“Psychosocial wellbeing is necessary to reach one’s full potential”
Noreen Huni, founding Executive Director and CEO of REPSSI, talks about helping children in sub-Saharan Africa learn to feel good about themselves.
Caroline Smrstik Gentner: Your organization, REPSSI, is serving 13 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. What are some of the obstacles in common that children face in your region?
Noreen Huni: HIV and AIDS, and their linkage to poverty is the major challenge in our region. That’s what prompted us to start working in the most vulnerable communities: looking at the children’s social and emotional wellbeing in the context of HIV and poverty. Children are being left behind. Whenever I hear the safety announcements in the airplane (“Put your mask on first, then assist the child next to you.”), I realize it’s like that with anti-retroviral drugs. For most adults living with HIV, it has been all about “me, me, me first: I must get the treatment, I must survive”. Which is fine.
But that has led to very slow responses for the children. In all these countries, investment for children who are HIV-positive, and children in general, is very low.
Another common challenge is child marriage, which we believe is triggered by the economic status of individual families. Child marriage leads to teen mothers. How do you prepare a teen mother to look after herself, and to look after her new-born baby?
CSG: Why did your focus shift more to early childhood development themes?
NH: When you go into a community, you see children. You don’t see “children who are HIV-positive.” You just see children. The early childhood development phase is a great starting point for responding to the challenges faced by children. But when you begin to engage with them, you realize the difficulties they are experiencing and the level of resilience that they have. With more directed support, these children would thrive.
“It is important to equip a child with the appropriate knowledge, skills, and resilience factors that can help them to navigate milestones as they develop towards adolescence and adulthood.”
That’s what made us strengthen our work on early childhood development, because we realized that most of the interventions and support with our projects came too late in a child’s life.
Difficult as it may be to talk about AIDS, HIV prevention, or sexual and reproductive rights and issues to children, we need to keep challenging ourselves to do so. It is important to equip a child with the appropriate knowledge, skills, and resilience factors that can help them to navigate milestones as they develop towards adolescence and adulthood.
CSG: What’s your definition of psychosocial wellbeing?
NH: In my view, it is when you feel loved, when you feel accepted, when you feel encouraged, secure, and you have a sense of belonging. When you feel that you are free to express yourself and you feel good about yourself. In addition to that, you feel you are able to access the resources, skills, and knowledge that you want in order to thrive.
To me, psychosocial and mental wellbeing are the primary protective factors for positive social development, educational and health outcomes. One needs these protective elements to realize one’s full potential, not just to survive, but to thrive.
CSG: What can your organization do to foster psychosocial wellbeing?
NH: Aside from working with the parents or primary caregivers, and with everyone else who supports the caregivers, we encourage experiential learning. For children, being exposed to what we call “peak moments” helps – being able to manage peer pressure, how to praise others, being able to see what is good in others, being able to laugh together – all those things can improve a child’s psychosocial and mental wellbeing.
CSG: You mentioned once that adults failed to listen to children. Explain to me why you think that is neglected.
NH: In our context, children are never asked for their opinion! It can be very difficult to ask a child “what do you think?” We never give them that opportunity. When we work in communities, we therefore encourage our partners to use all their senses to find out what children think or need: What do you hear when the child says something? What do you see in a child? If a child is being abused, can you see that? What do you feel when you touch a child? If you just extend a hand to say hello, you may notice the child’s temperature is too high. Your sense of smell – if a child is being sexually abused, is neglected, you can smell that.
“Psychosocial and mental wellbeing are the primary protective factors for positive social development, educational and health outcomes.”
Caregivers must see a child as more than “just a kid”. Every child is a person with full human rights, who can communicate to us and express in a variety of ways how they are feeling or what they are going through.
CSG: Do you feel like a lone voice advocating for more structured early childhood development?
NH: It sometimes feels lonely! The level of engagement for early childhood development (ECD) is very low across the region. The ministries that support children or provide services to vulnerable communities are poorly resourced. South Africa has taken some positive strides, but in other countries ECD begins with toddlers and ignores the first 1000 days of life. There’s nothing on responsive care, early learning and early stimulation for children.
“Every child is a person with full human rights, who can communicate to us and express in a variety of ways how they are feeling or what they are going through.”
Despite all the evidence about brain development and the economic justification for investing in ECD, there’s so little action for meaningful impact. For me, it’s a continued missed opportunity for developing productive human capital.
Noreen Huni is CEO and founding Executive Director of REPSSI, an organization that mainstreams psychosocial support into programs and services for girls, boys, and youth in eastern and southern Africa. She is one of the ten recipients of the 2018 Klaus J. Jacobs Awards which is bestowed to social innovators and change makers in the field of child and youth development.