Last Saturday was the Day of the African Child. It is a day set aside in 1991 by the African Union (then OAU) in memory of the June 16, 1976 students uprising in Soweto, South Africa.
By Tapiwa Gomo
Since 1991, the day — June 16 — has become a permanent feature of our African calendars, but mainly used to reflect on and advance policy agendas on issues that affect children across the continent.
In some countries, it is a public holiday, while in others, it is marked by national events led by children to raise awareness on issues that affect them. Zimbabwe is more advanced compared to the other countries.
A Junior Parliament was established in 1991 to promote child participation and to teach them the importance of democracy, good leadership and being good citizens.
It is a good platform for grooming future leaders and for children to engage with national leadership on policies and raise their voices at national.
If you missed it, President Emmerson Mnangagwa attended the opening of the 26th session of the Junior Parliament on June 16.
Of the 23 presidential candidates, only himself and MDC Alliance leader Nelson Chamisa remembered the day with the latter tweeting that: “…children mustn’t be forced to attend political rallies. We join the world to honour children this day of the African Child. Our […] pledge leaves no child behind especially in education and all essential services.”
However, it was a missed opportunity on two fronts. Firstly, it was a good chance to allow children to engage on policies with those aspiring to be presidents.
While the two front runners demonstrated a sense of awareness of global and regional development policy agendas, the Zimbabwe Youth Council, who oversee the operation of the Junior Parliament could have converted this opportunity into a child-friendly debate platform between child leaders and aspiring national leaders.
Secondly, this was also a missed campaign opportunity for politicians. African politics often treats children as voiceless and uninformed and a non-voting constituency.
This is why they only drag children to campaign rallies to either make the numbers or as objects of entertaining – singing and dancing for politicians.
However, several studies, including one by Anne Martensen (2008), have shown that while children are not voters, they exercise quite strong influence on the family decision-making processes and choices, particularly on issues relevant to them. The older the children, the stronger the influence.
In addition, the disregard for children’s voices in the campaign trail is counter to this year’s theme of the day, Leave No Child Behind for Africa’s Development.
The essence of the theme is to emphasise the need to mainstream children in all developmental programmes implemented by African governments.
This is crucial seeing that the state of children in Africa is appalling. With the projected growth in the continent’s child population in the next two decades, serious investment in basic services will be required.
According to recent estimates, almost half of Africa’ population is under the age of 18 years. The lack of investment in services to empower children in some African countries is deliberate for political expediency.
Uneducated and less empowered children are becoming more vulnerable. In conflict countries, uneducated boy children continue to be main target for conscription in armed groups or criminal gangs.
And, in turn, girls become victims of sexual violence. In addition, the continent has the second highest rates of child, early and forced marriage in the world with 39% of girls being married before the age of 18 years.
These social ills happen when national leadership and policies do not pay particular attention to the needs of children.
And again, paying lip-service to issues affecting children is one of the reasons for the continent’s lack of development.
More than a quarter of the global disease burden is in Africa and the Sub-Saharan African region alone accounts for about 45% of the global infant and child mortalities.
As a result, one in a dozen children in sub-Saharan Africa dies before their fifth birthday. The same region has the highest incidence of child labour at 21%.
Improving service delivery needs to be a priority. Addressing maternal health needs to be done alongside child nutrition as both are essential to social and economic progress.
Improving public health, including access to functioning sanitation and health care services is needed to enhance child survival.
This is of strategic importance to achieving development and should not been seen from a humanitarian perspective only as is the case in most African countries. A healthy population is the foundation of a solid economic growth policy.
Keeping children alive and helping them realise their full potential is the responsibility of the government.
Converting a youthful population into a productive work force requires a solid investment in education at primary, secondary and tertiary levels.
While this area has been our flagship since independence, there has been a dismal failure on the economic front to connect the two.
Our educated youth are no longer able to find jobs and that investment is partly benefiting other countries, denying the country of its productive and skilled work force.
Policies that lead to stable macroeconomic conditions are associated with the growth of productive and rewarding jobs.
Tapiwa Gomo is a development consultant based in Pretoria, South Africa