Raquel seemed to be a healthy baby, but early on her parents, Maria Aparecida and Tiago Rodrigues, began to suspect that something was wrong. At five months, there was no doubt. An unusual swelling in her head revealed what had gone unnoticed in prenatal tests: Raquel suffered from hydrocephalus, also called water on the brain, rare medical condition characterized by the accumulation of fluid in the internal cavities of the brain.
“When Raquel was born, we didn’t know of this problem; she was perfect to us! But, after five months, when her head began to swell, we took her to a doctor. He said that Rachel had hydrocephalus. She was eight months old when she went into surgery,” Tiago says.
Today, at age four, Raquel still cannot walk by herself. Small steps are only possible when her father takes her by the hands, keeping her upright and helping her to move. “We do everything for her. It’s like we are her legs until she learns how to walk,” Tiago says.
Márcia Meiry dos Santos is one of the visiting agents of the Happy Child Programme in Parnamirim, in the northeastern state of Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil. For over a year, she has been working with Maria Aparecida, Tiago, Raquel and her two younger brothers.
Rachel’s movements used to be very limited. But since starting physiotherapy sessions in 2018, her motor development has become remarkable.
Raquel has even been able to join a local school, where she is chaperoned by her father. Tiago’s presence, however, does not seem to interfere with the girl’s autonomy. “Since the father is at the school, I asked him to stay close, but not inside the classroom, because I have seen that she interacts well. I turn to him only if I need to,” says Paula Germana Franco Dantas, Raquel’s teacher.
School staff have been surprised by Raquel’s academic and social skills “She even solves conflicts. She teaches a classmate to share. I once noticed a child sneaking another child’s toy and she said ‘No, you can’t take it’,” Ms Franco Dantas says.
Sharing is one of the lessons Raquel learns from home visits that are the first pillar of the Happy Child Programme. Four times a month, Márcia goes to the family home and performs the methodology known as ‘Care for Child Development,’ implemented by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund.
“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten,” says Raquel, demonstrating that she has already learned to count in English. The girl also knows the alphabet in Portuguese and can name colours in English and Spanish.
The main objective of the visits is to contribute to child development in early childhood and strengthen family bonding through play and other activities. This helps build relationships of trust and develop cognitive, physical, social, and emotional skills.
“It’s a great exchange of experience, not only for the householders, but for us, visitors as well. We learn lifetime lessons. And it´s not just Raquel’s house, we visit many households and every family is a unique experience,” says Ms dos Santos.
The task is not easy. The coordinator of the Happy Child Programme in Parnamirim, Izabelly Padilha Siqueira, says that the first contact requires team effort: “Families have a hard time at first, sitting on the floor to execute the method with the child. Because they think it’s trivial and that it’s not going to work. But then they begin to realize that the child is capable, to levels beyond what they imagined. That´s when things start to flow.”
The Happy Child Programme joins public policies for social assistance, education, culture, health, human rights and the rights of children and adolescents. The visiting agents act as bridges for this assistance network, co-ordinating with the Social Assistance Referral Centre and the Unified Social Assistance System.
It was launched in 2016 with the objective of expanding early childhood care in Brazil.
Home visits aim to combat poverty by reducing social vulnerabilities, increasing incomes, and by including children and their families in public services. “The programme creates a network of social protection. The visiting agent can be a path for the child to have basic services. We often realize that families do not know that there are certain assistance services or how to access them. It all constitutes is a massive effort; a huge challenge,” says the National Secretariat for Promotion of Human Development, of the Ministry of Citizenship, Ely Harasawa.
UNDP Brazil, which oversees the project, believes more attention and investments directed at children are indispensable to reaching the objectives of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
“The programme offers us the opportunity to look at early childhood as a priority issue and an unavoidable target for the achievement of sustainable development, seeking to bring vulnerable children to the central focus of our actions. Initiatives of this kind are evidence that local, national and international leadership is fulfilling their role and taking actions that are indispensable for achieving the most ambitious Global Goals,” says UNDP Programme Analyst, Maria Teresa Amaral Fontes.
Photos by UNDP Brazil/Jéssica Chiareli. Photo editing by Rico Cruz, photography intern at UNDP New York.