Country and region: Malawi

Organisation: Save the Children

Point person and Role: Lexon Ndalama, Senior Technical Advisor for Education and Child Development at Save the Children Malawi

Population served by the programme: All 34 education districts (4 urban and 30 rural) in Malawi.

Unique characteristics of the setting: During the nation-wide closure of educational institutions, alternative educational programmes for children aged 3 to 5 years old were widely unavailable, especially in rural areas. Malawi has relatively high levels of illiteracy and about 40% of the population own radios.

Number of cases and deaths due to COVID-19 at time of publishing: 5,733 cases and 179 deaths

Emily Leston from rural Malawi is teaching her child with support from Interactive Radio Instruction.

Briefly describe the key components of your COVID-19 response programme.

At the end of March 2020, the Government of Malawi announced the nation-wide closure of all educational institutions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Following this announcement, we adapted our Early Childhood Development Interactive Radio Instructions programme to not only ensure the continuity of education, but also to disseminate information about COVID-19 preventive measures to household members. This programme had previously used radio-based lesson formats as an aid for local-level teaching facilitators working within community-led child care centres. Given the nature of the pandemic, we scaled up and adapted the programme to become a home-focused Interactive Radio Programme which was designed to be facilitated by parents, guardians and older siblings.

This adaptation included the following key components:

  1. Widening coverage of our radio programmes: We went from broadcasting our Interactive Radio Instructions programmes in 13 districts to airing in all of the 34 educational districts in the country, in response to the closure of education institutions. We partnered with additional radio stations to ensure nation-wide distribution of our programmes.
  2. Educational radio spots for children: Since the 1st of June 2020, we have been airing 30-minute educational radio spots for children aged 3 to 5 years old, during all normal school days. Our educational radio spots have been designed to be as ‘parent-friendly’ as possible since most parents have become responsible for facilitating their children’s education after the nation-wide closure of educational institutions. The 30-minute radio spots are usually a combination of songs and short activities introducing educational content such as letters, figures, body parts as well as physical activities.
  3. Fortnightly talk show programmes for parents: We have also been presenting fortnightly talk-show programmes where parents are invited to provide feedback, share experiences and ask questions to education professionals.

Both the radio spots and talk-shows are being broadcast over a 6 month period by 12 community radio stations across the country with an estimated reach of 2.04 million children. Topics covered in our radio programmes have been drawn and adapted from the national Early Childhood and Development curriculum and are complemented with COVID-19 related messages encouraging key preventive behaviours, especially handwashing with soap and physical distancing.

What process did you use when designing your COVID-19 response programme?

Save the Children has been delivering Interactive Radio Instructions in the local language (ChiChewa) and across three of the 34 education districts since 2014. This programme employs radio-based lesson formats as an aid for local-level teaching facilitators working within community-led child care centres. Local-level facilitators also act as a network to disseminate information and communicate with parents in their communities. This approach was found to improve both the teaching skills among local-level facilitators and increase child development-related knowledge among parents. The gains realised from the Interactive Radio Instructions programme before COVID-19, won us recognition from the Malawian Government and the World Bank. This led to us securing funding to build the capacity of the Government to lead the implementation of the Interactive Radio Instructions programme in 10 more districts.

Since the start of our programme, we have gathered feedback from each Early Childhood Development District Coordinators via regular phone calls. In conjunction with the Child Care Centre local-level facilitators, they have helped us to identify needs from the population, especially for the distribution of radio sets to the most vulnerable households.

Early on during the pandemic, District Coordinators and Child Care Centres facilitators reported that parents and caregivers were looking for alternative ways of accessing quality educational content as well as information on how to protect their children and themselves from COVID-19. In response, we decided to adapt this programme to make it as ‘parent-friendly’ as possible, suppressing any technical jargon and using popular songs and easy activities to introduce educational concepts to the children. We also created COVID-19 related jingles and messages to cover preventive and risk mitigation measures. Our spots and messages were independently reviewed by external experts from international NGOs, UNICEF and the Malawian Ministry of Gender. We decided to broadcast our radio spots in the national language, ChiChewa, to conform with the national language of instruction in lower grades.

What is one thing that has been working really well so far and is there something other programmes could learn from this?

Our radio programmes, directly drawn from the Early Childhood Development curriculum and enriched with COVID-19-related information, were developed to meet these needs and have been demonstrated to be widely attended by the 40% of the population of Malawi who own a radio. In a short monitoring study conducted in 15 districts throughout the country, we estimated that 38% of every household are regularly listening to our radio spots and talk-shows. The use of local language and community radio stations to broadcast our programme, and the effort we had made to make the programmes easy to follow and facilitate for parents, were reported as key successful features of our project.

What is one challenge that you have encountered and how are you trying to overcome this?

Access remains a challenge since there is a relatively low penetration of radio within the general population (only 40% of people have a radio set at home). We have tried to overcome this challenge in two ways. First, we have encouraged households owning a radio to invite their neighbours with no radio to attend our programmes together. To limit fear of COVID-19 transmission, we have encouraged our listeners to observe strict physical distancing with members from other households, to limit gatherings to five children at the same time and to ensure each person attending the programme washes hands with soap before and after the broadcast. Secondly, we have supported the distribution of more than 3,400 radios to the most vulnerable households in partnership with UNICEF, ActionAid and GIZ (the German agency for international development).

Reaching children with hearing disabilities has been another major challenge for our programme. With low access to alternative devices such as computers, we have encouraged parents knowing sign language to translate the content of our radio spots to their children. We have also contacted professional interpreters living in the immediate environment of families needing support to visit these households and facilitate daily teaching sessions for children with hearing disabilities.

How have you been engaging communities throughout your programme and what feedback have you received?

The fortnightly talk-shows have been our main way of gathering feedback from our listeners. During these talk-shows, participants are invited to call the radio station and share their experience or ask questions. We have also used these shows to gather information about our audience, monitor our programme and adapt the content of our upcoming radio spots.

For instance, we identified that female primary caregivers and older women are primarily the ones facilitating their children’s education in most households. These female caregivers reported that they would like it if our programme could be aired in other regional languages to make it easier for them to understand and apply. To engage fathers more in the education of their children, we have also started to adapt the content of our radio spots based on our experience involving men in other programmes such “Let Girls Learn” or “Keeping Girls in Schools”. For example, some activities broadcasted in our radio spots are led by men and model positive parenting at household level.

Complaints about the limited access to radio have also been reported in our talk-shows providing us with evidence to advocate for the distribution of more radio sets. To complement this we have also developed complementary paper-based home reading tools that are modelled on the national curriculum and adapted for at home use.

Emily Leston from rural Malawi keeps learning alive for her children with support from Interactive Radio Instruction.

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