By Tina Yu

On June 16, 2018, the government of Malawi through the Ministry of Gender, hosted the continental celebrations for the Day of the Africa Child (DAC) in Lilongwe.

The Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the then OAU (now African Union) set a side 16th June as the Day of the African Child (DAC) for the continent to commemorate the many students who lost their young lives through massacre by the Apartheid government in South Africa on the same day in 1976 when they staged a protest against the poor quality of education they were receiving and demanded to be taught in their own languages.

As people gathered in different places across the African continent to commemorate this day in the presence of our children, it is time to deeply reflect on the theme of this year’s Day of the African Child (DAC).

“Leave No Child Behind for Africa’s Development,” this theme is inspired by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

While these are a continuation of the MDGs, the SDGs puts emphasis on targeting those left furthest behind first.

While notable progress has been made to improve child well-being in the African continent over the years, a lot more needs to be done and urgently.

A new report launched by Save the Children on June 1st 2018, The Many Faces of Exclusion, reveals how poverty, conflict and discrimination against girls are putting more than 1.2 billion children – over half of children worldwide – at risk for an early end to their childhood.

In East and Southern Africa, (120 million) are at high or extremely high risk of missing out on childhood. Childhood should be a time to play, learn and grow.

The report also includes a ranking of 175 countries where childhood is most and least threatened as a result of poor health, malnutrition, exclusion from education, child labour, child marriage, early pregnancy and extreme violence.

These “childhood enders” are most prevalent where three risks; poverty, conflict and gender bias overlap to create toxic environments for children.

153 million children are at extreme risk of missing out on childhood because they live in countries characterized by all three risks.

African countries comprise 19 (10 from Sub-Saharan Africa) out of the bottom 20 in the global index.

It is incontestable that African governments have made progress in improving the well-being of children.

However, the rate of this progress has been painfully slow and more needs to be done urgently if the continent is to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The Government of Malawi like many other governments, is still faced with daunting challenges with regard to addressing Violence Against Children especially, ending child marriages and teen pregnancies.

Although the government committed to the Common African Position on Ending Child Marriage in 2016 and rolling out a national campaign to end this harmful practice, child marriage prevalence in the country is startling.

According to DHS, 42% of women aged 20-24years were married before their 18th birthday and the proportion of teen pregnancies among adolescents rose from 23% to 29%.

Both mother and child face multiple risks at birth. Malawi’s maternal mortality rate stands at 439 per 100,000 live births, with 18% of babies born premature.

This is the highest rate of premature birth in the world, and is often linked to the young age and physical immaturity of the mother.

It is noticeable that the Malawian government has put in place a number of policy and legal instruments to address child marriage.

These include the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act 2015, the Child Care Protection and Justice Act 2010 and the strategy to end child marriage but the critical challenge lies in implementing these.

In the true spirit of the agitations of children who lost their precious lives in the Soweto uprising this day in 1976, it is incumbent upon all stakeholders including government, civil society, and religious and traditional leaders to work together to improve childhood experiences/well-being for our Malawian children more so, girls.

A major gap that we must address quickly is the absence of a strong monitoring and reporting mechanism, holding duty-bearers and institutions to account.

The Government should also invest more through the Ministry of Gender in long term Social Behavior Change Communication interventions that address the attitudes and (cultural) practices that sustain child marriage as well as early pregnancy in the next budget window.

Such an investment should also include finances for psycho-social support and economic empowerment for girls who are survivors of child marriage, including child care and other support for girls re-admitted to school.

As we put children at the centre, we must truly and meaningfully engage them.

It warms my heart that as part of enhancing child participation in Malawi, children will soon be launching the Junior Chronicle – a publication aimed at giving children a voice as part of the DAC commemoration.

A quote on children from a great statesman, a global icon and a legend of the African continent, the late Nelson Mandela would be a perfect end to this piece:

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children”.

The author of this article is the Country Director for Save the Children International.

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