By Amanuel MAMO
This day reminds me of a visit I had a few years back to one of Save the Children International – Nigeria supported community managed acute malnutrition center, where infant and young child feeding interventions and micronutrient supplements are provided to children suffering from severe acute malnutrition. There were nearly hundreds of them at the center. I wanted to talk to some of the beneficiaries and understand their life and situation. The story of one of those I have talked with really took my attention. Aisha*, 24, was one of the youngest mothers among beneficiaries. She was carrying her three years old girl. I have asked her a few questions. She said, she got married at the age of twelve. She has never gone to school. She is originally from Niger, lived around the boarder of Nigeria and she had to come to Katsina State to survive and get a treatment for her girl, who has been very ill and weak.
The draught and displacement in her home village made it difficult to farm and produce enough food for her family. She has five other children at home. She still wants to have more children to impress her husband. She said her oldest daughter is married and about to deliver a child. In less than couple of months, Aisha* was excited and proud that she will be a grandmother at 24. How could that be possible? I was shocked and talked to myself, this is impossible and too soon to be a grandmother. But that was a real life of Aisha*. I am a witness, that child marriage can be transferable. It can be inherited. It is like a spider-web, a life cycle for many – unless it is cut somewhere and by something.
Aisha* was not privileged to go to school and she also was not able to send her children to school. She has no future plan for sending them to school. Her life time goal is competing with the second wife of her husband and bit her by having more number of children than her. Due to the lack of knowledge and education, she was urged to make uninformed decision about herself and about her children as well. Poverty did dictate the poor decisions she has been making in life. She missed enjoying her childhood as a result of child marriage. There are millions of other children like Aisha* and her children who need better tomorrow, bright future – as we commemorate the Day of the African Child today.
The Day of the African Child (DAC) is celebrated to remember hundreds of school-children who lost their lives during a peaceful protest for their right to quality education in Soweto, South Africa, on June 16, 1976. The children were demanding to learn in their local language. To honour their courage and in memory of those killed, the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union), established The Day of the African Child. First celebrated on June 16, 1991, the Day has continued to be a popular opportunity for African children to advocate and campaign for their own rights. It is time to give back, respect, the rights of children and empower them to advocate and campaign for themselves – like what they did in Soweto.
The theme for the Day of the African Child (DAC) 2021 is “30 years after the adoption of the Charter: accelerate the implementation of Agenda 2040 for an Africa fit for children”. The African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC), established under Articles 32 and 33 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC) selected this theme for the commemoration of the DAC2021.
The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, although similar to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in many respects, gives a unique African context by addressing child rights issues which are not covered by the UNCRC, including but not limited to the responsibilities of the child and protection from harmful cultural practices. The Charter is believed to have contributed to a number of big wins and achievements on child rights over the last 30 years – but there are more to do yet, so that children are fully recognized as right holders whereas states and governments are duty bearers with the responsibility to respect, protect and fulfill child rights across the 50 countries in the continent that are party to the Charter.
It was in 2016 that the ACERWC established a 25-year Agenda named, “Agenda 2040: Fostering an Africa fit for children”. The Agenda aims to restore the dignity of the African child through assessing the achievements and challenges faced towards the effective implementation of the African Children’s Charter and intends to establish long-term strategies that will contribute towards sustaining and protecting children’s rights in Africa.
The Agenda 2040 states that no form of violence against a child is justifiable. Children have a right to be protected from violence. According to Agenda 2040, children “have to be the drivers of Africa’s renaissance”. Meaning, what we invest today on children will bring results in 2040 – based on how best or bad we perform in the next nearly two decades.
The Agenda sets out ten “aspirations”, to be achieved by 2040, including, “The African Children’s Charter, as supervised by the African Children’s Committee, provides an effective continental framework for advancing children’s rights; An effective child-friendly national legislative, policy and institutional framework is in place in all member States; Every child’s birth and other vital statistics are registered; Every child survives and has a healthy childhood; Every child grows up well-nourished and with access to the basic necessities of life; Every child benefits fully from quality education; Every child is protected against violence, exploitation, neglect and abuse; Children benefit from a child-sensitive criminal justice system; Every child is free from the impact of armed conflicts and other disasters or emergency situations; and African children’s views matter”. However, where are we in terms of achieving these aspirations? What should we do differently? How much should we invest in order to finally make Africa fit for children?
It is worth to recognize that it is instrumental and a huge milestone that we have the Agenda 2040, the Charter and UNCRC, but my trillion-dollar question is, how do these visions and legal instruments really change the lives of millions of African children like Aisha* and her girls? How long does it take us to get there?
We are celebrating this year’s DAC with such a practical question to be answered, in the midst of critical challenges facing children as well as envisioning a dawn of hope. The threats and bottlenecks for child rights are many and sometimes deep-rooted. To mention some, climate change, displacement, COVID-19 pandemic, armed conflict, harmful practices, abuse, exploitation and violent attacks are threatening to push millions of children into poverty, acute food insecurity, reduced access to education and protection risks. However, innovative local solutions and strategies are critical to reverse the impact of these threats, as well as maintain and scale up the gains we have been able to achieve for child rights in the last three decades from when the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC) was first adopted.
Every child is born with a very special, unique natural talent, gift, dream or potential. The millions of children who are celebrating the Day of the African Child 2021 have millions of various potentials – an untapped, hidden, treasure of the continent. Yet, every child needs a favorable environment and opportunities to realize, grow and release their full potentials. Children are like a germinated small, but growing trees – they need water, soil, sunshine to bear fruits and multiply. So do children. How we are feeding, watering and exposing them to sunshine today determines their tomorrow. We are responsible to get it right on how their future would look like. There is a hope – and also a threat and risk to be managed and controlled so that those millions of childhood dreams and potentials will come true. That is the moment when we have the Africa fit for its children.
Among many other challenges children have experienced in recent years, I just want to discuss a few, starting with the impacts of COVID-19 pandemic. It is over a year since we felt how the pandemic has affected children by interrupting their education. The girl child is the most vulnerable groups in this situation. Being out of school increases girls’ exposure to protection risks, such as exploitation, adolescent pregnancy, child, early and forced marriage, among others. Ensuring accessible, quality, free, inclusive and uninterrupted girls’ education is one of the best strategies to prevent child marriage whereas failure to do so could cost the continent a lot – as equal as trillions of dollars.
Nigeria experienced its first case of COVID-19 on 27th February 2020. The number has been rapidly increasing since then. The government has made remarkable efforts and impressive progress have been made to prevent and slowdown the transmission and impacts of the pandemic. Yet, there is more to be done to reduce its effects on not only the general public, but particularly on the most vulnerable groups, including IDPs, refugees, girls, people with disabilities and children in conflict context. There should be a stronger national-international cooperation and coordination, as well as a robust corporate-private sector partnership to transform the health sector. Moreover, Nigeria and other African countries should invest more on scientific researches to locally produced vaccines, treatments and preventive medical equipment to contain the pandemic.
Disruption of Education
There are so many factors contributing to disruption of education, including COVID-19, displacement, violent attacks and effects of climate change. The most vulnerable groups when education is interrupted are girls. Low enrolment of the girl-child in school is widening the educational and economic gap between men and women. This has a long term economic consequence on the girl child. It determines the quality of life that the child could have. The likelihood of becoming economically independent and self- reliant becomes impossible when the girl child drops out of school. This leads to a recurring cycle of illiteracy, poverty, poor health, lack of economic opportunity and entrenched gender gaps.
Therefore, one of the strongest tools to break the cycle of poverty and transforms communities is to increase the enrolment of girls for primary education, ensure retention and their transition to secondary school. If a girl child is out of school, the likelihood of getting married at early age will be very high. When a girl is married young, she is robbed of her childhood and future opportunities to realize and release her potentials. She has an increased risk of poor health outcomes, having children at younger age, dropping out of school, experiencing violence at home, having restricted physical mobility, limited decision making ability, and earning less over her lifetime, among others.
The future Africa in the making, to be fit for children, demands transforming and protecting the education sector and increasing investment in primary and secondary education, in particular. African States and Governments should comply with the UNESCO declaration of 26% annual budget allocation to education.
Climate crisis is the biggest challenge of our time. It is a grave threat to children and their rights. Children have contributed the least to the climate crisis, and yet we know that they are paying the highest price.
Climate change can indirectly increase risks of violent conflict by amplifying poverty and economic shocks. It can increase the risk of state fragility and instability. Violations of child rights due to climate change are experienced with greater severity due to children’s physiological and psychological vulnerabilities. Protecting the environment is about preserving the planet earth for children, it is about peace, survival, social and economic development. If we don’t give it the attention and action it deserves, climate change will be a serious challenge to Africa’s agenda 2040 of making the continent fit for children.
Therefore, while we are celebrating the DAC, all stakeholders in the country and around the continent need to renew their commitment and take an informed, deliberate and accelerated action to ensure that all children (i.e., boys, girls, children with disabilities, refuges, internally displaced children etc) are given suitable opportunities and live in an enabling environment to realize, grow and release their talents.
On this day, children all over the Continent, are demanding a comprehensive national development agenda specially tailored for children that ensures their rights to learn, survive and be protected, and are fully protected, respected and fulfilled.
Africa can only be fit for all children by 2040, if we are increasing our investment on today’s children in the next 20 years.
*Real name changed for privacy purpose!
Amanuel MAMO, the Advocacy and Campaigns Director for Save the Children writes from Abuja.