Learning in a pandemic: 4 tips for parents and caregivers with young children at home

As more than a billion students around the world put their schooling on pause, families are doing more than ever to bring learning home.

Play lab leader and children in Tanzania

BY SARAH ALLEN, MIA PEREZ, AND ROSA TAYLOR

 

According to UNESCO, more than 90 percent of the world’s learners have been impacted by school closures during the coronavirus pandemic. As more than a billion children around the world are forced to put their schooling on pause, parents and caregivers are left in challenging situations, often balancing work with child care or home schooling to keep their children from falling behind.

Since 2016, BRAC Play Labs have offered quality, affordable play-based learning for children, ages three to five, in underserved communities. Play Labs deliver education through a community-based model and engage caregivers in their children’s learning beyond the classroom. Here are four tips from our Play Labs to help your family bring playful learning home.

 

 

1. Create spaces that facilitate learning

Learning environments are a crucial factor in learning. Play Labs are designed to encourage play and facilitate learning, incorporating child-friendly elements such as windows that are low to the ground and zones for different types of play, such as make-believe, music, art, and reading.

While this works for Play Labs, caregivers who are bringing learning home do not need to designate a separate room or special furniture for learning. Instead, consider creating learning spaces from regular home settings, such as a corner of a common room or an outdoor space. Try identifying areas that can be used for different purposes, such as a table for arts and crafts or a corner with floor space for play with toys. Creativity and imagination help create safe and engaging learning environments.

 

 

2. Use everyday items as low-cost learning materials

Play Labs are unique for their low-cost and sustainable learning materials. Parents and caregivers meet on a quarterly basis to decorate learning spaces and create contextually appropriate toys with locally sourced materials. For example, families in East Africa use banana leaves to create dolls, jump ropes, and balls, and in Bangladesh, families use clay to create produce for a make-believe market.

For young children transitioning to at-home learning, everyday items can be engaging play materials. Household staples like flour; dry rice, beans, or pasta; and shaving cream can be used for sensory play. Kitchen items such as pots and pans, utensils, and plastic containers can become musical instruments or building blocks and facilitate pretend play. Outdoor objects like rocks, leaves, or flowers can be used for art, science, or counting and sorting.

 

 

3. Harness play for learning and resilience

Emerging research indicates that play can promote resilience and establish a sense of normalcy for children in crisis settings. To support children, Play Labs favor playful and participatory activities over rote learning, and caregivers are encouraged to play with their children at home to support social, cognitive, and language development.

While many children have had their routines interrupted, play can help them build a new sense of normalcy. Rather than focusing on teacher or parent-led activities, caregivers can incorporate spontaneous, voluntary activities at home. Block out time for free play and follow your child’s lead. You can also incorporate playful learning into everyday activities. For example, use cooking or baking to explore numeracy skills, or practice colors and sorting while doing laundry.

 

 

4. Prioritize your mental wellbeing

A caregiver’s mental wellbeing can have a big impact on their child. In Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where we have adapted our Play Lab model to support children affected by the Rohingya humanitarian crisis, psychosocial support is integral. BRAC trains teachers to recognize signs of psychological distress in both children and caregivers. When necessary, the teachers refer family members for specialized support.

With major shifts in child care, employment, health, and daily life, many caregivers are facing exceptional stress. It’s important to learn to recognize and respond to stress and anxiety in our children, but also in ourselves. Mitigating your own stress using common approaches like meditation, exercise, and journaling can help you better support your child. If you need additional support, consider options like tele-counseling. This is a challenging, destabilizing time, but virtual resources are more accessible than ever.

As COVID-19 continues to impact the families we serve, BRAC is committed to protecting and engaging children and caregivers. We have paused in-person learning to ensure participant safety, and are working to adapt our education services and launch remote resources to support learning at home. Our priority is to ensure children and families keep healthy, stay connected, and continue learning throughout the pandemic.

Learn how you can support families affected by the COVID-19 crisis.

 

Sarah Allen is Communications Officer, Mia Perez is a Program Associate for Education and Youth, and Rosa Taylor is a Program Officer for Education at BRAC USA.

Hope for a renewed fashion industry as we remember Rana Plaza during COVID-19

Seven years on from Rana Plaza, Bangladesh’s garment sector faces unprecedented challenges that will fiercely test its resilience. Can COVID-19 serve as a catalyst for a more responsible fashion industry?

BY LINDA PATENTAS

 

Global brands and retailers have canceled over $3 billion worth of apparel orders in Bangladesh since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The canceled orders comprise 980 million pieces, enough for three articles of clothing for each person in the United States.

These canceled orders spell devastation for Bangladesh’s most significant sector, which accounts for 84% of the country’s total exports. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association estimates that broken promises from fashion partners will affect over four million garment workers, the majority of whom are women living in poverty.

 

 

A humanitarian crisis with a public health dimension

For millions of garment factory workers and 10 million day laborers across Bangladesh who rely on daily wages to feed their families, the COVID-19 shutdown has already caused acute poverty and food insecurity. According to BRAC’s executive director Asif Saleh, “For Bangladesh, COVID-19 is a humanitarian crisis with a public health dimension.”

In early April, several hundred workers filled the streets protesting overdue salary payments, some alleging they had not been paid since February.

Loss of income and food insecurity can lead to conflict. BRAC’s human rights and legal services offices across the country have seen an increase in gender-based violence cases, including women who lost their jobs in the garment sector.

When garment factories closed in late March, Rakeya* filed a case against her husband, who physically abused her at home. The daughter of a landless farmer, Rakeya had moved from a rural community to Dhaka, shortly after giving birth to her first child, to find a job at a garment factory.

After COVID-19 took her job, Rakeya refused to give up the small portion of land to her husband that she had purchased with her savings. Her husband beat her and drove her out of the house, keeping their young daughter. BRAC helped Rakeya to file a case with the police and reunite her with her daughter.

BRAC’s director of human rights and legal services and social compliance, Jenefa Jabbar, says that stories like Rakeya’s are not uncommon. As both men and women lose jobs and income, domestic violence cases are on the rise. BRAC is seeing an increase in incidents of rape, suicide, child marriage, and domestic violence.

“When millions of people quickly fall back into poverty, it can result in a rapid increase in human rights abuses,” said Jenefa. “This is damaging to any society.” Indeed, one BRAC program received nearly 700 reports of violence across three weeks in late March and early April, a number of which were directly linked to the economic effects of COVID-19.

 

 

Broken promises from the global fashion industry

As governments around the world have imposed lockdowns, several major brands and retailers sent letters to Bangladeshi manufacturers calling for the immediate cancellation of orders, totaling more than $3 billion worth of goods. After an outcry from activists, some brands have promised to pay for their orders, while others have pledged to defer payments to an undefined time in the future or asked factory owners for discounts.

Bangladeshi manufacturers are also responsible for $1.96 billion worth of fabrics that go into manufacturing clothes. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association estimates that Bangladesh will lose nearly $6 billion this fiscal year as a result of order cancellations.

As we commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse, where 1,134 garment workers lost their lives and more than 2,500 were severely injured, the fashion industry’s promise to be more collaborative and accountable is paramount.

This crisis demands responsible supply chains that support the millions of workers who are the backbone of the fashion industry and a commitment to inclusive partnerships that advance the dignity, safety, and opportunity of garment sector employees, especially women.

 

 

Supporting garment workers during COVID-19

It has always been BRAC’s ethos to support the most vulnerable communities. Its global response to COVID-19 has reached more than 60 million people worldwide with public health awareness activities across 11 countries.

In Bangladesh, nearly 200,000 families have received cash support of about $18, which will provide emergency relief for two weeks. BRAC has also distributed more than a million hygiene products and spread public health information about COVID-19 to 24.5 million people.

Many of these efforts have targeted geographic areas with high concentrations of apparel factories, such as Gazipur, Savar, and Tongi. According to BRAC University’s Mapped in Bangladesh, an online tool to map exporting garment factories, there are nearly 2,500 factories in Gazipur and Savar, collectively employing 3.5 million workers. Since 2017, BRAC has operated one-stop service centers for garment workers in these neighbourhoods, providing more than 125,000 people with healthcare, skills training and job placement, legal aid, microfinance, health insurance, and more.

To minimize direct contact and overcome barriers to financial inclusion, BRAC is partnering with the mobile money provider bKash to expedite new account registration and is looking to work with factory owners to digitize payments to garment workers.

BRAC has also set up hand washing stations outside of its service centers and at entrances to slum communities where garment workers live and continues to offer health, legal aid, and mental health counselling to community members through call centers.

In Bangladesh, the rate of reported COVID-19 cases is increasing at an alarming rate. Though the majority of cases remain in Dhaka, a lack of testing capacity makes it difficult to understand the full picture. As the country rapidly approaches 5,000 reported cases, BRAC is committed to standing with communities affected by COVID-19.

 

Hope for a renewed garment industry

In the short-term, BRAC will continue to provide immediate relief for garment workers affected by the crisis. However, the long-term implications for the global fashion industry require attention and action.

The impact of COVID-19 has highlighted the significant power imbalances between industry stakeholders across the supply chain. BRAC is eager to lead broader conversations on rebuilding a responsible industry.

Since Rana Plaza, key stakeholders in Bangladesh have been working tirelessly to ensure that the “Made in Bangladesh” brand represents a new way of manufacturing ready-made garments, where safe, decent work opportunities are the norm.

BRAC teams are exploring approaches that support vulnerable workers who have been left behind, from reskilling programmes to interventions that combat projected spikes in trafficking.

Our late founder, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, said, “BRAC has always believed that change is human-made. At the heart of everything we do is the conviction that everyone can be actors in history.”

Even as the impacts of COVID-19 destabilize the sector, can we build a renewed industry that distributes value beyond shareholders and supports the economic and social rights of workers?

The fashion industry and garment sector must unite during these challenging times so that the suffering experienced after Rana Plaza is never felt again.

*Name changed to preserve anonymity.

 

Linda Patentas is Program Manager for Cities, Supply Chains and Migration at BRAC USA. Support communities where garment sector workers live by donating to BRAC’s emergency relief efforts for COVID-19.

Let there be light: Bringing light and opportunity to rural Tanzania

This Earth Day, we focus on the impact projects like WE SOLVE have had on both the planet and people living in poverty.

A woman with a solar light in Tanzania
BY CHRIS LYNE

 

In this age of lockdowns and social distancing, it is easy to focus on the terrible impact COVID-19 is having on people. Development organizations and practitioners the world over are grappling with the challenge of creating opportunities and providing services for vulnerable communities without being able to leave their own home, let alone conduct field visits. However, in spite of this, it is vital that we focus on the progress we have made pre-COVID-19 and will continue to make in the future.

Today is Earth Day, an international celebration created to drive transformative change for people and the planet. A unique project in rural Tanzania has been doing just that.

That project is WE SOLVE, which stands for Women Entrepreneurship through the Solar Value chain for Economic development in Tanzania. WE SOLVE has been tackling the twin problems of limited employment and economic opportunities for women in rural Tanzania as well as limited access to clean energy.

It involves a unique global partnership between BRAC, Solar Sister, a nonprofit that trains and supports women to deliver clean energy to rural African communities, and Signify, a global company offering high quality, reliable, and safe lighting products.

The project has a simple yet effective methodology: Solar Sister recruits women entrepreneurs to sell clean energy products to their own and neighboring communities. Signify is, among other providers, ensuring that Solar Sister entrepreneurs have high-quality, energy-efficient, reliable, and safe lighting to sell. They then use BRAC’s extensive microfinance network of over 200,000 clients as a customer base to sell the solar products. BRAC also supports clients with access to credit via a solar loan product to make the purchase more affordable if they do not have available cash.

The project, which started in 2018, has been funded for 4 years by Danida, Denmark’s development cooperation, and the Signify Foundation. The pilot phase of the project targeted the Arusha region, which is home to Tanzania’s nomadic Maasai and other communities. Many people here are ‘off grid’ and face life without light as soon as the sun sets, meaning that children cannot play or study and families are often dependent on fuel-powered resources to do their daily chores.

At its halfway point, the project has achieved remarkable success. BRAC recently conducted an annual survey report to explore its impact on the incomes and life chances of households in rural Arusha, comparing the baseline survey at the start of 2019 with data collected at the end of the year. The results are extremely encouraging.

Households spent on average 68% less on their energy per year because they used renewable solar lighting products instead of kerosene lamps, which are both expensive to run ($140 per year on average) and have damaging health impacts. The number of households reporting health issues due to the kerosene lamps more than halved with only 16% reporting relevant health problems.

The use of solar lights also had other benefits, with 64% of parents reporting improvements in children’s academic performance, mostly due to solar lights making light available for longer so children could complete their homework at night.

While gathering data for the annual survey, we spoke in detail to a number of clients to learn more about their stories. Elizabeth was one such person. She is a banana trader from Tengeru, a small market-town located in the foothills of Mount Meru. She took out a loan to purchase a solar lamp from a Solar Sister entrepreneur in early 2019.

“Since my family started living in this house in 1998, we had never had electricity. We had been using various types of kerosene lamps to take care of our lighting needs. I am a widow with four children; two are grown up, and two are still in school. The solar light has been very useful to my children, who are still going to school. Before, they used a kerosene lamp for studying at night.

“My son was recently blessed with a baby. Since we still did not have electricity in our home, I gifted my daughter-in-law the light to help with the baby, especially at night. My whole family has really benefited from this light. Even now, although we have managed to get electricity, the light is still very useful to use as a torch outside, or when the power goes out, and also in our bathroom outside that has no light.”

Elizabeth has seen the many advantages of access to affordable clean energy: the women entrepreneurs selling the products are earning an income, and the planet is benefitting from an increase in the use of renewable energy products.

On this day of action for mother Earth, it’s more vital than ever that we celebrate our success and look forward to more progress for communities like Tengeru in the future.

 

Chris Lyne is Advocacy and Communications Manager at BRAC UK.

West African authors elevate girls’ voices through storytelling

A new set of books inspired by real stories from girls in West Africa aims to help girls navigate the unique challenges they face. Hear from the authors who brought their stories to life.

BY SARAH ALLEN

 

This summer, BRAC published a new collection of life skills books designed for girl participants in its Empowerment and Livelihoods for Adolescents (ELA) program in West Africa. The program provides safe spaces in girls’ communities where they can come together to sing, dance, play games, and socialize. The ELA clubs are led by peer mentors, who facilitate training on life skills, sexual and reproductive health, financial literacy, and livelihood opportunities.

The new life skills books complement the ELA curriculum, navigating topics like forced marriage, early pregnancy, domestic violence, and other key issues that many girls in the program face. We interviewed two Sierra Leonean authors who helped write the books, Mohamed Sheriff and Allieu Kamara, to learn more about the writing process and how their own experiences growing up in the region informed their writing. Their responses have been edited for clarity and length.

 

How has your country or community impacted your writing?

Allieu: I became interested in writing following the end of the 11-year civil war in Sierra Leone, when I became a journalist. We undertook many research and investigative projects. One of the glaring challenges after the war was that the education system was shattered, which in turn brought about a rapid decline of literary interest. When the Canadian Organization for Development through Education partnered with PEN Sierra Leone to undertake a project called Reading Sierra Leone, it gave me greater opportunity to continue writing about local issues I observed.

 

What events or other factors in your life have influenced you most as a writer?

Mohamed: My mother, who was a brilliant folk storyteller, influenced me the most. Her storytelling sessions were among my most enjoyable childhood experiences, and through them, I realized the immense power of stories to delight through both spoken and written word. I can say she was my greatest inspiration as a writer and, more specifically, the reason why I write and publish children’s books.

The suspense thrillers I read as a teenager also influenced me markedly as a writer. The gripping suspense, the twists and turns, and the seamless writing style that kept me turning the pages were key factors that enhanced my love for both reading and the art of telling stories.

Another factor that greatly influenced me as a writer was the 11-year civil war in my country, which caused a lot of death and destruction. There was so much to tell and so much to write about that one simply couldn’t not write.

 

What was your favorite book as a teenager or young adult? Why?

Mohamed: I read and enjoyed so many books that I can’t single out one as my favorite. I loved the folk stories from West Africa and Africa as a whole, but I greatly enjoyed books from other places – like the Arabian Night TalesAlice in WonderlandCinderellaJack and the Beanstalk, and stories from Greek Mythology.

Allieu: ‘So Long A Letter’ by Senegalese author Mariama Bâ was my favourite book growing up. It deals with problems that many African women face.

 

The new life skills books cover challenging topics like child marriage, early pregnancy, and gender-based violence. How did you navigate these important but difficult topics as an author? 

Mohamed: It was a bit of a challenge – sometimes you want to tell the story graphically, directly, bluntly; at other times, you want to be subtle, less direct, euphemistic, ironic. Even reviewers and editors are not always in agreement about which approach is best, so I follow my instinct.

There are no hard-and-fast formulas or one-size-fits-all approaches. Storytelling is a dynamic business, each story has its own feel, temper, and peculiarities. These determine how you navigate each story.

Allieu: During the research and brainstorming sessions that led to the publication of the life skills books, the project consultant ran a workshop with the authors on ways to deal with these types of sensitive issues in our writing. The main lesson from that workshop was that the dynamics of each story should guide the author about how to address an issue.

 

What kind of research did you do before writing these books?

Mohamed: Before writing the books, we visited communities where BRAC runs its ELA clubs to talk to their participants, adolescent girls, many of whom have dropped out of school or experienced abuse or another violation of their human rights. They shared their experiences with us as well as their hopes, aspirations, and views about life in general.

Allieu: In another workshop before writing the books, we were trained on how to navigate interviews with stakeholders and conducted focus group discussions with girls in the program, facilitators, and community members. It was interesting listening to the girls, as each person we talked to had different stories about similar challenges.

 

Which of the issues covered in the books are most important to you or near to your heart? Why?

Mohamed: All the issues dealt with in the books are near to my heart because they are interrelated, in the sense that they are all human rights abuses related to gender. These include early and forced marriage, lack of access to education, sexual abuse, gender-based violence, teenage pregnancy, lack of decision-making power in the home, and more. These are issues I have addressed through my writing for a long time.

Allieu: Personally, all the issues in the BRAC life skills books are important, because they all directly deal with the problems girls are facing in our country. The content of the books actually addressed the topics that came up in our research and provided responses to those problems. I believe if girls read these books, they can be in a better position to tackle the challenges they face.

Why were you interested in working on a project with BRAC?

Mohamed: The project is specifically targeting a readership that few if any people think about – adolescent girls who have dropped out of school. Many of the books that they may have the ability to read and comprehend are children’s books with content that may not match their experiences. Books that may interest them are written with more difficult vocabulary and a style that is beyond their current ability to digest. The BRAC life skills book project gave us the opportunity to produce books that provided interesting content targeted to the reading comprehension level of these girls.

 

What impact do you hope the life skills books will have? What do you hope readers of these books will learn or gain?

Mohamed: If a constructive reading program is organized for adolescent girls that incorporates these books, the girls could benefit in a number of significant ways. They would be exposed to positive new approaches to dealing with the gender-related human rights challenges they encounter regularly.

There are two key lessons that I want to emphasize: First, suffering in silence will not resolve their challenges, therefore, girls must speak out. Secondly, adolescent girls should never give up on their dreams and goals in life. If they persevere, they will succeed.

Perhaps more importantly, after reading all 11 books, I hope they will have adopted the habit of reading for pleasure and enlightenment. Since many of these girls may never return to formal education, adopting the habit of reading for pleasure could be one of the most valuable life skills tools they can take away from the entire BRAC program. A lifelong habit of reading is an effective means of informal self-education that could increase their communication and comprehension skills and broaden their horizons.

Allieu: Most if not all of the characters in the life skills books who experience gender-based issues reflect the experiences of girls we spoke to in BRAC’s clubs. I hope that they will believe that all is not lost, and that the stories they read will inspire them to adapt to and navigate these challenges.

 

About the authors

Mohamed Sheriff

Born and raised in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Mohamed Sheriff is an author, writing coach, publisher, producer, and director. He writes children’s books, short stories, novellas, and dramas for radio, television, and stage, and also produces and directs documentary videos, short films, and radio, television, and stage productions.

Mohamed’s books include Maryama Must GoTibujang Must Not ComeShasha Shooshoo and the Rat, and Secret Fear. He has contributed to plays including Not You Too and Free Juice For All. Mohamed has won several local and international awards for his writings, including three BBC awards for Just Me and Mama (1999), Spots of a Leopard (2006) and A Voice in Hell (1999) as well as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Prize for Excellence in Literature for Secret Fear (1999). He contributed to the following life skills books: Let Me Be, You Think You Know, Broken Promise, Change of Plan, For Her Sake, and To Do and To Dare.

Allieu S. Kamara

Allieu Kamara is an author who specializes in writing children’s books. He studied at Fourah Bay College at the University of Sierra Leone and brings a background in journalism. He enthusiastically promotes literature, reading, and creative writing for children in schools and communities across Sierra Leone.

Allieu’s works include, Is it Magic?The Waterside Stone, and Thief Thief! He contributed to the following life skills books: You Think You Know, Dreaming Again, and Change of Plan.

 

Sarah Allen is Communications Officer at BRAC USA.