Urban upgrading supports early childhood care spaces in informal settlements

Urban upgrading supports early childhood care spaces in informal settlements cover

Author: James Clacherty

Emthonjenis are open-air learning spaces located around communal water taps in informal settlements in Cape Town, South Africa. They offer a safe space for children to access out-of-centre Early Childhood Development (ECD) services. We interviewed Phethang Mabeba, the ECD lead from Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPUU), to learn more about their model for combining ECD with violence prevention.

For more than a billion people living in informal settlements, the threat of violence and crime is a constant concern. Daily experiences of violence range from petty theft and small-scale crime to domestic abuse, sexual violence, and political and structural violence.

The risk of exposure to interpersonal violence can be even higher for young children who do not have access to childcare services. Because they are often restricted to overcrowded indoor spaces by time- and resource-poor caregivers who are constantly stressed.

If we, as urban development practitioners, want to make cities safer for children and youth, tackling the complex spectrum of violence and crime must be high on our list of priorities. This is not only because we have a responsibility to ensure children’s right to protection from all forms of physical or mental violence, but also because violence and crime are inextricably linked to poverty and inequality, and contribute to the vulnerability of the poorest neighbourhoods in our cities.

Upgrading and activating urban spaces

VPUU is a South African organisation that has developed an innovative approach to violence prevention called Emthonjeni, a Xhosa word meaning fountain or spring. The emthonjeni combines early childhood development with a violence prevention strategy tailored to the unique dynamics of informal settlements. Currently, the project operates in two informal settlements, Monwabisi Park and Lotus Park in Cape Town.

The model operates at two levels. The first level is centred around ‘activating’ unsafe and underutilised spaces within a community by installing infrastructure and offering services in key locations. The aim is to increase foot traffic in these areas, create passive surveillance, and cultivate a sense of community safety. “The more traffic there is because something is happening in an area, the less crime there is likely to be”, says Ms Mabeba.

An underutilised or unsafe space can be ‘activated’ in many different ways. Amongst the activations that VPUU has co-created with the communities are communal kitchens, food gardens, toy libraries and community information and activity centres. VPUU has also established a Youth Café in Villiersdorp, where young people can access the internet, various training courses, and open-air and formal ECD centres.

ECD as a violence prevention tool

The emthonjeni are an example of the second level at which VPUU’s violence prevention strategy operates: providing children with quality ECD services in spaces where they feel protected and have access to a consistent source of support. Young children are particularly vulnerable to violence. The emotional burden of daily violence can have lasting psychological and developmental effects that they will carry throughout their lives.

VPUU’s approach is based on evidence that suggests that early intervention through good quality comprehensive ECD is the most impactful and cost-effective way to reduce violence and break the cycle of poverty. The emthonjeni offer a safe and pleasant environment where caregivers can take a break from their responsibilities and where children can play, learn, and socialise. Children also develop lasting supportive relationships with the ECD facilitators. Engaging with children from a young age mitigates the risk factors for violence.

Responding to local needs

Although there are creches and playgroups in the informal settlements where VPUU operates, these are often run informally by community members who earn their income from attendance fees. Many families cannot afford the fees for these services, and most of these informal service providers have no training in ECD. The emthonjeni are free for children to attend and partially fill a significant gap in ECD services in these communities.

Facilitators running an early childhood outreach session at an emthonjeni in Monwabisi Park, Cape Town, South Africa © VPUU

The emthonjeni model is one example of combining a site-specific spatial upgrading approach with an ECD intervention. Emthonjeni are created in partnership with local communities by upgrading underutilized areas around communal taps with paving, benches and tables. In this way they are transformed into safe educational spaces and a pleasant place for people to spend their time.

Every year VPUU trains ten community members identified by community leaders in early childhood care and development following the Unlimited Child curriculum. They do this by leveraging an existing government youth employment scheme called the extended public works programme (EPWP).

Trained community members run outdoor ECD sessions for four hours daily, teaching children play-based literacy and numeracy. Young children accompanying their caregivers going to collect water or do their laundry at the communal tap can play with the educational toys made available at the emthonjeni. Children can also attend the ECD sessions or play with their peers in a safe environment with plenty of supervision.

A key learning the emthonjeni intervention highlights is that 'even in low-resource contexts local communities and NGO partners can creatively transform unsafe and underutilised spaces to meet a wide range of needs.' Share on X. As Ms Mabeba points out about the communities in which VPUU works Urban upgrading supports early childhood care spaces in informal settlements Share on X.


About the Author

James Clacherty  is a research consultant working on issues affecting young people in urban areas in the global South, based in Cape Town, South Africa. James has a particular interest in urban governance and creating communities of care within our cities.


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