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Opinions of Thursday, 17 June 2021

Columnist: Amanuel Mamo

Will Africa be fit for children by 2040?

The photo used to illustrate the story The photo used to illustrate the story

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 10 “aspirations”, to be achieved by 2040, including, “an effective continental framework for advancing children’s rights; an effective child-friendly national legislative, policy and institutional framework in all member states; that every child’s birth and other vital statistics are registered; that every child survives and has a healthy childhood; that every child grows up well-nourished and with access to the basic necessities of life; that every child benefits fully from quality education; that every child is protected against violence, exploitation, neglect and abuse; that children benefit from a child-sensitive criminal justice system; that every child is free from the impact of armed conflicts and other disasters or emergency situations; and to ensure that 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?

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 favourable 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, COVID-19 pandemic stands out. 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 February 27, 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 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.

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.

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 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.

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.

Mamo, the advocacy and campaigns director for Save the Children writes from Abuja.