Africa's Children

By Bill Turnbull W.F.

 
We probably all have the same image of 'Africa's Children' and this view is very much moulded by the media. The stereotype image is a suffering child, malnourished in some way, with pleading eyes and holding an empty bowl. This is the picture of Africa which we have become accustomed to over the last twenty or thirty years, but is it true? It is always dangerous to generalise and it is not true to say that the situation of the African child is the same in every African country. There has been great progress, especially in the 1970's, but this was slowed down and, in some places, brought to a halt in the last decade. Unfortunately in some parts of Africa children are still suffering from the same problems as their parents and grandparents. Let us take a look at some of the reasons for the perpetuation of the situation in general.
 
World Awareness and Concern
 
Worldwide the situation for children does not look too bright, for example some 40,000 children, under the age of five, die each day of malnutrition and curable diseases. The world community has been aware of the vulnerability of the child for many years and that their issues should be dealt with separately from those of adults. There have been attempts to enshrine protection in international law and conventions this century but a step forward came in 1979 with the year of the child which highlighted issues concerning children and, once again, pushed to the fore the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child which developed into today's convention.
 
The Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted on the 20th. November, 1989, entering into force the 2nd. September, 1990. Now 166 states are party to it including 49 African countries. In the same month, at 'The World Summit for Children', a declaration committing political leaders to the survival, development and protection of the world's children was signed. The leaders present promised to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child and pledged active support of goals to be reached by the year 2000.
 
In 1989 the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) decided that the 1990's would be the Decade for the African Child and during that time the member states, now numbering 51, should attempt to put OAU resolutions on children into practice. The 'African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child' was adopted by the OAU and opened for ratification in 1991. This document echoes that of the UN but develops points and makes them more relevant to the specific African situation.
 
Child Care and the Hunger Cycle
 
One of the greatest problems which children have to face is malnutrition, most of which occurs before they are two years old. Some time ago UNICEF identified an almost perpetual 'Hunger Cycle' which dominates the lives of the majority of people in developing countries and continues the propagation of malnutrition.
 

Children's problems may begin before they are born as often their mothers, when pregnant, have an inadequate diet and a heavy work load. This means that the baby has a one in six chance of being underweight at birth and and is also vulnerable to disease or early death. In the first six months most babies are protected by breast-feeding as they gradually gain immunity to many diseases from their mothers. At this age under-nourished and overworked mothers mean that their babies are at risk.

Child care in the early years is virtually a full-time occupation. It is difficult for African women to have enough time to prepare complimentary food, or even have access to the required ingredients, which becomes necessary from the age of about six months to two years. When the effects of poverty, a lack of parental education and an unhygienic environment are added to the list the child death rate rises to thirty or forty times higher than in rich countries.
 
By the age of three the results of malnutrition begin to show in the child's general development. Physical growth can be affected but also children become listless and do not demand the stimulation needed for mental development. This leads to a lack of energy and poor performance at school with the inevitable result of a low-paid job if employment is sought later. When this is transferred from the rural to urban situation, often where the men go in search of work to keep their families, it means that they are unable to afford the right food and basic needs and so the whole cycle begins again.
 
Some experts now believe that even the family which has a good crop yield and plenty of food is not necessarily the one without malnutrition or health problems. In such situations the women, as the main agricultural workers, will have more work in the fields and the children will get less attention. Because of this it is possible that there may be ten times more malnutrition in developing countries than is though at present. Another element here is that although food is available, if the diet is not balanced then children still suffer and gives rise to the three basic types of malnutrition. Protein energy malnutrition is caused by having insufficient proteins and carbohydrates and leads to marasmus (wasting away) and kwashiorkor (swollen bellies and thin limbs) in children.
 
Vitamin deficiency can cause more problems in developing countries than elsewhere. For example, it is estimated that worldwide a quarter of a million children go blind each year and others become less resistant to common infections due to the lack of vitamin A. This problem can be solved by eating dairy products, eggs and green vegetables.
 
Mineral deficiency leads to other problems. In the case of iron it gives rise to anaemia with an estimated 1.5 billion sufferers worldwide. Here the mother-to-be is greatly affected and severe anaemia is blamed for up to 20% of maternal deaths in developing countries. Anaemic children are more likely to catch diseases and have their intellectual development stunted.
 
Iodine Deficiency Disorder (IDD) also leads to brain damage and stunted growth in millions of children. It is common in areas where iodine has been leached out of the soil and so does not enter into the food chain in sufficient amounts. The solution to this problem, and the lack of vitamins in general, is quite simple. People, especially mothers, need to be educated as to what is a balanced diet and where cases of vitamin deficiency are extreme supplements may be given. This is easy when you can go to any chemist and buy what is necessary, but is impossible when the cure is not available nor is the money to buy it.
 
Teaching women about child health care certainly improves the situation, but it is not the whole answer. Without access to basic essentials all the benefit is lost. Simple things such as Oral Rehydration Treatment (ORT) can mean the difference between life and death for children. In 1991 diarrhoea killed 15,000 children every day, about 3.5 million under-5 each year, in developing countries. With education and the availability of the necessary ORT salts things improved. A similar situation occurs when children are immunised against the six main preventable diseases - measles, whooping cough, tetanus, polio, tuberculosis and diphtheria - but not everyone has access to such services (see the table below).
 
Poverty and Hunger
 
Poverty and Hunger have a great effect on children in Africa. Developing countries have about 75% of the world's population but only 30% of its grain - there is enough to feed the world but it is not in the right places. We tend to believe that famine is basically caused by a lack of rain which leads to a bad harvest. Unfortunately it is not that simple and the root causes may be found in various issues such as poverty, development, deforestation, agricultural methods, IMF adjustment policies and agricultural policies - both those of developed and developing countries.
 
The Agricultural policies of rich countries have had a disastrous impact on farming in other parts of the world. The West wished to keep markets for their own produce and so subsidised their farmers. As a result there was over production and world prices plummeted making it impossible for farmers in developing countries to compete. Most poor countries, especially in Africa, rely on exporting commodities in order to pay for imports and to reduce their external debts. The production of these 'cash crops' has become a priority in government policy and taken over most of the best land, pushing food crops to less fertile areas. The resulting pressure on the land gives rise to over cultivation, a reduced fallow period, insufficient fertiliser and the soil eventually becoming infertile. As a result people move into marginal areas, such as forests, which give a poor crop for a few years and then become permanently infertile. It is usually when people are living in such conditions, on the margins of survival, that a natural disaster such as a drought tips the balance. A downward spiral then begins which is very hard to reverse.
 
The result of such disasters are well documented but probably, non more so than the case of Ethiopia where many of the problems mentioned came together. 90% of Ethiopia's population live so close to the subsistence level that a drop in crop production is damaging. In good years it is difficult to find food to tide them over to the next harvest and few have reserves. This means that in lean years there is nothing to fall back on - a situation common in most African countries. Before the famine in Ethiopia hit the headlines in 1984 there had already been two years of drought. People in rural areas had survived by selling their land, animals and other possessions to buy food. When the source was finished in one place there was no choice but to go elsewhere and so vast numbers of people began to move making a high death toll inevitable. The situation in Ethiopia was made worse by other factors: the war which lasted nearly thirty years; mountainous and inaccessible terrain; the rural population were often far from roads and basic services such as health care, safe water and education; it was one of the poorest countries in the world with the lowest level of aid per person.
 
Ethiopia has faced all these problems and is rebuilding itself in peace. The country's Relief and Rehabilitation Commission has developed a monitoring system by keeping data on rainfall, crops and nutrition. They now have early signs of hardship and are able to react. In Autumn, 1987, when there was a poor harvest they set up distribution centres in hard hit areas where people could collect rations. Terracing, tree-planting and water conservation have lessened the damage done by deforestation and over cultivation. As part of the long-term solution the government began to resettle people in more fertile lowland areas where land, health and education facilities are available. This has been a success to a certain degree but there are health problems such as malaria, tsetse fly, and also some of the highlanders find it difficult to adapt.
 
Child Labour
 
The phenomenon of 'Street Children' is growing over the whole world, with at least 100 million living part time on the streets. These lone children are open to all sorts of exploitation by unscrupulous adults. Even when children do have families and homes in urban areas they can be caught up in an exploitation trap becoming a means of cheap labour and a vital wage for a poor family. The issue is quite complicated and there is no quick solution. It is possible to stop child labour in one area of the economy and as a result this may push it into another. This problem needs to be tackled in a planned way offering alternatives and attempting to change the social acceptance of such a work force.
 
Africa has the highest incidence of child labour and, although it is visible in urban areas, the majority of working children are employed in agriculture. In every rural community children are involved in growing their own food. For a family to survive it is necessary to have the help of the children in cultivation, especially in the rainy season, but it is difficult to know where to draw the line. Girls often suffer more as they also end up with the household chores as well. This is a problem common to every rural community the world over and the balance can only be found by the people on the spot.
 
Education
 
When a child's education is stopped because of the workload at home then questions may be asked. It is common - see the table opposite - for children in Africa to receive just a few years of schooling. They are kept at home either because there is no money for the school fees or there is work for them to do. Often boys end up looking after cows or goats from the age of seven or eight. They miss out totally on any prospects of education. Girls may also be caught as permanent nannies for their younger brothers and sisters. All end up without any chance of advancement.
 
The consequences of the lack of education are obvious and far reaching. Certainly with the present economic state of most African countries there is no money available to improve the situation and so it is fated to be a never ending cycle. If money and facilities are lacking for even basic primary schooling in Africa, what of the care and education of the disabled? According to a United Nations survey only Algeria, Cameroon, Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe have legislation concerning the education of the disabled.
 
It is estimated that more than 500 million people suffer from some disability worldwide and that 80% of those in developing countries live in isolated rural areas. In such circumstances disabled children, like those who have had polio, are often hidden away and not allowed to live a normal life. They have to fight their handicap, the ignorance of their parents and lack of schooling. When given the opportunity of medical care, some form of mobility and access to education the change in these children is miraculous.
 
In most African countries the deaf and visually impaired are also in a similar position. A country with a population of ten or twelve million may only have two or three schools, with places for a hundred or so children. Most of these establishments would be church or Nongovernmental Organisation run and probably rely on much outside financial help for running costs and to develop.
 
War
 
Without a doubt war has the most devastating affect on children. Over the last decade worldwide there have been forty major conflicts which have resulted in the deaths of more than 1.5 million children; over 4 million have been maimed; 5 million children have been uprooted and exiled and now live in refugee camps; 12 million have lost their homes. In the early 1990's the military budgets of developing nations exceeded $150 billion a year and the 46 least developed countries devoted more to defence than to health and education combined.
 
In war the most vulnerable are women and children who account for 92% of the Africa's war-related deaths. In the 1990's alone there have been civil wars in seven countries - Angola, Ethiopia, Liberia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Somalia and the Sudan. Last year's conflict in Rwanda orphaned at least 200,000 children. It is only now that Southern African countries are beginning to recover from the former South African government's policy of destabilisation. The worst affected were Angola and Mozambique with direct military intervention, but others like landlocked Malawi and Zambia which imported and exported through the two Mozambican ports of Beira and Nacala, were also hard hit.
 
The conflicts in Southern and Central Africa, as well as those in the Horn, have caused long lasting problems. Whole populations were displaced, economies were destroyed along with the basic infrastructure and health services, and as a result the child mortality rate soared. The mass movement of millions of people has caused innumerable problems.
 
Children caught in such conflicts are involved and affected in different ways: they are wounded in the fighting or by landmines; they see their members of their families hurt or killed; they are separated from their families and become refugees or displaced within their own countries; they are kidnapped and forced to become soldiers; they learn that violence can be a way of life. Many children carry the psychological scars of war and will do so for years to come. A survey carried out in Uganda, in 1985, found that 80% of displaced children from the Luwero Triangle, north of Kampala, where 50-200,000 are thought to have been killed, were clinically depressed; 96% had direct experience of violence and killing; 53% said brothers and sisters were killed and 46% had lost their parents.
 
When children are innocent victims of war the tragedy is bad enough but probably one of the most horrific developments is the use of the 'child soldier'. Children have had their place in armies, even in our own, for many centuries but they have never been so deeply involved as in modern times, despite the fact that most countries have agreed to abide by the Geneva and UN Conventions which say that children under fifteen should not carry arms.
 
Because of the nature of Africa's conflicts local 'conscripts' play a major role, even involving children. The armies involved have various reasons for using children: they take orphans along as a way of looking after them; children make ideal soldiers as they are easily manipulated and don't need as much food as an adult. Children also join an army for a variety of reasons, such as: most join voluntary as there is no other way to survive as orphans; others are forcibly recruited; some seek revenge for their parents or family deaths; others wish to protect their families from the warring factions or to get food for them. Children's problems grow when they are drawn into army activities and they begin to kill. Once they become used to death they think nothing of killing and often cannot stop. In the early 1980's Uganda suffered an extensive civil war, for six years, which cost many thousands of lives. Both sides had hundreds of children carrying arms, girls and boys, some as young as nine or ten years old. The result of these years was a great fear remaining within the children and, for those who had lost relatives, often a wish for revenge.
 
At present the war in Liberia, which began in December, 1989, has caused the deaths of more civilians than combatants and one third of the population has fled the country. It has been reported that both sides in the conflict - the National Patriotic Front of Liberia and the United Liberian Movement for Democracy in Liberia - have continually used children under 13 as fighters. Some as young as nine or ten have suffered exceptional cruelty. They have been killed, wounded, witnessed atrocities, taken part in killing, maiming, civilian rape and looting. No one knows the number of children involved in the Liberina war but UNICEF believes that there are 40-60,000 fighters 10% of whom, about 6,000, are under 15 and a further 20% between 15 and 17. All have had some form of combat training and some were subjected to brutal initiation rites. The Liberian Transitional Government has been urged to demobilise these child soldiers and do all it can to help them return to a normal life. The work has already begun, but it will take time to heal these children and such a divided and traumatised nation.
 
The Future
 
Despite the picture of the children's situation still being gloomy there have been improvements. For the first time the 'Day of the African Child' was celebrated in South Africa, the country of its origin, on 16th. June. It is also the day which commemorates the Soweto uprising, in 1976, and Nelson Mandela celebrated it in Soweto itself. This change in history and the further growth of democracy throughout Africa can only improve the child's situation.
 
In the health care field (as reported by UNICEF in 'State of the World's Children 1994') there have been improvements. At the end of 1980's the agreed target of 80% immunisation against the major vaccine preventable diseases was reached by half of the developing countries. Deaths from measles have dropped from 2.5 million per year in the 1980's to about 1 million as a result of immunisation over the past decade. New cases of children being crippled by polio is down from approximately half a million a year, in 1980, to an estimated 140,000 in 1992. In several regions the virus is close to being eradicated and is hoped to be eliminated in most countries by 1995. There is no doubt that the world economy still has to make a place for Africa and give fair trade facilities. Until it does there will be no marked development in any of the countries. Commodity prices collapsed in the 1980's, official aid stagnated and the price of essential imports soared. Between 1980-85 the income per head fell overall by 15% in 24 of the 32 Sub-Saharan African countries which resulted in the number of severely undernourished children rising by 25% from 1977-87.
 
The economic situation is further compounded by the debt which African countries owe to the West. As Julius Nyerere, the former President of Tanzania, said on one occasion "Must we starve our children to pay our debts?". An emotional response, but also the truth. The situation of Africa's children will not improve if the IMF and World Bank insist on health and social service cut backs in their structural adjustment programmes for indebted developing countries as, in the long run, this is a way to keep children ignorant, unhealthy and economically productive. There is still a great deal of work to be done in the realm of health and education if economics will allow it. There is a need to overcome the major diseases, reduce child deaths and give basic education - both formal and family orientated.
 
Food Aid is given to African countries but it is often surplus grain from richer countries. This is a short term, not long term, answer to disasters. The answer is to help develop the local agricultural potential of these countries and to open up world trade in the commodities they produce. When people live on the margins of survival, as we have seen, it takes very little to push them over the edge. In the West we have managed to move away from there some time ago and there is always a social safety net, no matter how depleted, to catch us, but not so in developing countries. For the majority, once that point is reached it is difficult to return, or to help them back, and is almost impossible for those concerned to start again without a joint international effort and show of concern.
 

Health and Education figures - We are grateful, and wish to thank, the 'Catholic Missionary Education Centre' (CAMEC) for supplying statistical information. Other statistics have been added and the original CAMEC material has been reorganised to fit in with the theme of this article. If you would like to know more about CAMEC, please write to: CAMEC, Holcombe House, The Ridgeway, London NW7 4HY.

 

General Health Figures for Africa

1992 figures for
* U-5 Mortality Rate per 1000 births
* Infant Mortality Rate per 1000 births
** 1 year-olds Immunised
** ORS Access Rate
* Life Expectancy Rate
COUNTRY
Algeria
72
 
60
 
89%
84%
 
66
Angola
292
 
170
 
33%
60%
 
46
Benin
147
 
88
 
75%
75%
 
46
Botswana
58
 
45
 
75%
95%
 
61
Burkina Faso
150
 
101
 
46%
65%
 
48
Burundi
179
 
108
 
81%
90%
 
48
Cameroon
117
 
74
 
41%
50%
 
56
Cape Verde
60
 
44
 
94%
81%
 
68
Central African Rep.
179
 
105
 
52%
49%
 
47
Chad
209
 
123
 
21%
65%
 
47
Comoros
130
 
90
 
34%
84%
 
56
Congo
110
 
82
 
75%
75%
 
52
Djibouti
158
 
113
 
84%
80%
 
49
Egypt
55
 
43
 
90%
95%
 
61
Equatorial Guinea
182
 
118
 
75%
80%
 
48
Ethiopia
208
 
123
 
14%
50%
 
47
Gabon
158
 
95
 
82%
70%
 
53
Gambia, The
220
 
133
 
88%
80%
 
45
Ghana
170
 
103
 
46%
78%
 
56
Guinea
230
 
135
 
55%
30%
 
44
Guinea-Bissau
239
 
141
 
73%
80%
 
43
Ivory Coast
124
 
91
 
38%
26%
 
52
Kenya
74
 
51
 
62%
65%
 
59
Lesotho
156
 
108
 
64%
54%
 
60
Liberia
217
 
146
 
44%
30%
 
55
Libya
104
 
70
 
69%
80%
 
63
Madagascar
168
 
110
 
34%
62%
 
55
Malawi
226
 
143
 
88%
56%
 
44
Mali
220
 
122
 
45%
95%
 
46
Mauritania
206
 
118
 
48%
30%
 
48
Mauritius
24
 
20
 
87%
   
-
 
70
Morocco
61
 
50
 
87%
70%
 
63
Mozambique
287
 
167
 
58%
30%
 
47
Namibia
79
 
62
 
71%
   
-
 
58
Niger
320
 
191
 
28%
65%
 
46
Nigeria
191
 
114
 
43%
60%
 
52
Rwanda
222
 
131
 
86%
80%
 
46
Sao Tome & Principe
85
 
65
 
77%
100%
 
68
Senegal
145
 
90
 
51%
16%
 
49
Seychelles
20
 
16
 
96%
   
-
 
71
Sierra Leone
249
 
144
 
69%
55%
 
43
Somalia
211
 
125
 
24%
31%
 
47
South Africa
70
 
53
   
-
 
-
 
63
Sudan
166
 
100
 
69%
22%
 
52
Swaziland
107
 
74
 
92%
90%
 
58
Tanzania
176
 
111
 
87%
75%
 
51
Togo
137
 
86
 
51%
60%
 
55
Tunisia
38
 
32
 
89%
100%
 
68
Uganda
185
 
111
 
77%
30%
 
42
Zaire
188
 
121
 
40%
50%
 
52
Zambia
202
 
113
 
45%
89%
 
45
 
Sources: * = State of the World's Children, 1994, UNICEF.
** = Human Development Report, 1994, UNDP.

ORS = Oral Rehydration Salts


General Education Figures for Africa

* 1988 % ** 1990 Average * 1990 Adult
COUNTRY Completing Years at Literacy Rate
Primary School School Men Women
Algeria 90% 2.6 70% 46%
Angola - 1.5 56% 29%
Benin 40% 0.7 32% 16%
Botswana 95% 2.5 84% 65%
Burkina Faso 64% 0.1 28% 9%
Burundi 83% 0.4 61% 40%
Cameroon 68% 1.7 66% 43%
Cape Verde - 2.3 53% 53%
Central African Rep. 48% 1.1 52% 25%
Chad 71% 0.2 42% 18%
Comoros - - 61% 61%
Congo - - 70% 44%
Djibouti - - 19% 19%
Egypt 95% 2.8 63% 34%
Equatorial Guinea - 0.8 64% 37%
Ethiopia 44% 1.1 66% 66%
Gabon 44% 2.6 74% 49%
Gambia, The - 0.6 39% 16%
Ghana 87% 3.5 70% 51%
Guinea 44% 0.8 35% 13%
Guinea-Bissau 8% 0.3 50% 24%
Ivory Coast 73% 1.9 67% 40%
Kenya 62% 2.3 80% 59%
Lesotho 50% 3.4 78% 78%
Liberia - 2.0 50% 29%
Libya - 3.4 75% 50%
Madagascar 32% 2.2 88% 73%
Malawi 47% 1.8 47% 47%
Mali 40% 0.3 41% 24%
Mauritania 68% 0.3 47% 21%
Mauritius 98% 4.1 86% 86%
Morocco 63% 2.8 61% 38%
Mozambique 39% 1.7 45% 21%
Namibia - 1.7 40% 40%
Niger 75% 0.2 40% 17%
Nigeria 52% 1.2 62% 40%
Rwanda 36% 1.1 64% 37%
Sao Tome & Principe - 2.3 63% 63%
Senegal 85% 0.9 52% 25%
Seychelles - 4.6 89% 89%
Sierra Leone - 0.9 31% 11%
Somalia 37% 0.2 36% 14%
South Africa - 3.9 70% 70%
Sudan 76% 0.8 43% 12%
Swaziland - 3.7 72% 72%
Tanzania 73% 2.1 65% 65%
Togo 46% 1.6 56% 31%
Tunisia 79% 2.1 74% 56%
Uganda 76% 1.1 62% 35%
Zaire 73% 1.6 84% 61%
Zambia 64% 2.7 81% 65%
Zimbabwe 75% 3.0 74% 60%
 
Sources: * = State of the World's Children, 1994., UNICEF
** = Human Development Report 1991 & 1993, UNDP

This article first appeared in "White Fathers - White Sisters" (UK), issue 320, of February-March, 1995.

The article may be published freely with due acknowledgements to the "White Fathers - White Sisters" magazine.

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