Somatic changes including growth and development of the brain of a human being occur very early in life. Programmes that enhance early childhood development (ECD) therefore should be part of the national agenda.

Cognizant of this fact, the Malawi Government together with development partners facilitated the establishment of community-based child care centres (CBCCs) which are owned and managed by community members. This study was aimed at understanding how CBCCs operated and their core functions.

Methods: Using information from databases kept by the District Social Welfare Officers from all the 28 districts in Malawi, coupled with snowballing, all functioning CBCCs were enumerated.

A questionnaire was administered to the head of the CBCC or a care giver. Highly trained Research Assistants also carried our observations of the structures around the centres and the activities that actually happened.

Data was analysed using a Statistical Package for Social Sciences.

Results: Communities provide structures, support for care givers, food, utensils, labour and play materials for the children in CBCCs. The first ECD centre was established in 1966 but the real surge in establishing these happened towards the end of the 1990s and by 2007 there were 5,665 CBCCs in Malawi caring for 407,468 children aged between 3 and 5 years.

CBCCs were established to provide pre-primary school learning, and in some cases provide special care to orphans and other vulnerable.

Conclusions: Despite the fact that most CBCC premises and structures fell short of the standards laid down by the CBCC profile, the activities and services provided were mostly to the book. Children were provided with nutritious foods and subjected to play that stimulated their cognitive and mental development.

Despite the fact that some members of the community do not realize the value of the CBCCs, the existence of these institutions is an opportunity for the community to take care of their children communally, a task that has become imperative as a result of the upsurge in the number of orphans as a result of the HIV and AIDS epidemic. The study recommends that Malawi should take investments in ECD programmes as a priority.

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