The First 1000 Days Of A Child’s Life Matter Most Says Alef Meulenberg, CEO Of Afrika Tikkun

Afrika Tikkun runs an all-encompassing cradle-to-career children- and youth development programme, comprising physical, intellectual, emotional and academic development along with support for the nutritional, health and psycho-social needs of young people.

‘We cannot continue to sustain the high unemployment rates in South Africa,’ says Alef Meulenberg, CEO of Afrika Tikkun. ‘South Africa’s financial debts keep increasing in order to provide for people who are unemployed, and with poverty on the rise – owing to our shrinking economy, dwindling job opportunities and Covid-19 – there seem to be no quick fixes for eradicating poverty and extreme economic inequality.

‘What we can do now is to focus on solutions that navigate sustainable systems change, that enable long-term development solutions. This will only happen if we equip our children with a proper education from a young age and teach them the skills to be economically self-sufficient.

‘Poverty in South Africa is still very much built along racial lines. The face of poverty in South Africa is largely an African female face, and that perpetuates several social ills like gender-based violence, unwanted, teenage pregnancies and other hardships in rural areas.’

Meulenberg points to single motherhood as one of the underlying causes of the continuation of the poverty cycle. One of the effects of poverty and single motherhood – especially when the mother is away at work all day – is that children may not receive the support they need with education, neither with homework tasks nor, frequently, with their overall attitude to school and education. Mothers are simply stretched beyond their means.

The 2017 Statistics SA General Household Survey found that over 60% of children under the age of 18 live in fatherless households, and that women are increasingly raising children alone. South African women also earn around 28% less than men do, according to the 2018/2019 Global Wage Report. Female-led households are therefore at an increased risk of living under the poverty line. The psychological strain to mothers of trying to make ends meet has an effect on children, and can hinder their progress in life in ways that go far beyond the initial eighteen years.  

‘The truth is, children need to be educated from a very young age. The first 1000 days of a child’s life are such a determining factor for the rest of the person’s life,’ explains Meulenberg. ‘If we don’t provide good quality pre-school education to children, they spend the rest of their school careers trying to catch up, slipping ever further behind and invariably becoming discouraged and losing interest. Poor quality education in those first 1000 days affects them right up to matric and beyond, even affecting their chances of finding employment or becoming self-employed.’

One issue that Meulenberg believes needs to be changed is that pre-school education – that is, schooling even before Grade R – should fall under the Department of Basic Education and not under the Department of Social Services. ‘Pre-school education should be made mandatory, not just Grade R. The sooner children are brought into the education system, the better the outcomes will be.’

Afrika Tikkun helps vulnerable children succeed from cradle to career. Through centres in Gauteng and the Western Cape, they provide holistic support to children that takes into account the child’s physiological, psychological, mental and intellectual needs. They offer various educational programmes to ensure that children master the skills, knowledge and attitudes that will get them through school, also providing meals, health care and social workers or psychologists to address their various needs.

‘Our challenge at the moment is, how do we scale our operations?’ says Meulenberg. ‘Are we going to build centres everywhere, or are we going to leverage qualities that are already in a community through other community-based organisations and steer those in the right direction?’

Their current approach is to decentralise their cradle-to-career programme and to work together with local partners in creating healthy symbiotic relationships for the young person. They give their partners access to all their materials and then link them to other community-based organisations so that then none has to work in isolation. Instead, they work with one another, receiving ongoing support from Afrika Tikkun where needed. This decentralised model builds on the goodwill, resources and abilities of people already living in communities and familiar with the challenges of the children, and so holds great potential for expansion of services.

Meulenberg, who is originally from the Netherlands, came to South Africa in 2009 to try to make a difference and to live his own life’s purpose. The only way forward, he says, is to work with other organisations, empowering them to build on what they have, thus extending the reach of the central organisation in ways that are natural, manageable and scalable.

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