Nearly 22 million children from South Asian countries, including India, have missed out on early childhood education in their critical pre-school year due to coronavirus outbreak, according to a new research by UNICEF.
The research brief released on Wednesday looks at the state of childcare and early childhood education globally and includes an analysis of the impact of widespread COVID-19 closure of vital family services.
In the South Asia region, the United Nations International Children's Fund (UNICEF) covered Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka for the research.
Children are among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic in South Asia. Prolonged school closure and limited access to distant learning have deprived children of their universal right to education, UNICEF Regional Director for South Asia, Jean Gough said.
Childcare and early childhood education is foundational in helping children reach their full potential. Failing to act now will jeopardise the futures of millions of children in the region, Gough said.
The research noted that lockdown has left many parents struggling to balance childcare and paid employment, with a disproportionate burden placed on women who, on average, spend more than three times longer on care and housework than men.
"At least 40 million children worldwide, of which nearly 22 million are from South Asia, have missed out on early childhood education in their critical pre-school year as COVID-19 shuttered childcare and early education facilities," according to the research brief published by UNICEF.
The closures have also exposed a deeper crisis for families of young children especially in low- and middle-income countries, many of whom were already unable to access social protection services, it said.
Lack of childcare and early education options also leave many parents, particularly mothers working in the informal sector, with no choice but to bring their young children to work, the report based on the research said.
"More than 9 in 10 women in Africa and nearly 7 in 10 in Asia and the Pacific work in the informal sector and have limited to no access to any form of social protection. Many parents become trapped in this unreliable, poorly paid employment, contributing to intergenerational cycles of poverty," it said.
The research brief also gave guidance on how governments and employers can improve their childcare and early childhood education policies, including by enabling all children to access high-quality, age-appropriate, affordable and accessible childcare centres, irrespective of family circumstances.
The guidance outlined additional policies including paid parental leave for all parents so that there is no gap between the end of parental leave and the start of affordable childcare, flexible work arrangements that address the needs of working parents and investment in the non-family childcare workforce.
The research also recommended social protection systems including cash transfers that reach families working in non-formal employment.
It takes a village to raise a child. Parents and caregivers are undoubtedly feeling the stress from juggling work, household duties and childcare. Governments and employers must play their part to help ensure proper childcare and access to education, Gough added.