Many people try to understand Africa's children by looking at poverty or education reports. But the variety of backgrounds shown by the Our Africa reporters reminds us that differences across the continent can be greater than similarities.
A child growing up in a developed suburb in Cape Town may have far more in common with a child in Torquay, than with one on the streets of Dakar.
In this video... see a teenager in Malawi talk about child marriage.
It is also important to remind ourselves that a child's contentment is heavily influenced by their level of expectation. Children can adapt to widely different circumstances.
Youngsters can be happy without being wealthy. Children who have a number of household chores such as fetching water, looking after siblings, taking animals to graze, gathering firewood, or helping to raise crops in the family’s fields may enjoy a happy childhood.
Nonetheless, many children in Africa do not lead happy lives. In some cultures, there is a very strong age hierarchy which acts to the detriment of children.
Where adults cannot farm or find work, or suffer from debilitating illnesses, children often become the main income-earners. Some hawk goods or beg on the streets, some find items to sell from rubbish dumps or work in the fields. They may be sent to relatives or non-related adults, to work as domestic or farm servants. Adults may treat them kindly or abuse them, in which case children often have little prospect of help.
A key factor in determining whether children have a good quality of life (and also a decent life expectancy, education and prospects) is the survival of their family unit. Focusing on supporting families to stay together is a proven model to improve the lives of children. Strengthening families starts by studying why families break up in each location and then tackling the problems.
Improving children’s health
The spread of HIV/AIDS has resulted in an increasing number of child-headed households where parents have died. Children often have to drop out of school to look after themselves and younger siblings.
Most African countries are taking steps to improve children’s basic health. Many initiatives are low-cost and extremely effective, for example:
- the widespread distribution of insecticide-soaked mosquito nets to protect children and pregnant women against malaria,
- immunisation programmes against preventable diseases such as measles and polio,
- the provision of food supplements to young children, for example, those which contain vitamin A (which helps prevent blindness, boosts children's immune systems and helps build strong bones and teeth),
- the training of women health workers to make childbirth safer and support women during the first few months of their baby’s life,
- the widening of access to rehydration mixtures (with salt and sugar) for treating children with diarrhoea, greatly improving survival rates.
Some charities and non-governmental organisations working in Africa focus their efforts on improving the availability of clean water in villages and shanty towns. Safe drinking water and proper waste disposal cuts down the prevalence and spread of many diseases, such as cholera.
The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child
A child's rights
The charter theoretically takes precedence over any custom, tradition or practice, cultural or religious, which doesn’t fit with the rights, duties and obligations set out. This means practices which do not conform to the charter – such as child marriage, conscription into armed forces and using children to beg – are legally prohibited.
In 1999, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child was adopted by the African Union (originally known as the Organisation for African Unity).
Called the Children’s Charter, this document sets out the rights of children in all aspects of life – civil, political, economic, social and cultural.
Countries signed up to the charter report to the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. This body oversees development progress. It also has the power to investigate issues relating to the charter in a member state.
In theory, children themselves can petition the committee about infringements of their rights, though most are unaware of this. But informing children of their rights is only helpful if realistic support to improve their situation is available.
The effects of poverty
A large percentage of Africa's population live in poverty, therefore many African children suffer from:
- family break up from poverty,
- lack of clean water,
- little access to healthcare,
- lack of sanitation and means of waste disposal,
- poor nutrition and susceptibility to illness and disease.
It is therefore little wonder that globally, 38 of the 40 countries with the highest child mortality rates are located in Africa.
In sub-Saharan Africa, one in every six children (160 per 1,000 live births) fails to reach his or her fifth birthday. The most dangerous time in a child’s life is the first 28 days after birth, when over a quarter of all child deaths occur.