What comes to your mind when you think of your childhood? Does it bring you happy memories and laughter?
We all dream of a world where every child and adolescent has a happy childhood…
Toward prevention and holistic health
Prior to becoming a Rotary Peace Fellow and graduate student in Maternal and Child Health at UNC Gillings School of Public Health, for over seven years I worked on developing and coordinating programs aimed at preventing and responding to adverse childhood events during my tenure at UNICEF country offices in Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine. Armed conflict, violence against children, family separation, child institutionalization and incarceration can leave a lifelong impact on children’s developing brains and lives. This work experience has reassured me of the importance of prevention and the need to focus on holistic health and development. This encompasses not just physical, but mental health wellbeing and the social environment in which we live.
In the midst of my studies, I am taking a step back to reflect on past work, analyzing frameworks and thinking beyond traditional approaches. I hope by doing this, I may be able to unpack and understand more deeply the circumstances in which people are born, grow, and live, and how these social determinants affect the wellbeing and health of children, adolescents and their families. Through this practice of reflection, my desire is to dig deeper to address underlying root causes of systemic injustices.
Peace at the micro-unit
According to UNICEF, one in four children in the world is living in a country affected by acute or protracted conflict or natural disaster.1 If we are to build lasting peace, which is beyond absence of violence, it has to be rooted in social justice and equity, where human dignity and the rights of all people including children are respected and protected. As long as there are inequalities in the society driven by socio-economic status, race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, disability, etc., affecting the most vulnerable and disenfranchised groups, we will be far from our goal of creating sustainable peace and a decent childhood for all people.
Focusing on the wellbeing of children and their families, which is the micro-unit of our bigger community, will help to advance peace from within and between. If we teach children conflict resolution skills and respect for all, if we empower parents with positive parenting skills, and provide comprehensive family support, we will plant seeds towards peacebuilding.
Community health workers and universal health care
Child health and wellbeing can be promoted when there is universal health care and no child is left behind because his or her village is too far from nearest health worker or facility.2 Community health workers (often lay people chosen by their local community) are among the first to be in touch with families in need. They play a key role in bringing key messages for health education and bridging local communities with the upstream health system to ensure timely and adequate access to services. Community Health Workers are also instrumental in emergencies such as the Ebola outbreak by providing essential healthcare services, thanks to the trust that they have within the community.3
This is the focus of my applied field experience, which is a combination of grassroots and upstream level work. In May, I volunteered with a non-profit based in Raleigh, North Carolina called “Curamericas Global”. Curamericas’ vision is hope through health. They operate in Latin America and Sab-Saharan Africa to build sustainable, effective health care programs that empower communities to save the lives of mothers and children.
In rural Guatemala, Curamericas is partnering with underserved indigenous Mayan communities to make measurable and sustainable improvements in their health and wellbeing. Curamericas has established a network of thousands of local Community and Village Health Workers that reach impoverished indigenous Mayan communities with vital health services and education. My role was to support their operational qualitative research on understanding the perceptions and role of Village Health Workers by reviewing transcriptions, coding and analyzing findings, and drafting a final report. It was evident that Community Health Workers not only promote maternal and child health, but also the health of entire families by empowering local communities to be their own agents of change.
To supplement my fieldwork experience and recent research work, I am now working for UNICEF Headquarters in New York City. HQ provides strategic guidance and support to over 190 UNICEF country offices around the world. As a leading organization for children, UNICEF promotes the rights and wellbeing of every child, everywhere.
I am supporting the Child and Community Health team to promote institutionalization of community health workers as well as to advance gender equality and empowerment within the CHW workforce. It is important that the role and potential of community health workers and systems are recognized, formalized, and strengthened. I am contributing towards research and development of programmatic approaches such as the use of integrated and comprehensive home-based records like mother-child passports, and linkage with digital health messaging and e-registries.
As children and adolescents are not just passive recipients of services but actors in their own right, I am supporting preparations for youth engagement in the upcoming Global Conference on Primary Health Care in October 2018, which marks the 40th anniversary of the Alma-Ata declaration, the first international declaration underlining the importance of primary health care.
To keep the momentum…
Returning to my original question of your childhood story, your story and the narratives of all children can inform and guide our work while helping us keep our focus and passion. While there is so much work ahead, celebrating little steps and remembering the precious eyes and smiles of children can help us to keep the momentum going. I will continue in my endeavor of adding droplets to the global work of investing in children and adolescents as well as their families toward building lasting peace together. As Mahatma Ghandi said, “If we are to reach real peace in the world, we shall have to begin with the children.”
This has been a truly humbling experience and my words of deep appreciation go to the Rotary Foundation of Rotary International and Rotarians worldwide, who are generously supporting my graduate studies. I would also like to extend my gratitude to the Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Center, our Host Area Coordinator, my host family, my academic adviser, my mentors at UNICEF and Curamericas, whose wisdom and leadership have taught me so much.
- UNICEF. Humanitarian Action for Children 2018. https://www.unicef.org/appeals/car.html.
- No one should die because they live too far from a doctor | Raj Panjabi. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N9HF8mMe2pU.
- Leone S, Miller NP, Milsom P, et al. Community health workers during the Ebola. 2018. doi:10.7189/jogh.08.020601.