series authored by the BASICS (Bold Action to Stop Infections in Clinical Settings) team. BASICS is a new initiative that will transform healthcare and reduce healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) by at least 50%.

Written by the BASICS team

BASICS will implement a robust monitoring and evaluation, learning and data use plan designed to be institutionalized and sustained within national and local government health systems.

Data from healthcare facilities in our four demonstration countries (Bangladesh, Cambodia, Nigeria and Tanzania) will be reported to district-level governments through established quality improvement or infection prevention systems, depending on the country context. Information related to infection prevention readiness, staff and patient behavior compliance, cleanliness, supply and antibiotic burn rates and health outcomes will be reported.

The BASICS team will validate the quality of this data through our monitoring systems at representative sentinel facilities.

This data will be aggregated and analyzed to assess infection preparedness, behavior compliance and health improvements.

During the first three years of BASICS’ implementation, we will use this rigorous data to demonstrate significant cost savings, improvements to quality healthcare and improvements in health outcomes for health systems. With this data in hand, we will also advocate for national scale in our demonstration countries and globally.

We will also develop an M&E toolkit that can be leveraged to contextualize and scale-up beyond the initial four countries.

How BASICS Will Adapt to Respond to Unique Cultural Barriers

This post is part of a series authored by the BASICS (Bold Action to Stop Infections in Clinical Settings) team. BASICS is a new initiative that will transform healthcare and reduce healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) by at least 50%.

BASICS (Bold Action to Stop Infections in Clinical Settings) will launch in four countries where governments have shown commitment to reducing infection risk. Yet, local cultural, economic and social barriers can pose unique challenges. We have received a number of questions on how we see BASICS adapt and flex to meet unique cultural contexts.


In this video, our staff on the ground share their perspective and experience on how they worked with behavior change interventions to achieve significant promising results in their countries.

To learn more about BASICS (Bold Action to Stop Infections in Clinical Settings), visit savethechildren.org.

How Behavior Change Interventions Can Be a Key to Improving Hygiene in Healthcare

This post is part of a series authored by the BASICS (Bold Action to Stop Infections in Clinical Settings) team. BASICS is a new initiative that will transform healthcare and reduce healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) by at least 50%.

Written by the BASICS Team

 The 100&Change competition has challenged us to think critically and creatively about developing a solution that tackles one of the world’s most forgotten problems: healthcare-acquired infections (HAIs). BASICS was designed to catalyze and support transformative changes in how healthcare staff practice good hygiene in order to reach dramatic reductions in HAIs across national heath systems, saving lives, reducing antibiotic use and freeing up much-needed resources.

There are many reasons why following effective hygiene protocols can be difficult for healthcare staff in low-resource settings, such as lack of sanitation infrastructure and clean water and broken supply chains that fail to deliver needed materials. These physical barriers present one set of challenges – changing health workers’ longstanding habits and practices are another.  Overcoming these challenges requires work at all levels, from influencing very personal behaviors to national health policies.

How do we realize such a bold ambition – reducing HAIs by half in four demonstration countries to start, and then scaling to other high-burden countries – when our solution relies on individual and group behavior change in a diversity of settings?

One of our key strategies is to ensure that healthcare staff feel truly invested in the BASICS approach, and are actively engaged in a process that works for their social, cultural and socio-economic reality, and other important factors related to behavioral change.

The BASICS’ framework is grounded in the proven Behavior Centered Design approach. Developed and refined over a decade by scientists at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, it combines evolutionary and environmental psychology with the best marketing practices to create imaginative and provocative behavior change interventions.

Once BASICS launches, we will begin with in-depth formative research, which consists of participatory methods inspired by anthropology, psychology and other behavioral and social sciences. This will help us understand the individual, social, and cultural drivers of the infection prevention control behaviors that BASICS is designed to change.

These insights will then be used to tailor BASICS to the local context. This will maximize both individual and institutional acceptability and adoption of changes.

BASICS partners Save the Children, London School and WaterAid have already used the approach in one of BASICS’ four demonstration countries –Cambodia. This experience will help to give BASICS a firm fooothold there, and inform work in the three other demonstration countries of  Bangladesh, Nigeria and Tanzania.

In Cambodia, we found that many people believe that if their hands don’t look soiled, that means they’re clean. Open defecation is also socially accepted, especially when there’s abundant open space.

Save the Children has, over the past six years, run the NOURISH program, which targeted behaviors in health, water, sanitation and hygiene and agriculture. The impact of the changed behaviors is very significant, including a 75 percent drop in open defecation in the program areas.

WaterAid and the London School, in partnership with the National Institutes of Public Health and 17 Triggers, recently used Behavior-Centered Design to develop a novel intervention to improve hand hygiene compliance among Cambodian midwives.

They identified the personal, institutional and cultural drivers of hygiene practices and are now testing a model that combines traditional infection prevention control training, emotional messaging that reinforces midwives’ desire to provide quality care to mothers and newborns and environmental cues to trigger hand hygiene at key moments.

Midwives’ compliance with good hand hygiene practices during childbirth will be measured later this year. These learnings will be very useful once we implement BASICS in the country.

In Bangladesh, we’re very excited about the impact of our programs addressing HAIs. When we started, there were quality standards for infection prevention in place, but they were simply not complied with. Staff were not adequately trained, supplies were limited at best, and there were no systems in place to ensure that healthcare facilities practiced effective hygiene.

We had to also address the widespread use of traditional, but harmful, practices like applying cow dung or corrosive mustard oil to a newborn’s umbilical cord. We were successful in helping staff to transition to the use of chlorhexidine through guidelines, training and the development of effective supply chains.

It was a long process, but it worked. Some 85,000 healthcare staff in 64 districts were trained. Independent monitors found that 86 percent of healthcare staff were proficient in the use of chlorhexidine. They also found great improvements in the sanitizing of medical equipment such as bag masks and suction devices.

As we’ve seen in Cambodia, Bangladesh and in many other countries, sustainable behavior change is possible at both the individual and institutional levels. BASICS will draw upon hard evidence and our collective eperiences to advance this bold solution in health facilities and across national health systems.

Breaking Barriers and Stirring Dreams

Fred, a 13-year-old pupil in Uganda, was born with a cleft lip and defective voice box that affected his speech development. He underwent corrective surgery while he was still a toddler, but his speech did not fully recover.  Because of these speech challenges, Fred found it hard to attend school and associate with other children. He recalls how they used to laugh at him, ridiculing him with different names because he was not able to clearly express himself.

“My classmates avoided playing with me because I wasn’t able to talk to them,” he explains. “They only wanted me to be part of the games in which they would make fun of me and laugh, and I disliked coming to school because of that.”

Fred reading with classmates

To reach children that carry such burdens and keep them from leaving school, Save the Children has implemented an “inclusive education” program that provides real learning opportunities for children with disabilities. The program strengthens teacher capacity to support children with different learning challenges – whether they be physical, behavioural, speech, hearing or attention retention. Teachers are provided with specific training on how to deal with cases like Fred’s, including how to incorporate positive discipline in the classroom and provide a safer learning environment.

Fred outside his school

Additionally, the program has also increased community awareness about inclusive education, which has led parents to understand the importance of sending their children to school — even those who face such challenges — and Enrollment  at school as increased.

“Fred’s parents are supportive and willing to help when issues arise,” explains Rebecca, Fred’s English teacher. “Communication is much better now with his parents and we’re able to work together to support his learning.” Fred is now thriving at school and has dreams to become a lawyer one day so that he can help children who suffer stigmas that prevent them for reaching their full potential.  “I now love going to school and I have friends to play with,” he says. “Mybest game is football where I am a midfielder.”


The Power of Clean Water

Hannah lives in a small village in Zambia near an emerald mine with her parents, brother and sister in a house made of concreate blocks and iron roofing sheets.  Her father is a teacher and volunteer with Save the Children and her mother raises and sells chickens.  As a fourth grader, Hannah’s jovial personality and easy smile make her stand out.  She wants to be a nurse when she grows up.

Five years ago, Save the Children introduced the sponsorship programs in her community and built new underwater piping that provided clean water. Hannah vividly recalls the old rusted borehole at the school that had contaminated water and would run out in the hot season. That is where her family got their drinking water.

“The borehole was so old that the water used to be very muddy. I think rats used to die in there because the water had some rat fur,” she explains.

According to the Head Teacher at Hannah’s school, “the water would dry out and the month of October, during the hot season, was our worst. Children were made to stay home during these times and lessons were disrupted,” she explains.  “Children were slow to catch up on lessons; they would repeat a grade due to poor performance or not return to school at all.”

Today, with the new well, children in the village are eager to learn all the time and they now know how to practice healthy habits, including handwashing. Many households in Hanna’s village have also benefited from the clean water source, and personal hygiene has improved for everyone.

“Now that Save the Children has made us a better borehole, children are being kept in school throughout and our surroundings look beautiful because we have excess water to even water the grass and flowers,” boasts the head teacher proudly.

Hannah helping a friend write a letter to their sponsor

“The water is so nice, clean and cold like it has been refrigerated. I know it is safe because I have not heard of any of my friends that have gotten sick from drinking it. I even carry some of it at home in my water bottle” says Hannah.

Simply providing clean, quality water to a community makes an enormous difference in the lives of children.  It not only has the obvious benefits for health and hygiene, but it also allows children to learn and lead productive and happy lives. Thank you to our sponsors for making this life changing impact possible!

Hopes of a Young Leader

By: Maria Rosario Garcia, Sponsorship Communication Coordinator

At a time where most children are hooked on gadgets, 13 year-old Justin loves to spend time in his  neighborhood to read along with other children. He wants to encourage more children to read so they can help build a better community even at a young age.

Justin has lived with his grandparents since he was nine years-old after the death of his mother and his father’s absence from the family. Yet, despite this heartbreak, he remains positive about life. During our conversation, Justin’s eyes show a deep sense of sadness and longing for his parents. But I was surprised at the sudden change of his emotions. His eyes suddenly brightened up, as he said: “I use these hurtful experiences as my motivation to study and work hard for my dreams.”

Justin posing with his neighborhood reading audience

Fortunately, in 2016 he found support and opportunity through various Save the Children educational programs designed to improve the learning environment at school and in the wider community. He soon joined a reading camp that encouraged his passion for reading and story telling. Seeing some of his classmates struggle to read even simple words made him realize that if he could do it, others could, too. This in turn created a desire to share his knowledge and love of reading to his peers, and he soon became a reliable “Reading Buddy” at his school and in his community.

He believes reading is one of the most important things that children can do to educate themselves, fuel their imagination, and help their community to grow. During his free time, Justin walks around narrow alleys in his village to invite children to read along and listen to his stories. “I do this because I want to be an inspiration to young people and I want to help end poverty,” he explains.” He finds joy seeing the dazzling faces of other children who imagine that they are part of the stories. Weekends and holidays are not wasted for our little champion. Justin never gets tired of moving around and giving his time and effort to make a difference in his own way. Through his leadership, he continues to serve, encourage, and inspire children to dream and strive to become achievers.

Justin telling his story of how Save the Children has benefited him at a Sponsorship conference

Fostering a Culture of Learning in Rwanda

Written by Nazanine Scheuer, Save the Children
This post originally appeared on Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs

Fostering a Culture of Learning in Rwanda
How can you learn if you can’t get books in your own language? And how can that situation be remedied if 1) your nation has only three local publishers and 2) they’ve published just 12 children’s books in the language spoken by the vast majority of your country’s citizens?

That was the challenge faced by schoolchildren in Rwanda – until Save the Children stepped in to create a social enterprise partnership platform that engaged the private sector in local book publishing. By enabling the start-up and training of Rwanda-based publishers and linking them to key actors across the value chain, we strengthened the supply of locally created, quality reading materials, stimulated demand and helped local entrepreneurs build thriving businesses.

The result? By providing students with vastly improved access to books that are both culturally relevant and language-appropriate, the venture is making significant strides toward creating a culture of literacy and learning in Rwanda. We have helped local publishers produce over 1,000 stories, of which more than 600 were approved for use in schools by the Rwanda Education Board. At the same time, the project has built – and continues to build – a new industry that’s making significant contributions to the local economy.

Why Local Publishing?
As Save the Children enters our second century of creating innovative approaches to improving life for children, women and their families around the world, we are increasingly engaging in market-based, impact driven solutions to social and economic challenges. Investment in these initiatives has become a driver of our strategy to build and strengthen local market systems and underpin long-term, self-sustaining economic development.

In the case of Rwanda, it was widely recognized that a shortage of books in their mother tongue, Kinyarwanda, was preventing millions of girls and boys from building literacy skills and discovering the joy of reading. Furthermore, what was available was poorly written, edited, illustrated and designed and/or for the wrong age group. Not only did local publishers lack the skills, knowledge and experience to produce high quality children’s books, but, as a result of low demand for non-textbook materials, they lacked incentives to produce good quality reading materials.

An added hurdle to availability of appropriate books was the lack of access to or within schools, as well as a lack of the skills necessary for teachers to use the books effectively.

Traditional literacy initiatives addressed the gap in book availability by developing materials externally or facilitating the translation of foreign-sourced materials into Kinyarwanda. While that approach was somewhat effective in the short term, it did not offer a pathway to sustainable solutions. Equally important, it largely ignored the role local publishers could play in enhancing their communities’ economies by building and expanding profitable business ventures with long-term viability.

Creating an Economic Eco-System
In 2013, with an initial investment from public- and private-sector partners, we designed and implemented the Rwandan Children’s Book Initiative (RCBI). The goal was to foster a reading and learning environment to improve literacy. By developing a local publishing industry through a comprehensive, multi-pronged approach, we were able to strengthen all aspects of the book value chain, from developers to end users. We created a thriving new industry in Rwanda and also achieved our objective of improving literacy outcomes and creating a culture of reading among children. In 2016, we received an additional investment that enabled us to further expand the model, building on the eco-system already created.

We focused our model on five key activities central to success:

Skills Development

o   Provide quality, relevant training and ongoing mentoring to the publishing industry and its constituents;

o   Work in partnership with private sector, book-publishing actors to tap into resources and expertise (i.e. a partnership with Penguin Random House.)

Demand Generation

o   Support the establishment of communities of practice for each segment of the industry;

o   Invest in initiatives that established a market for the newly developed, local-language books.

Supply Strengthening:

o   Maintain a book-review committee to provide feedback to publishers, assess quality and inform procurements;

o   Establish incentive-driven agreements to encourage publishers with low capital to invest in quality materials;

o   Facilitate an understanding of quality criteria to allow negotiation of better prices/more affordability;

o   Formulate quality-assurance guidelines;

o   Create a book purchasing consortium comprised of different projects/programs/organizations.

Advocacy

o   Invest in advocacy and policy formulation work to create a conducive book-publishing environment;

o   Engage relevant decision makers and build evidence to support the importance of a local publishing industry;

o   Build coalitions around the importance of involving the private sector to develop and maintain quality materials, educational opportunities and a knowledge based society;

o   Raise awareness through meetings, conferences, campaigns and media.

Through this model, we demonstrated the value of a “whole chain” approach that connects publishers with government agencies, the private sector and local communities. In doing so, we increased collaboration between these actors to establish a self-sustaining industry that draws on the local mix of skills and expertise.

Compelling Results
Thanks to RCBI, the quality, quantity and range of local-language children’s books published and distributed in Rwanda has grown significantly. In fact, there are now more than 1,000 books for children from 0 to 9 years of age available from publishers that received our support. An added bonus of the project is that girls are increasingly likely to be the protagonists in these stories and are more often portrayed in positive roles. By 2019, almost a third of the children’s books featured girls as main characters.

As for the impact on local economies, most of the participating publishing houses have grown, often from just one person to an entire staff. Notably, a third of the active publishers are women! With a stronger capital base, these publishers are able to compete for contracts and access markets that were previously unavailable to them. Additionally, the publishers are diversifying their activities beyond Kinyarwanda children’s books and even beyond the boundaries of Rwanda. Some have begun co-publishing textbooks in foreign countries, while others have sold rights for publishing their books in additional languages or sold rights overseas.

This is important because generating income allows them to invest in the production of more books and other learning materials. For example, many publishers are investing in digital educational materials such as animations, alphabet apps and audio books and are building online e-bookstores. They’re also forming partnerships with local schools, writing books for older readers and offering books on important topics that align with national development priorities.

In all, we’ve counted more than 250 new actors contributing to the industry, whether as authors, illustrators/artists, editors, designers, booksellers or administrators, underscoring the thriving industry created by the project.

“There were no trainings for publishers and no local publishing schools. I had an interest in this field because I am a writer, and I worked in a printing company. When I started my company, I wanted to create products children would enjoy, but didn’t know which way to go to achieve that goal…. So Save the Children helped me bring my vision to life.”

– A Rwandan publisher trained by Save the Children

What’s Next?
The bottom line is that the RCBI project has exceeded its goals, helping children learn while also building a flourishing children’s book publishing industry in a nation that previously had no such aspiration. In our next phase, we plan to increase distribution across the country including in remote communities, amplify women’s empowerment and further improve literacy outcomes. Concrete examples include: establishing micro-libraries; starting women’s authorship groups; developing innovative, income-generating activities to increase book sales and incentivize reading.

Thanks to the support of our committed partners in the U.S. and Rwanda, this project has effectively changed the lives of children, women and entire communities. To learn more or get involved, please contact Nazanine Scheuer at nscheuer@savechildren.org. And do stay tuned for the next chapter!

Leveraging Brain Science and Our Program Legacy to Support Early Child Development during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Educators, service providers and families are grappling to find the best ways to support early learning and healthy development while the world stays safer at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Save the Children has been actively leveraging our expertise as a leader in early education to support children and families across America through our SAVEWITHSTORIES campaign and our public COVID-19 Resource Page. We know that even while schools are closed, stores are empty, and many are struggling to pay bills, children’s brains are continuing to grow – with more than 1 million new neural connections forming every second, laying the foundation for all future learning, behavior and health. It is now as important as ever to help caregivers to provide young children with love, stability and learning opportunities in the face of uncertainty and change.

With extensive experience in helping rural communities prepare children for success in school and life, we are particularly mindful of the impact of the pandemic on children and families in geographically isolated and low-resourced communities. Here, infant mortality rates are higher than average and one in five children is growing up in poverty. These remote pockets are struggling with unemployment, violence, addiction and poor access to essential educational and healthcare resources – and the effects of the pandemic are intensifying these problems. Although rural communities face many of the same challenges as urban ones, they often don’t receive the same attention.

With a strong history of inspiring breakthroughs in rural communities across the United States, we are committed to focussing national attention on the needs of America’s forgotten communities, while bringing cutting-edge science and evidence-based programs directly to children and families there. Working with national and local partners, we employ a collective impact approach and build local capacity to deliver high quality early childhood education programs to those who need them the most. Vroom®, a Bezos Family Foundation innovation, is a critical resource in our work to advance early learning in rural communities. Vroom translates research on early brain development into meaningful, actionable activities for families to do with their young children. As families spend more time together at home than ever, Vroom’s science-based tips and tools inspire families to turn their shared, everyday moments into Brain Building Moments™. We have integrated Vroom into multiple facets of our pandemic response.

During this extraordinary time, we demonstrate our organizational commitment to collaboration, creativity, integrity, accountability and ambition daily in home offices, school cafeterias, warehouses, and front porches around the country to ensure that rural families have the resources and supports they need to foster healthy childhood development. While the pandemic has spurred us to innovate more rapidly, increase our use of technology, and accelerate our partnerships, we’ve also returned to our organizational roots: We’re leveraging our history of meeting the needs of children in rural communities, which began in the United States during the Great Depression.  

In 1932, Save the Children got its start in America serving children and families in Harlan County, Kentucky – the heart of coal country – by providing hot meals to children in coal camps. The impact was immediate. Undernourished children were better fed, school attendance increased and grades improved. This effort became the model for the federal hot lunch program. A decade later, children in more than 70,000 schools across the United States were served publically funded hot lunches. Now, almost 90 years on, in response to COVID-19 our local early childhood staff are working tirelessly to address food insecurity by supporting school meal preparation and distribution during school closures. In some communities, our staff facilitate daily “grab-and-go” meal pickups in school parking lots, elsewhere they ride school busses for hours to reach the most remote corners of their districts – all to ensure that no child goes to bed hungry while schools are closed. We have always recognized the importance of health and nutrition to children’s overall development and learning.

We’re also committed to providing educational and mental health supports along with our meal distribution activities. In collaboration with partners, we’ve paired educational resources within the meals, including Save the Children’s Weekly Learning Activity guides and Vroom’s curated Tips™ for activities – At Home, Calm & Connect, and Resources for Stressful Times. We are also connecting families with other critical resources such as cleaning supplies, diapers, books, school supplies, games and toys. We are taking every opportunity to make personal connections and share brief moments of joy with those who may be feeling lonely and isolated. Our staff members smile, wave and greet children and their families by name as they distribute meals and resources. Some have included personalized notes with the meals, while others have organized ‘parades’ to follow the buses distributing them; teachers and staff honk from their cars decorated with signs of encouragement and streamers, while families stand at their doors and gates to wave and cheer!

To support parents and caregivers enrolled in our early childhood programs, we’ve developed strategies to engage families that comply with social distancing guidance and we’re tailoring our training and technical assistance offerings to address the needs of our local staff.Because our early childhood staff are local hires, they often face the same challenges as those of the families they serve – they too are members of the same community struggling with a lack of resources and services, increasing rates of drug addiction and incarceration, and limited economic opportunities. We’re providing more training on psychological first aid and on psychosocial support for caregivers to our front-line staff so that they can manage their own health and wellbeing, as they work to support so many other caregivers in their communities.

Our alternative program strategies allow our local staff to maintain communication and support families through telephone calls, text messaging, social media platforms and video conferencing to regularly check-in with families, identify their needs, and share information on local resources. To advance caregivers’ knowledge and capacities, our staff are reviewing information on child development with them and encouraging caregivers to engage in activities that promote healthy developing and learning while at home. In addition to regularly scheduled communication, our staff are offering “office hours” when families know they will be available to connect and receive support in the moment.

Mindful of the impact of the digital divide on rural communities’ access to online information, resources and supports, our alternative approaches include high-, low- and no-tech strategies, and have the flexibility to accommodate variation in access across our program participant population, as well as our local staff who themselves may not have reliable access. This work is informed by a recent technology needs assessment conducted by West Ed (2018) in the rural communities that we serve. It demonstrated that although a vast majority of our program participants have access to a smart phone, many lack access to broadband internet and reliable cell phone service. Additionally, many families struggle to cover the cost of their digital device and internet service, while paying for basic needs such as food and utilities. To meet the needs of these families, our staff are making printed materials and other resources available to families via mail, by home delivery, or by pick up at a central community location – such as a local grocery store.

For families with access to digital devices and reliable internet access, our alternative program strategies have allowed us to rapidly innovate and increase our use of social media and online platforms to engage our participants and their communities further. To address variation in our local staffs’ proficiency in using technology, we are providing coaching and peer learning opportunities to identify and scale successful strategies across our program communities. Staff are rising to the occasion. Despite their initial apprehension, many quickly acquired new tech skills and have reported the success of their first virtual meetings with their program participants. The rewards have affirmed their hard work: Caregivers are connecting and sharing ideas and strategies for incorporating learning and engagement into their new daily routines at home and children are excited to see familiar faces and to also engage! For some families, these virtual meetings have provided an opportunity for additional family members to participate in our programming, such as parents previously unable to attend home visits or parent-child groups due to their work schedules.

In order to reach and engage caregivers across our rural partner communities, our staff are using social media to make resources and prerecorded programming publically available, including virtual book readings, and Vroom Tip activity demonstrations. Community partners, school staff and local officials have joined as “guest readers,” and in some communities, local officials and businesses have provided gift cards to encourage participation in our virtual programming.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic is creating new challenges for families and providers around the world and is exacerbating the existing inequities facing children and families in rural America – Save the Children, together with our partners, is innovating and adapting to provide caregivers with the tools, resources and support needed for families to be safer and learning at home.

Highlights from the field:

Alma Rodriguez, Early Childhood Coordinator, shares a book and Vroom Tip with her home visiting families and engages them online.


In California, Save the Children is connecting with families on social media and pairing favorite children’s books with Vroom Tip activities to keep families engaged in shared reading while at home. Families respond to posted questions and share their experiences of Brain Building at home! One home visiting participant shared a video of her daughter joining in the #SAVEWITHSTORIES campaign! In the recording, her daughter sat proudly on the living room rug, carefully turning each page of her favorite book and retelling the story – complete with characters’ voices and lots of facial expression – just as she’d seen multiple celebrities do online!

Kim Bolling, Kindergarten Readiness Ambassador, delivering meal baskets and educational resources to local families.

In Kentucky, Save the Children staff are demonstrating the countless learning opportunities available while families prepare food and share meals together! Staff are boarding Rosie the Kindergarten Readiness Bus to deliver meal baskets that include ingredients for a family dinner paired with a printed booklet of Vroom Mealtime Tips! In a neighboring community, staff have created a weekly cooking show posted on social media featuring a caregiver and child demonstrating a Vroom Tip cooking activity.

Lacey Montgomery, Kindergarten Readiness Ambassador, fills a community resource box with educational resources.

In Mississippi, Save the Children is helping families to blend Brain Building Activities™ into their home routines to develop math skills and keep families healthy! Staff are distributing learning resource kits to program participants, local Head Start partners and families throughout the area through a local community resource box at the entrance of a playground closed due to COVID-19 (featured in photo). The resource kits engage caregivers and children in Vroom Math Tips and include measuring cups, rulers, ice cube trays, and Play-Doh. Additional kits include cleaning and hygiene resources, such as wipes, tissue and soap, all paired with related Vroom Tip activity cards.

Jennifer Blackwell, Early Childhood Coordinator, delivers disinfectant wipes and resources to first responders and local childcare providers.

In Tennessee, Save the Children staff are meeting a critical community need by providing local law enforcement officers, first responders, local child care providers and program participants with disinfectant wipes and educational resources.  Across the state, staff are sharing a recorded book reading every day on social media, modelling dialogic reading practices for caregivers and engaging children during the shared reading. Parents have reported that each time the Play & Learn Group leader pauses to ask a question, the children excitedly shout their answers back to her… eager to engage again with their group teacher and to connect the story back to their lives!

Michelle Hipp, Early Childhood Coordinator, delivers resource bags directly to families’ homes.

In West Virginia, Save the Children staff are ensuring that families have what they need to promote learning and healthy development at home by bringing resources directly to families’ front porches! They fill Vroom bags with food, books and printed learning resources – including Vroom Tips – for families who don’t have broadband internet or reliable transportation.

Key Resources

Coronavirus and Kids: Resources from Save the Children:

  • Weekly Learning Activity Guides for children under 5, students in grades K-1, and students in grades 2-6 (English/Spanish)
    • How to talk to kids about coronavirus (English/Spanish)
    • How to help kids cope with extended school closures (English/Spanish)
    • Five tips for adults for self-care and coping with stress (English/Spanish)
    • Relaxation activities to do at home with kids
    • Best practices for reading with your child (English/Spanish)
    • Fun ways to incorporate math (English/Spanish)
    • Ten family learning activities (English/Spanish)
    • Five tips for grandparents on staying connected
    • Our Picks: Free educational websites and apps (English/Spanish)
  • Vroom®:
    • New Vroom Tip™ collections (English/Spanish): Calm & Connect ages 0-5, At Home ages 0-5, Tips for Stressful Times
    • Vroom COVID-19 eNews
    • Vroom Moments at Home – new video playlist
    • Weekly Tip videos on Facebook (Facebook.com/joinvroom) every Tuesday at 10am PT