Early childhood development (ECD) is at the heart of ChildFund's work and strongly influences our global work. If children are deprived of the chance to start their lives with the resources they need, their chances of emerging from poverty and leading healthy, happy and productive lives are greatly diminished. ChildFund works in some of the poorest countries in the world to provide children and their families with the support they need, and in Sri Lanka, the need remains great.
In some countries, the challenges facing children and their families are somewhat straightforward: food scarcity, the prevalence of disease or income inequality. However, in Sri Lanka, social problems are often much more complex and stem from the country's 26-year political conflict that ended in 2009. During that time, 460,000 people were displaced, and many are struggling now to acclimate after returning home.
Malnutrition is one of the most urgent problems facing people in the country's poorest communities. Children suffering from malnutrition often have weaker immune systems, which reduces their ability to fight disease and develop at a typical rate. According to UNICEF, 17 percent of infants born between 2006 and 2010 were underweight, and more than 20 percent were moderately to severely underweight. In addition, a lack of access to health care places thousands of expectant mothers at risk of dying during childbirth.
Even if children survive their first few years, poor sanitation remains a major factor in the spread of disease and child mortality. Diarrhea and respiratory infections are among Sri Lanka's leading causes of death in children, both of which can be improved by informing parents and caretakers about children's basic developmental needs, which include proper diet and hygiene.
Our ECD programs in Sri Lanka have benefited more than 1.2 million children and their families since we came to the country in 1985. Our approach to ECD empowers families to make good decisions about their children's early years, focusing on nutrition, health care, education and ongoing psychosocial, emotional, physical and mental development.
When mothers and other caretakers become educated about healthier diets and good hygiene practices, children benefit; they are more likely to resist diseases and reach their potential. Children experience social and academic growth through play and exploration. To date, ChildFund has either constructed or developed 430 ECD centers across Sri Lanka, and more than 6,000 children have access to ECD centers nationwide.
ChildFund has also been instrumental in the strengthening of parent-teacher associations across the country, a vital step toward improving awareness of the importance of good child development practices. In communities throughout Sri Lanka, we have also provided 750 training sessions to mothers on about hygiene, childhood illnesses, primary health care, childcare and stimulation, reaching more than 16,000 parents and caregivers.
Thanks to the continued work of ChildFund, other aid organizations and the government, Sri Lanka is now the only South Asian country to be categorized as "high" on the United Nations' Human Development Index. ChildFund needs your help to maintain this momentum and ensure that children in need are given the opportunity to grow and learn. Sponsoring a child is one of the best ways you can invest in the future of a child, and for about a $1 a day, you can help us bring hope to a child and his or her family in Sri Lanka.