“The most precious infrastructure you could ever buy”: 5 Innovative Programs Investing in Mothers

July 18, 2016Tess Bissell

At May’s Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim linked women’s health, education, and empowerment to combating problems such as child stunting, helping nations compete in an increasingly digital world, and ultimately ending global poverty. He argued that the most important infrastructure for nations to invest in is not suspension bridges or solar energy, but rather “gray matter infrastructure...and it starts with a healthy girl”.

Five teams of innovators, all profiled on CEI’s Program Database, are targeting their interventions towards those that play the largest role in most children's lives, their mothers. By educating and empowering mothers, they seek to improve early childhood development outcomes for many generations to come.

Mothers mentoring mothers:

Philani is a South African organization that believes that children need to be healthy to learn. Their Mentor Mothers program is based on the premise that communities are best placed to solve their own problems. The organization seeks out mothers who have successfully raised healthy, well-nourished children and identifies them as role models for the community. After a 4 to 6 week training period, the women conduct home visits to build supportive and trusting relationships with mothers, and discuss any issues that the children and family may have. By drawing on the skills and knowledge of a community’s exceptional mothers, Mentor Mothers affects social change in basic child health and early childhood development.

Mother-child health:

In Colombia, where 1.5 million vulnerable children under 5 do not participate in early childhood programs, aeioTU employs a holistic model to improve health outcomes for both mothers and young children. The organization supports children’s socio-emotional, cognitive, linguistic, and physical development, offers vaccination opportunities and support for gestating mothers, and promotes healthy habits and breastfeeding. aeioTU also emphasizes positive and reciprocal relationships between children and adults, revealing that parent health and child health are not separate issues, but rather are inextricably linked.

Mothers as teachers:

Lively Minds tackles two major barriers to early childhood development and education, or ECDE, in rural Ghana and Uganda: poor quality kindergarten education and poor home-based care and stimulation. The program trains and empowers parents to provide creative and play-based activities for preschool children using local resources. The volunteer mothers are predominantly uneducated and often marginalized in their communities. By developing skills such as self-sufficiency, creativity and volunteerism among these local mothers, who in turn instill similar traits in their children and community, Lively Minds creates a sustainable and replicable behavior-change program.

Mothers as community advocates:

Increase in Enrollment and Learning Through Demonstration, implemented by the Institute of Rural Management (IRM) in Pakistan, also recognizes the powerful role that local mothers play in a child’s development. The program employs mothers’ groups to help enroll out-of-school children in formal education. Through door-to-door enrollment campaigns, the project aims to increase enrollment in targeted schools in Punjab by 400 students. The mothers are selected after an initial assessment based on set criteria, particularly focusing on engaging those mothers whose children are already enrolled in school. In this way, IRM combines mentorship and advocacy to create a unique space for mothers as community educators.

Education of and by [grand]mothers:

Kisumu municipality in Kenya has high rates of HIV/AIDS, and low rates of school access and retention for orphans and vulnerable children. The Kisumu Medical and Education Trust’s (KMET) Active Inclusion Program seeks to increase access to ECDE by working with multiple generations of mothers. Firstly, the organization provides day care and community mentorship so that teenage mothers can re-enroll in education. Secondly, KMET identifies 54 grandmothers - dubbed "Nyanyas” - and trains them as child rights advocates. In turn, the Nyanas communicate the importance of education to families and communities members, identify children who have dropped out of school, and mentor them to encourage re-enrollment in ECDE and primary school. As KMET’s results reveal, perhaps the only people more powerful than educated mothers are teams of empowered grandmothers.

Mentor Mothers, aeioTU, Lively Minds, IRM, and KMET each take a unique approach to investing in mothers. However, these five organizations all reveal that early childhood development and women’s empowerment are not separate issues: the welfare and education of mothers and children are uniquely intertwined, and therefore require innovative, cross-sectoral solutions.

Tess Bissell is the R4D Center for Education Innovations intern. She is originally from Pittsfield, MA, and is currently pursing a BA in Comparative Literature at Princeton University. She has previously interned at an education non-profit in Uganda, and worked as a college counselor and tutor with underserved youth in New Jersey and New York.

Photo credit (top to bottom): Dominic Chavez/World Bank, Philani, aeioTU, Lively Minds, IRM, KMET


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Community EngagementEarly Childhood Developmentmothersearly childhood educationECD


I am encouraged to see this blog post about the roles mothers play as initial teachers of the children in their care. My book Global Literacy in Local Learning Contexts: Connecting Home and School has just come out https://www.routledge.com/Global-Literacy-in-Local-Learning-Contexts-Connecting-Home-and-School/Mount-Cors/p/book/9781138126121 and is relevant to this post and this conversation. I hope to talk more about this and its related intersections with you and the broader community in education, and wanted to flag the connection and highlight the book's publication just this month! Best, Mary Faith

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