(Photo: Amref Health Africa)
The Day of the African Child has been celebrated on June 16 every year since 1991, when it was first initiated by the Organisation of African Unity, now the African Union.
This year, 2016, the day will be marked under the theme “Conflict and Crisis in Africa: Protecting all Children’s Rights”.
Various conflicts have cost the continent the lives of millions of children who would have grown up to be productive citizens in the 54 countries that make up the continent. It is widely known how deeply conflicts disrupt the lives of communities and the functioning of systems established to address socioeconomic gaps as people flee conflict.
Besides diseases and conflict, other situations increase vulnerabilities. Prominent among these are negative social practices like female genital mutilation and child sacrifice that are still prominent in many parts of the continent.
Conflict notwithstanding, sub-Saharan Africa is home to the highest number of child deaths, largely due to preventable causes, including complications during pregnancy. In 2015, there were three million child deaths on the continent. This is equivalent to five children under five years of age dying every minute. Two-thirds of these deaths can be attributed to preventable causes. Preventable illnesses such as pneumonia, diarrhoea, malaria and HIV are still the leading causes of death in infants and young children.
Despite some countries making notable improvements in child health in recent years, sub-Saharan Africa’s average child mortality rate is still almost 12 times the average of high-income countries.
Over the last 50 years, Amref Health Africa has worked to address bottlenecks to improving child health and child survival in Africa.
Targeting a population of over 17 million children in nine African countries, Amref Health Africa has promoted the implementation of life-saving maternal and newborn services including antenatal care, basic emergency obstetric and newborn care, postnatal care, integrated management of childhood illnesses, nutrition, immunization and early childhood development interventions.
We have also promoted water, sanitation and hygiene targeting children in and out of school, complemented by programs to address menstrual health for girls.
One of our programs here in Kenya, the Dagoretti Child Protection and Development Cente, seeks to improve the health and living conditions of street children and other vulnerable children by strengthening community-based child protection systems. Over 26,000 children have passed through the centre and been rehabilitated and reunited with their families.
Despite these and other interventions, major challenges have continued to plague the progress to achieving lasting gains in child health. Key among these has been inadequate numbers of skilled health workers, poor health infrastructure to host the lifesaving interventions, weaknesses in sub-national leadership for health especially in new and emerging settlements on the continent, lack of vital equipment and regular supply stockouts due to weak supply and maintenance systems.
Over and above these, poverty in African communities affects women and children disproportionately.The empowerment of communities to establish and maintain their own health is a sustainable approach to reaching lasting health change for children in Africa. With empowered and healthy African people, even conflict and its effects can be largely curtailed.
On this year’s Day of the African Child, Amref Health Africa calls upon African governments to create and maintain a safe and conducive environment for children to grow, develop and mature properly.
This means that armed conflict and violence, which take a heavy toll on children‘s lives in many parts of Africa, should minimised. In Kenya, politicians should tone down on rhetoric that stirs up ethnic animosity especially now when the country is preparing for the 2017 General Election.
Investment in high-impact interventions regarding child health should increase to sustain and improve upon the gains made in the Millennium Development Goals era.
This calls for investment in addressing health system bottlenecks that curtail the quantity and coverage of interventions. Specifically, this investment should target to increase the availability of skilled health workers, essential lifesaving supplies and medicines, infrastructure as well as health technologies.
African countries and communities should also increase their financial contribution to health care - specifically for children - in order to meet the rising resource gap. This can start right from the village to larger communities and local governments through a framework of social health insurance. After all, it is our children who are the light – and life – of our future. Let’s hear their voices and make sure our systems are well positioned to handle future challenges, and in turn, to enable them to live healthy, safe and productive lives.