Inter Press Service » Children on the Frontline Journalism and Communication for Global Change Mon, 28 Jul 2014 11:52:49 +0000 en-US hourly 1 If You Cut One, Plant Two Tue, 15 Jul 2014 10:18:44 +0000 Amy Fallon Students from Kisule Primary School in Kampala at the International Children’s Climate Change Conference (ICCCC), July 2014, Uganda. Credit: Amy Fallon/IPS

Students from Kisule Primary School in Kampala at the International Children’s Climate Change Conference (ICCCC), July 2014, Uganda. Credit: Amy Fallon/IPS

By Amy Fallon
KAMPALA, Jul 15 2014 (IPS)

Olga Mugisa, 11-years-old, takes to the microphone in front of her peers, the Ugandan flag proudly draped behind her and green plants framing the stage. She has an important message to share with her fellow students: “If you cut one, plant two.”

“I tell all of you here you to plant trees at school, at home, everywhere,” she says in a loud and confident voice to participants at Africa’s first International Children’s Climate Change Conference held in the Ugandan capital at the weekend.

“If you plant those trees you will get air that you breathe in and (you) will breathe in oxygen as you produce carbon dioxide,” adds the Primary 5 student at Mirembe Junior, an international school in Namuwongo, traditionally a slum area of Kampala.“Children are the future generation, but at the moment we are in this climate change quagmire because adults cut trees with impunity. We do not think twice … we didn’t plant them” – Joseph Masembe, founder of Uganda’s Little Green Hands

Joining forces with Uganda’s National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), Uganda’s Little Green Hands NGO organised the International Children’s Climate Change Conference, which brought together about 280 “child delegates”, aged between five and 12, from 23 schools in four Ugandan districts, at Kampala’s GEMS Cambridge International School. There were also students representing 35 countries including Spain, France and the United States.

Students performed skits, sang and recited poems, as well as posing questions and giving PowerPoint presentations in their own style. Everything revolved around the causes and effects of, and solutions for, climate change.

Children can bring hope, especially when it comes to climate change, says lawyer turned social entrepreneur, environmentalist and founder of Little Green Hands, Joseph Masembe. He is showcasing a “new form of environmental stewardship” in Uganda involving young people.

According to The State of Uganda’s Population Report, released in February 2013, the east African nation has the world’s youngest population, with over 78 percent aged under 30.

“A wise man once told me a child’s mind is like wet cement -when you write on it, it’s permanent,” Masembe tells IPS. “So involving children at such a tender age in environment conservation means the future is ensured and it’s guaranteed.

“Children are the future generation, but at the moment we are in this climate change quagmire because adults cut trees with impunity. We do not think twice … we didn’t plant them.

“But if we get these children to start planting trees at a tender age, by the time they grow up they will have sentimental value attached to these trees, so they won’t chop them down,” Masembe explains.

It’s getting thumbs green that was the focus of the Little Hands Go Green Festival, an annual eventcreated by Masembe in 2012. In December that year, more than 16,000 children flocked to Kampala’s Kololo Airstrip, where they were given seedlings to take home and plant fruit trees. Masembe says “Africa’s only green festival” was even “gate-crashed” by Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, after he heard about the large gathering of children. Out of it, sprang the ICCCC.

As highlighted in the The State of Uganda’s Population Report2013, Uganda has been identified as one of the world’s least prepared and most vulnerable countries when it comes to the climate change. The study stressed that Global Climate Change models project the nation will experience an increase in average temperatures up by up to 1.5 oC in the next 20 years.

Hot days are increasing, cold days decreasing; glaciers on the Rwenzori Mountains are continuing to melt and almost all regions of the country are experiencing “intense, frequent and prolonged droughts,” the report said.

“You find that now the rains do not come as they used to come, the seasons are changing and it’s a lot hotter,” Masembe tells IPS. “The dry season takes a lot longer. Farmers are telling you their crops are being affected a lot. You have mudslides in Bududa (eastern Uganda) almost every other year.”

Despite her age, Olga is all too aware of the impact of climate change on her country, which she notes is called the “Pearl of Africa” but which, because of climate change, “will no longer be the Pearl of Africa. Lake Victoria and (Lake) Albert will dry up… climate (change) is something that can destroy a country.”

“The ozone layer is the layer that protects from the direct sunshine, so when it’s spoilt we shall get the direct sunshine and the plants will dry up, drought will be there,” she adds.

As she plants a tree at the end of the ICCCC, Olga says that she will encourage her mother, father and two siblings to do the same. “I’ll keep encouraging people to plant trees … They have a responsibility.”

Olga is fortunate that she attends an international school where the study of climate change is on the curriculum. “In the international schools they teach it, in the local schools, which is the majority, they don’t,” says Masembe. “So we have to find other ways to sneak it in, through extracurricular activities for instance.”

“The Green Festival (to be held on August 24) is one opportunity. And this conference, which will become annual, will become part of the way whereby children can use their voices and hopefully adults can start to listen.”

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Future of Rwanda’s Orphans Still Uncertain Fri, 11 Jul 2014 15:24:15 +0000 Amy Fallon Deborah (in red), a 14-year-old Rwandan girl who lost her parents when she was young, at Gisimba Memorial Centre orphanage in Kigali. Credit: Amy Fallon/IPS

Deborah (in red), a 14-year-old Rwandan girl who lost her parents when she was young, at Gisimba Memorial Centre orphanage in Kigali. Credit: Amy Fallon/IPS

By Amy Fallon
KIGALI, Jul 11 2014 (IPS)

Every day, 14-year-old Deborah wakes up in an orphanage, goes to school, and comes home to an orphanage. It does not matter when or for how long she leaves the orphanage, she always knows she’ll be back.

“This is where I live, this is my home,” says the teen, sitting at a wooden desk with other children at the Gisimba Memorial Centre orphanage. She has been intensely colouring in a nativity scene of one famous family – Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus.

Deborah had both her parents for only three years, before her mother died. Her father passed away two years later. Both had AIDS. Her four sisters and brothers also live at Gisimba Memorial Centre, in the Nyamirambo quarter of the Rwandan capital.“Decades of research show that orphanages cannot provide the care children to develop to their full potential, leading to attachment disorders and developmental delays that can be physical, intellectual, communication, social and emotional” – communications consultant Annet Birungi

The original Gisimba orphanage was founded by Peter Gisimba and wife Dancilla, and began taking in children, orphaned through a variety of circumstances, in the 1980s. The couple died in the late 1980s. When the orphanage was renamed the Gisimba Memorial Centre in 1990, it was home to 50 children and had reached its capacity.

That was until the 1994 genocide when up to 700 people took shelter in Gisimba. “People were sleeping in the dormitories, outside, everywhere, as long as they were together,” coordinator Elie Munezero tells IPS.

Close to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed during those bloody 100 days.

Today there are about 125 young people living at the orphanage. “All generations,” explains 50-year-old Munezero. “Babies, infants, adolescents, young adults.” The youngest is two years old. The two eldest are 30. About 40 percent are aged under 16.

Deborah and the other siblings are just some of the estimated 2,171 children today languishing in 29 orphanages across the east African country, says Annet Birungi, a communications consultant for Rwanda’s National Commission for Children (NCC) and UNICEF.

Nine years in an orphanage, in Deborah’s case, does not shock Birungi. She points out the alarming results of the National Survey on Institutional Care, conducted in 2011-2012 by Rwanda’s Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion (MIGEPROF) and groundbreaking NGO Hopes and Homes for Children (HHC). It found thatabout 13.6 percent children living in institutions had been there for more than 15 years.

Staying in institutional care can scar children for a lifetime, with those aged between 0-3 years especially vulnerable.

“Decades of research show that orphanages cannot provide the care children to develop to their full potential, leading to attachment disorders and developmental delays that can be physical, intellectual, communication, social and emotional,” says Birungi, adding that “abuse, neglect, physical and sexual violence, isolation and marginalization are common in orphanages.”

Before colonial rule, there was a culture of treating “every child as your own”, notes Birungi. “Children were for the community and when a mother died, it was a responsibility of aunties and grandparents, family friends to take care of the orphan (s).”

The atrocities of 1994 are said to have left at least half a million children without parents. During and after the genocide,women informally took in children from the opposite ethnic group. Mothers were encouraged to be a “malayika mulinzi” (“guardian angel”). Systems of “kinship and foster care” operated, even if informally.

At the same, this was when most of the orphanages that exist today appeared but most of them lack exit plans for children who have grown up in them.

Meanwhile, the belief that children are better off in institutions than in families has also kept some children in care, says Birungi, and while there is no denying that some centres are able to provide shelter, food, clothing, health and education, they cannot offer the love of a family.

Today, there is no power and no water in Gisimba. Both have been cut off because the bills have remained unpaid, says Munezero. “Nothing is good,” he adds in despair.

A major issue with children being cared for in institutions is that some may still have living members of their family.  “You could be calling a child an orphan but he’s not,” Munezero admits.

The African Child Policy Forum (ACPF), an independent, not-for-profit, institution has reported that the majority of so-called “orphans” adopted from Africa by foreigners have at least one parent still alive.

International adoption was temporarily suspended by Rwanda in August 2010, to allow the country work on implementation of the 1993 Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Cooperation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption, which calls on states to consider national solutions before international adoption.

Birungi says the government wants to revive the culture of “treating every child as your own”. NCC is currently working with HHC to reintegrate those living at Gisimba back into families.

An NCC-trained psycho-social team is in the final stages of the reintegration process and Gisimba will be transformed into a primary school to benefit children in the surrounding area, according to Birungi. On July 10, HHC announced that the first of five children had been moved out of Home of Hope, another Kigali institution.

HHC’s country director in Rwanda, Claudine Nyinawagaga, says a number of alternative care services are available for children in the country, including “kinship care”, when a young person is placed with extended family, neighbours or friends.

But national adoption is yet to be fully implemented and since HCC started the closure of the first Rwandan institution in 2011, only one child has fully undergone the domestic adoption process. NCC-drafted guidelines on domestic and international adoption are awaiting approval by Rwanda’s Cabinet.

“Several meetings with local authorities revealed that the general population and local authorities do not have enough information about adoption,” Nyinawagaga tells IPS. “This is likely to be addressed through the approval of the adoption guidelines, and the sensitisation of the community.”

So, for the time being, Deborah remains in an institution.

“I like singing and drumming,” she says, when asked what she likes doing in her spare time. “We have a small choir that I’m in.”

Despite her plight, she is ambitious and looking forward to her future: “to work in an industry, and make fruit juice and yoghurt.”

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OP-ED: Why Ending Child Marriage in Africa Can No Longer Wait Wed, 28 May 2014 08:19:35 +0000 Dr. Julitta Onabanjo, Benoit Kalasa, and Mohamed Abdel-Ahad Seven month pregnant Debritu, 14, escaped from her husband after months of abuse. She is now homeless and is uncertain of the future for her and her baby. Several social, cultural, religious and traditional beliefs and norms are known to fuel the continuation of child marriage in Africa. Courtesy: Stephanie Sinclair/United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)

Seven month pregnant Debritu, 14, escaped from her husband after months of abuse. She is now homeless and is uncertain of the future for her and her baby. Several social, cultural, religious and traditional beliefs and norms are known to fuel the continuation of child marriage in Africa. Courtesy: Stephanie Sinclair/United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)

By Julitta Onabanjo, Benoit Kalasa, and Mohamed Abdel-Ahad

Just 17 years old, Clarisse is already a mother of two, who lives with her husband and his four other wives in rural southern Chad. Three years earlier, she had watched her mom and sisters preparing food for a party one day. At first she celebrated along with everyone else, not realising it was her own wedding ceremony. When she discovered this, she was frantic.

“I tried to escape but I was caught. I found myself with a husband three times older than me… School was over, just like that. Ten months later, I found myself with a baby in my arms,” she says.The African continent has tolerated child marriage for too long, based on a host of ill-conceived justifications and arguments... Child marriage should not be allowed to continue. Not one day longer.

Clarisse is one of millions of girls around the world, and especially in Africa, who are married off each year. Many of them become wives as early as eight years old, often to much older men.

Globally, one in three girls from low and middle income countries is married before the age of 18, and one in nine by age 15. It is estimated that every year, over 15.1 million girls will become brides, if this trend continues.

Of the 41 countries worldwide with a child marriage prevalence rate of 30 percent or more, 30 countries are located in Africa. The practice is most severe in West Africa, where two women out of five are married before age 18; and one woman out of six is married by the  time she turns 15.

Several social, cultural, religious and traditional beliefs and norms are known to fuel the continuation of child marriage in Africa.

In addition, the economic dimension is a driving force of the practice. To many families living in poverty, child marriage is a source of income and therefore an economic survival strategy.

The impact of child marriage

Regardless of the contributing factors and justifications cited for the practice, child marriage has a severe and harmful impact on our girls, and on society at large. It compromises the girl child’s health, education and opportunities to realise her potential.

Many ‘child wives’ are exposed to repeated pregnancies and childbirth before they are physically and psychologically ready.

In Sudan, Awatif, now 24, was married off at age 14 while still in school. Against her will, she dropped out of school in the fifth grade and immediately  became pregnant. “I went through days of obstructed labour at home; it was painful and I thought I would die. My family took me to the hospital for assistance. I survived but my son didn’t and I contracted obstetric fistula,” she says. As a consequence, her husband abandoned and divorced her.

United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) executive director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin says that “no society can afford the lost opportunity, waste of talent or personal exploitation that child marriage causes.”

Alphonsine Zara, 35, was married off traditionally at the age 16. She is still suffering from the harsh consequences of her early marriage. Courtesy: United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)

Alphonsine Zara, 35, was married off traditionally at the age 16. She is still suffering from the harsh consequences of her early marriage. Courtesy: United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)

Child marriage can be challenged

Child marriage is a human rights and public health issue, which cannot be left unchallenged. First and foremost, it is a violation of  human rights instruments, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.

It is therefore an obligation of policy makers on the continent to protect the rights of the girl child that their governments have committed themselves to uphold. This includes putting an end to child marriage.

If the practice of child marriage is to be halted, action is needed at all levels to change harmful social norms and to empower girls. Specifically, governments, civil society, community leaders and families that are serious about ending child marriage should consider promulgating, enforcing and building community support for laws on the minimum age of marriage.

Ending child marriage would not only help protect girls’ rights but would go a long way towards reducing the prevalence of adolescent pregnancy. Zero tolerance of child marriage should be our goal. Enacting laws that ban child marriage is a good first step – but unless laws are enforced and communities support these laws, there will be little impact.

Great efforts yielding promising results are being undertaken across the continent to challenge the status quo of this harmful practice. We have witnessed good practices such as the Schools of Husbands in Niger and the Adolescent Girls Initiatives in many African countries.

In Mozambique, the initiative known as “Girls’ Forum” has provided a platform for girls to improve their decision-making powers; to increase their sense of empowerment; and to build their understanding regarding questions of marriage and sexual and reproductive health.

Education is not only the key to unlocking girls’ potential; but it also contributes to girls delaying marriage across the continent. Studies have established that girls with low levels of education are more likely to be married early, while those with secondary education are up to six times less likely to marry as children.

Compulsory education for all, especially girls, is therefore a key intervention for policy makers to put into practice.

The African Union and the End Child Marriage campaign

The continent has witnessed renewed political commitment to addressing the problem of child marriage by African Union Commission (AUC) Chairperson Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. “We must do away with child marriage,” she says. “Girls who end up as brides at a tender age are coerced into having children while they are children themselves.” This commitment is being taken into practice through the launch of a new campaign to end child marriage in Africa.

The overall aims of the campaign are to:

  • end child marriage by supporting policy and action in the protection and promotion of human rights,
  • mobilise continental awareness of child marriage,
  • remove barriers to and bottlenecks in law enforcement,
  • determine the socio-economic impact of child marriage, and
  • increase the capacity of non-state actors to undertake evidence-based policy dialogue  and advocacy.

Joining forces to commit to girls’ achieving their potential

UNFPA believes the AU campaign to end child marriage represents a turning point in the fight to end child marriage in Africa. It is time that we no longer tolerate children becoming brides. The time has come to commit to ensuring our girls are able to achieve their full potential.

The African continent has tolerated child marriage for too long, based on a host of ill-conceived justifications and arguments. But our young girls, who have borne the brunt of this detrimental practice to date, cannot wait to see it banished forever. Child marriage should not be allowed to continue. Not one day longer.

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Villages in Ghana that No Longer Have Child Deaths to Record Tue, 29 Apr 2014 13:34:33 +0000 Albert Oppong-Ansah Community-based volunteer Zainab Abubakar (r) administers the first dose of amodiaqune to one-year-old Inusa as he sits on his mother, Ayishetu Hamdellah. Credit: Albert Oppong-Ansah/IPS

Community-based volunteer Zainab Abubakar (r) administers the first dose of amodiaqune to one-year-old Inusa as he sits on his mother, Ayishetu Hamdellah. Credit: Albert Oppong-Ansah/IPS

By Albert Oppong-Ansah
ZANDUA, Ghana, Apr 29 2014 (IPS)

Zainab Abubakar saves children’s lives. A few years ago she was just an ordinary woman with no medical training living in rural Kpilo in Ghana’s Northern Region. 

Here the nearest medical clinic is a 12-km walk away and serves the 20 to 40 communities within this electoral area. Across Northern Region, less than 10 percent of communities have a local clinic. However, in the region’s capital, Tamale, 19.4 percent of communities have local clinics.

Now, instead of making the long journey to a crowded health centre, mothers bring their sick children to Abubakar. When she sees children with symptoms of sweating, weakness and a high temperature she’s able to differentiate between a case of pneumonia and malaria. She’s also able to correctly treat and provide medication for these illnesses. “Since these CBVs started working in this community the health of children here has improved. We no longer record deaths.” -- chief of Kpilo, Mahama Abdullah

“In a situation like that I bathe the child and then I dissolve one tablet of amodiaquine in a small clean cup and give it to the child to drink,” Abubakar tells IPS.

She then provides the mother with medication. “In order that the medication is administered at the right time, I do a follow-up to ensure that the child is given the drug,” she adds.

Abubakar is one of 16,500 community-based volunteers (CBVs) trained by the Ghana Health Service (GHS) to manage common childhood diseases in their communities which lack access to healthcare facilities. GHS also supplies them with medication to treat these illnesses. While medication is free, most people pay about 20 cents as a token payment for the drug administered.

This rural health initiative, called the Integrated Community Case Management (ICCM), is supported by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and is funded by the United States Agency for International Development.

Since 2007, volunteers from the four provinces here that have limited healthcare facilities — Northern, Upper East, Upper West and Central Regions — have been trained to reduce the high rate of child mortality. Pneumonia, diarrhoea and malaria account for two out of five child mortality cases.

Alhassan Abukari, ICCM assistant project coordinator in GHS’s Northern Regional Health Directorate, says they are unable to provide medical care to most communities due to lack of resources and personnel.

In Ghana’s Northern Region it was harder to provide services, Abukari says, because communities are hard to reach and usually are cut off because of flooding during the rainy season.

“A sizeable number of people in peri-urban communities of the region do not have access to health facilities so these volunteers are really bridging the very wide gap that existed,” he tells IPS.

“We seriously lack personnel; for instance in the case of a community in Saboba district in the Northern Region of Ghana, there is only one community health nurse taking care of 20 communities and she is supposed to visit these communities,” he says. 

The CBVs promote health literacy and behaviour during house-to-house visits. During the visits Abubakar explains the importance of exclusive breastfeeding, sleeping under a mosquito net, and washing one’s hands with soap. She refers all severe or complicated cases to the nearest health facility.

Abubakar and the other volunteers are not paid for their work. But, she says, she feels happy saving lives. She says she is motivated by the fact that every child belongs to the community and it’s her passion to serve the community.

According to UNICEF, community management of childhood pneumonia could result in a 70 percent reduction in under-five mortality.

ICCM believes that malaria can also be reduced through the initiative. It is estimated that malaria-specific under-five mortality can be brought down by 40 to 60 percent, and severe malaria morbidity by 53 percent.

Abukari says that the timely intervention of these volunteers, who serve as “doctors” in their various communities, has helped prevent cases of child deaths.

Ayishetu Hamdellah, a widow and mother of four, from Kpilo says having Abubakar around is a huge assistance. It means she no longer has to walk long distances to get treatment for her one-year-old son, Inusa, who used to contract malaria frequently.

Now, Inusa is able to receive immediate treatment if he gets malaria.

The chief of Kpilo, Mahama Abdullah, tells IPS that initiative is so successful he would like it extended to include treatment for adults as well.

“Since these CBVs started working in this community the health of children here has improved.

“We no longer record deaths.”

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To Tell or Not to Tell? Ugandan Teens Grapple with HIV Disclosure Tue, 08 Apr 2014 08:07:34 +0000 Wambi Michael Many HIV positive teenagers struggle to disclose their status to their sexual partners. Credit: Mercedes Sayagues/IPS

Many HIV positive teenagers struggle to disclose their status to their sexual partners. Credit: Mercedes Sayagues/IPS

By Wambi Michael
KAMPALA, Apr 8 2014 (IPS)

Silence is golden, it is said. But not for Constance Nansamba* from Uganda, who paid a dear price for keeping silent about being HIV positive and pregnant at age 18.  

“I was terrified. I ran away from my brother’s home. I could not follow the PMTCT [prevention of mother-to-child transmission] guidelines, so the baby is HIV positive,” she told IPS.“There are few designated adolescent-friendly outpatient health care facilities, while in-patient paediatric wards care for children up to age 12." -- Dr. Sabrina Kitaka, an adolescent health specialist

Nansamba knew she was born with the virus but, afraid of rejection, she did not tell her boyfriend. “We used a condom, he always complained, we abandoned the condom, I got pregnant.” Although he did not contract HIV from her, they broke up.

Nansamba, now 20, has found the courage to tell her story to help others. She is a member of Uganda Young Positives (UYP), an organisation that offers HIV counselling, testing and treatment adherence advice.

She told IPS that many teenagers born with HIV do not know their status when they start having sex, or they know but don’t tell their sex partners.

A survey by Uganda’s Mildmay Health Centre involving 200 adolescents receiving antiretroviral treatment found that 75 percent were not willing to disclose their HIV status to their sexual partners and 30 percent did not want to have protected sex.

“They simply don’t have information to guide them in negotiating disclosure, dual protection and consistent condom use,” said Nansamba. “I faced the same challenge because I would not discuss issues about sex with my elder brother, who was like my father.”

Nansamba’s parents died when she was a baby and her brother raised her.

HIV among the young

Uganda is a young country; nearly 80 percent of its 34 million people are below the age of 30.

National seroprevalence is 7.2 percent and, worryingly, is slowly rising. Among youth aged 15-24, five percent of women and two percent of men are HIV-positive, according to the Uganda AIDS Indicator Survey 2011.

The United Nations Children’s Fund’s Stocktaking Report on Children and AIDS 2013 estimates that Uganda has some 110,000 adolescents aged 10-19 living with HIV, of whom 64,000 are girls and 48,000 boys.

Emmanuel Elwanu was 14 years old when he learned that he had been born HIV positive. Fearing discrimination, he struggled with telling his HIV negative friends. “I had to go through a lot of counselling before I could open up,” he told IPS.

Elwanu was lucky: his school had weekly counselling sessions around HIV and he joined the Reach Out Mbuya Parish HIV/AIDS initiative.

“Many of my HIV positive colleagues out there are going through really difficult times with relationships,” explained the 18-year-old Elwanu. “I think about sex, but it is not my biggest priority.”

Elwanu, whose parents died while he was a child, has decided to abstain from sex until completing his studies.

Polly Nuwagaba, a counsellor with the Naguru Teenage Information and Health Centre in Kampala, told IPS that most adolescents have a problem with disclosure.

“They look healthy, they attract HIV negative partners, and they have sexual desires,” she explained. “Some tell us that when they say they have HIV, those they tell don’t believe it, and they end up having unprotected sex.”

No condoms for teens

Dr. Sabrina Kitaka, an adolescent health specialist at Makerere University’s College of Health and Sciences in Kampala, notes the gap in health services for the youth.

“There are few designated adolescent-friendly outpatient health care facilities, while in-patient paediatric wards care for children up to age 12. So adolescents are typically admitted to adult wards,” said Kitaka.

In 2013, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that the failure to put in place effective HIV services for youth has resulted in a 50 percent increase in AIDS-related deaths among adolescents globally, compared with the 30 percent decline of such deaths in the general population from 2005 to 2012.

WHO asked governments to review their laws to make it easier for adolescents to obtain HIV testing without parental consent.

But Ugandan health officials are divided on whether teenagers should be offered family planning services and condoms.

Dr. Stephen Watiti, a physician who lives with HIV, observed that the laws and policies surrounding condoms and contraceptives for adolescents in Uganda are unclear and interpreted inconsistently. This makes it difficult for both youth and health staff to understand their options.

Officially, only those 18 and over qualify for family planning services and condom distribution. However, more than half of young women aged 18-24 had had sex before the age of 18, according to the 2011 Uganda Demographic and Health Survey.

“As clinicians, you cannot go to schools and promote condoms or contraceptives. But when you come across a 14-year-old who is sexually active, then you have no option but to teach them how to use condoms,” Watiti told IPS.

At the UYP meeting held in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, in late January, Nansamba told the young audience: “You guys, it is not easy to live with HIV. You will always feel guilty whenever you sleep with someone, but at the same time you have sexual desires that need to be fulfilled.”

Her decision these days is “to abstain [from sex] because I don’t want to put anybody at risk of HIV.”

But for many HIV positive teenagers, abstaining is not an easy option – and neither is disclosing their status or practicing safe sex.

*Name changed to protect identity.

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Zimbabwe’s Positive Children, Negative News Thu, 03 Apr 2014 07:42:07 +0000 Busani Bafana Afraid of losing playmates, children hide their HIV positive status from their peers. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

Afraid of losing playmates, children hide their HIV positive status from their peers. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

By Busani Bafana
BULAWAYO, Apr 3 2014 (IPS)

Three years ago, Robert Ngwenya* and his father got into a heated argument over medication. Ngwenya, then aged 15, refused to continue swallowing the nausea-provoking pills he had been taking since he was 12 years old, and flushed them down the toilet. 

During the argument, Ngwenya understood he had been born HIV positive, had been taking antiretrovirals (ARV) and not vitamins and anti-allergenics, and that his father too lived with the virus and the guilt of having infected him.

“This is unfair, what did I do to deserve this?” Ngwenya laments.

How to Dance
"Next time you see me walking on the street
Know there's a story that hides in me
Don't look away and pretend that l'm not there
All l want is for someone to care for me

I too have dreams of a better life
That someone will love me as I am
To hold my own child in my arms
And make sure she's safe from harm

What l'd like is some of your affection
Not your pity, just some kind of attention
You think l'm worthless,
You don't even know me
It's not my fault that this
Blood flows through me.

I want you to know that we're just kids
Even though we were born with HIV
Prenatal, virgin contraction
The first of a fighting generation,
We fight against AIDS and discrimination
We're God-made, put there for a reason
It's time to change and now's the reason
Yes, we're special but we're no different

But in the Storm
We've learned how to dance"

Ngwenya lives in the high density suburb of Pumula in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city, with his father, a car mechanic, and his younger brother, who is HIV negative. His mother died when Nwengya was 10 and his father never remarried.

Ngwenya’s life was all planned: finish high school, get a degree in information technology, find a job and buy a car. Not any more. After the revelation, he is no longer the same outgoing teenager whose company brought smiles to friends and family.

“How do I tell my friends? How do I start a relationship knowing someone will have to carry my burden?” he asks.

Like Ngwenya’s father, other HIV positive parents, weighed down by guilt, find it hard to tell their children they were infected at birth.

How and who tells a child or teenager that they will live with the virus for the rest of their lives?

Hard choices

Thanks to ARV therapy, increasing numbers of HIV infected children are living to adolescence. In 2012, Zimbabwe had 180,000 children aged 0-15 and 1.2 million people aged 15 and above living with HIV, says the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

“As these children grow and surpass the immediate threat of death, the issue of informing them of their HIV status arises,” says a study on teenagers born with the virus in Zimbabwe.

Disclosing to adolescents is different from telling younger children and requires tailored, age-appropriate guidelines, says the study.

Adolescents aged 16-20 interviewed for the study preferred to be told by health care workers at clinics, with the presence of family.

“Disclosure to this age group in a healthcare setting may help overcome some of the barriers associated with caregivers disclosing in the home environment and make the HIV status seem more credible to an adolescent,” reports the study.

Silence and lies

Zivai Mupambireyi, a researcher with the Centre for Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS Research (CeSHHAR) and co-author of a 2013 study of HIV positive children aged 11-13 in Zimbabwe, told IPS that children prefer to learn about their HIV status at the clinic because they believe health workers give them more and better information than their carers.

Children reported that their carers delayed disclosure, concealed information and lied about the pills.

“Most of these children were looked after by non-biological carers, as their parents were the first generation of AIDS patients and died before ARVs,” Mupambireyi explains.

Whether it is parents overwhelmed by guilt or carers distressed by the enormity of the revelation, telling adolescents they are HIV positive is fraught with pain and ambivalence.

Mupambireyi found that HIV positive children believe that disclosing to peers will expose them to discrimination. Although this often was not the case, fearing a loss of social interaction and friendship, children hide their HIV status.

“Although HIV status disclosure is noble and recommended, children’s concerns and fears around disclosure must be addressed before they are encouraged to disclose,” says Mupambireyi.

Health workers, parents and educators are tongue-tied as to the timing and best method of disclosing HIV status to youth.

Building trust

Definate Nhamo is the coordinator of Shaping the Health of Adolescents in Zimbabwe (SHAZ), a research and intervention project. One offshoot, SHAZ for Positives, reaches more than 700 youth living with HIV in Chitungwiza, a suburb of Harare, the capital.

Nhamo told IPS that the best age to disclose HIV status is probably around nine or 10 years, before puberty, and preferably in the presence of parents, guardians or a counsellor.

“When the child is younger, she is trusting, and will grow up knowing she must take the ARVs religiously,” says Nhamo.

SHAZ for Positives members agree that knowing their status early helps kids accept their condition and learn to be open about it, Nhamo told IPS.

Some adults tell children the ARV pills are for tuberculosis, without realising that children can google it. “Teenagers just stop taking their ARVs and do not tell their parents because they feel they are more informed since they have access to the internet,” observes Nhamo.

A young female participant in the SHAZ study, who did not want to be identified, tells IPS that her mother, distressed at having infected her, never told her the truth. At age 17, the girl took a routine HIV test and tested positive. Since she had never had sex, she confronted her mother and learned that her two siblings were HIV negative but she had been born positive.

“I was angry and frustrated. If my mother had told me earlier, I could have accepted my status better,” she says.

Zvandiri, meaning “what I am” in the Shona language, is a support group that helps adolescents deal with HIV.

In 2013, Zvandiri produced a catchy song and DVD, How to Dance, with cool young people spiritedly belting out their hopes and fears: “I too have dreams of a better life, that someone will love me as I am.”

They sing, “how to dance in the storm”.

* Not his real name

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OP-ED: Europe’s Commitment to Africa’s Children is Still Needed Tue, 01 Apr 2014 11:29:26 +0000 Philippe Cori UNICEF says in many parts of the African continent children are living beyond their fifth birthday, more children are going to school and more children are better equipped for the challenges of the 21st century. Pictured here are students at Motshane Primary School, Mbabane, Swaziland. Credit: Mantoe Phakathi/IPS

UNICEF says in many parts of the African continent children are living beyond their fifth birthday, more children are going to school and more children are better equipped for the challenges of the 21st century. Pictured here are students at Motshane Primary School, Mbabane, Swaziland. Credit: Mantoe Phakathi/IPS

By Philippe Cori
BRUSSELS, Apr 1 2014 (IPS)

As African and European leaders meet in Brussels this week under the theme of “Investing in People, Prosperity and Peace”, it is clear Africa’s greatest natural resource, its children, must be centre stage. 

Between 2010 and 2025, the child population of sub-Saharan Africa will rise by 130 million, making it the youngest continent in the world. By 2050, one in every three births and almost one in every three children under 18 will be in Africa.

Yet for this youth dividend to be the driver of Africa’s prosperity, it is critical that all of the continent’s children have the right foundations to be able to participate as well as benefit.

This means equitable access to basic quality social services in health and education, especially early childhood care as well as access to safe water, sanitation, good nutrition and protection from abuse, violence and exploitation.

A lot of the focus is now on how business can be a critical driver in the continent’s transformation.  And there is no doubt that new economic investment is yielding results, stimulating growth and new opportunities.

But it is also clear for Africa to ultimately benefit from these economic investments, it still needs a development focused partnership that builds the foundation of a strong, fair and equitable society for its youngest citizens.

In many parts of the African continent, life for millions of children is changing for the good. Along with the new investments in infrastructure, the rapid changes in access to mobile technology and an increase in economic growth, the good news is more children are living beyond their fifth birthday, more children are going to school and more children are better equipped for the challenges of the 21st century.

Philippe Cori, director of the United Nations Children’s Fund’s European Union Partnership Office in Brussels, says in many parts of the African continent, life for millions of children is changing for the good. Courtesy: UNICEF

Philippe Cori, director of the United Nations Children’s Fund’s European Union Partnership Office in Brussels, says in many parts of the African continent, life for millions of children is changing for the good. Courtesy: UNICEF

As Europe’s own experience demonstrates, investments in early childhood care, good nutrition, a quality public health system and safety nets to protect the most vulnerable,  are the foundations that lead to stable, inclusive and prosperous societies.

Over the last decades, development assistance from partners like the European Union and its member states has been critical to expanding and improving the quality of basic social services, especially for the poorest and most marginalised children. The success can be measured in concrete results, including a drop in child mortality by 45 percent between 1990 and 2012 and an increase in primary school enrolment among others.

We also know there is much more to be done. At least one in three children under five in Africa are stunted and over half of the world’s out-of-school children live in Africa (33 million).

Preventable disease like pneumonia, malaria and diarrhoea still account for 40 percent of all under five deaths. Hundreds of millions remain without access to safe water and adequate sanitation. Poverty pushes families to migrate, affecting children directly: whether they are left behind, migrating with parents or alone, they are increasingly exposed to vulnerabilities, including child trafficking — its darkest facet.

And we also know that economic growth, trade and business alone cannot translate Africa’s youth dividend into the dynamic asset it could and should be. Investments in human security, strong public institutions and equitable access to basic social services will remain vital to stability and our shared global prosperity.

Europe’s commitment to Africa’s children, especially the poorest, is still needed. Not just because it makes good business sense as it can help make sure there is a financial return on economic investments.

Not just because it will lead to less chances of conflict, insecurity and displacement. Not just because it makes sense for our shared humanity and our shared global future. But ultimately because Europe is and can make a difference by giving every Africa child the opportunity to reach their potential, to determine their own future and write their own story.

Philippe Cori is the director of UNICEF’s EU Partnership Office in Brussels which is managing UNICEF’s relations and partnership with the European Institutions with a view to influence and contribute to EU policies particularly in key areas such as nutrition, health, education, protection, gender, disability, poverty eradication and humanitarian assistance. This partnership aims at mobilising and leveraging quality resources for the realisation of children’s rights everywhere and especially the most disadvantaged.

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Teen Pregnancy Rising in Zimbabwe Fri, 14 Mar 2014 09:30:13 +0000 Thandeka Moyo Zimbabwe has seen a significant increase in the number of teen mothers in recent years. Credit: Jeffrey Moyo/IPS

Zimbabwe has seen a significant increase in the number of teen mothers in recent years. Credit: Jeffrey Moyo/IPS

By Thandeka Moyo
BULAWAYO, Mar 14 2014 (IPS)

She is only 17, but each morning is a reminder of her losses in life. As Pretty Nyathi* forces herself out of bed, feeds her baby, bundles him on her back and rushes to the market to buy vegetables to sell on the streets of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe she wishes her life were different.

“There is nothing fancy about being a teen mother,” she told IPS. “I wish I could reverse the hands of time and go back to school and be like any other girl.”

Five years ago her mother died and Nyathi went to live with her grandmother, who runs a shebeen (informal bar) in Tsholotsho, 116 kms north-east of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city.

At age 14, she was raped by a shebeen client. “I tried reaching out to my grandmother but she would threaten to throw me out,” she said.

Soon the grandmother forced the girl into prostitution with clients. “I have lost count of the men I slept with and I did not use protection,” said Nyathi.

In 2012 she ran away to Bulawayo, where she lived in the streets and survived through commercial sex. Two months later she found herself pregnant and was told at the clinic that she was HIV positive. A pastor took her to a shelter, and Nyathi started antiretroviral (ARV) treatment at Mpilo hospital.

“By the grace of the Lord, my baby is HIV negative,” said Nyathi.

She lives with a relative but struggles to follow the ARV treatment and have “a balanced diet that would help me live longer and at least see my daughter go to school.”

Nyathi is one example of the trend of rising teen pregnancies in Zimbabwe.

In 2011, the fertility rate among teenage girls aged 15-19 was 112 births per 1,000 girls, compared to 99 births per 1,000 girls in 2006, according to the Zimbabwe Demographic and Health Survey (ZDHS).

“That is a significant increase,” Stewart Muchapera, communications analyst with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Zimbabwe, told IPS.

Girls living in the rural areas, like Nyathi, are twice as much affected by teenage pregnancies, at a rate of 144 births per 1,000 girls, compared to 70 births per 1,000 urban girls.

Risky pregnancies

“Puberty is a time of rapid biological change and this stage of development needs to be well managed for young people to pass through it safely,” said Muchapera.

Among the many causes of teenage pregnancy, he mentions the lack of adequate, accurate information on puberty, which leaves young people dependent on uninformed peer sources or unguided internet searches.

Some cultural or religious norms such as child marriage and social issues like intergenerational sex, sexual coercion and transactional sex also contribute to teenage pregnancy, he said.

The ZDHS reports that nine out of ten sexually active women aged 15 to 19 are in some form of a marriage, and that for two out of three girls who first had sex before age 15, sex was forced against their will.

In addition, the political and economic crisis of the last decade has brought widespread poverty and disruption of health and education services. Girls engage in risky transactional sex as a means to food, clothes, school and security.

Simanga Nkomo, a midwife in Bulawayo, told IPS that every year she assists younger mothers, some aged 14 and even younger.

“The increase is worrisome, as most of these teenagers are uninformed about maternal health and they risk succumbing to maternal mortality,” she said.

The risk of maternal death is twice as high for girls aged 15 to 19 than for women in their 20s, and five times higher for girls aged 10 to 14 years.

Sipho Ncube* is another teen mother from Bulawayo. She had good grades in her last year of high school but quit studying when she fell pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy, now seven months old.

“It started as a fling and one thing led to another until I discovered I was pregnant. I had knowledge of contraceptives but for some reason I did not use any,” she told IPS.

Ncube and her baby are HIV negative.  But it could easily have been otherwise: national seroprevalence is nearly 15 percent among adults aged 15-49.

Some 120,000 young Zimbabweans aged 15-19 contracted HIV in 2012, and 63.000 of these were girls, estimates the United Nations Children’s Fund.

Ncube’s parents, who work in South Africa, visit three times a year and send a little money. She looks after her siblings, aged 13 and seven, in a two-room rented house in Mpopoma, a high-density suburb. The baby’s father is working in Victoria Falls and helps financially whenever he can.

“I regret everything but I have to live with the silly choices I made,”  Ncube told IPS. “I wish to go back to school and be able to fend for the baby.”

* Names withheld to protect privacy

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Fear of HIV Testing Among Zimbabwe’s Teens Thu, 21 Nov 2013 06:41:34 +0000 Jeffrey Moyo In Zimbabwe, four out of 10 sexually active girls aged 15-19 reported taking an HIV test in the last 12 months. Credit: Jeffrey Moyo/IPS

In Zimbabwe, four out of 10 sexually active girls aged 15-19 reported taking an HIV test in the last 12 months. Credit: Jeffrey Moyo/IPS

By Jeffrey Moyo
HARARE, Nov 21 2013 (IPS)

Seventeen-year-old Natalie Mlambo* has two good reasons to get tested for HIV. She has two boyfriends and has unprotected sex with them. One is a high school classmate. The other is older, works in a bank, and can afford to give Mlambo small gifts and some money.

“Yes, I sleep with both,” Mlambo told IPS. And, since she has sex only with them, they have stopped using condoms, she explained.

But Mlambo is terrified of getting an HIV test. “I’m afraid,” she said. “It is better to stay in the dark than to know I’m facing death; treatment doesn’t eliminate the disease.”

Mlambo, a final year high school student from Harare’s Kuwadzana high density suburb, is not unique – neither in engaging in transactional sex and having multiple sexual partners, nor in fearing an HIV test.

Felicia Chingundu, an activist with Shingai-Batanai HIV/AIDS support group in Masvingo, a town 300 kms southeast from Harare, sees teen resistance daily.

Why Teens Don't Test

In neighbouring Zambia, girls aged 15-19 named the fears that prevent them from testing for HIV:

• Fear of learning the result (58 percent)
• Fear of depression and suicide (27 percent)
• Fear of stigma (24 percent)
• Fear of dying faster (24 percent)
• Not at risk of HIV (12 percent)

Source: Sexual Behaviour Survey 2010. Multiple choice allowed.

“Teenagers engage in risky sexual behaviour but you hardly see them at testing centres,” Chingundu told IPS.

Zimbabwe set up early and robust prevention programmes in the 1990s that are credited with bringing the prevalence rate down from 24 percent in 2001 – one of the highest in the world – to less than 15 percent in 2012, according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). Although a series of political and economic crisis after 2000 clipped many programmes, AIDS awareness is widespread.

One result is that more than half of young people aged 15-24 have comprehensive knowledge about AIDS, according to the 2011 Demographic Health Survey (DHS), a figure higher than the regional average. However, knowledge does not necessarily translate into action.

The Ministry of Health has set up mobile testing facilities that visit schools and testing centres in clinics. But young people say the centres are not youth-friendly.

“Most teenagers stay away from these places, saying they are congested with adults,” said Mavis Chigara, coordinator of the Young People AIDS Network in Zimbabwe’s Mwenezi district, in Masvingo Province.

In 2012, her organisation surveyed 12,500 young people in the district; only five percent had tested for HIV. 

“Testing for HIV amounts to seeking a death warrant, and taking ARVs is a lifelong burden,” said 19-year-old Terrence Changara, from Harare’s low-income suburb of Highfield.

Stigma plays a role. In spite of a widespread epidemic and massive treatment programmes and information campaigns, pockets of discrimination remain.

“My two boyfriends speak mockingly about people who suffer from HIV/AIDS,” said Mlambo. Their attitude indicates they must be AIDS-free, she explained, or they would otherwise be kinder.

The 2011 DHS found prevalence rates of nearly four percent for young males and just over six percent for young females. Census data estimates 3.1 million youth aged 15-24 in the country.

 Benefits of testing

Testing can be scary, and disclosing to a counsellor that one engaged in risky sex may be embarrassing, but the advantages are many.

“It is important for young people to know their HIV status because it will enable them to start treatment early and improve their health,” said Judith Sherman, HIV/AIDS specialist for the U.N. Children’s Fund in Zimbabwe.

“For older adolescents, it will reduce the risk of passing on the virus to another person,” she added. “Finally, it helps adolescents who do not have HIV to keep themselves from being infected.”

In spite of fear, four out of 10 sexually active girls aged 15-19 reported taking an HIV test in the last 12 months, according to the DHS. But one frequent reason for testing is that the girls got pregnant and are attending antenatal clinics.

“Going for HIV testing is rare among teenagers,” said Mandy Chiwawa, an AIDS counsellor in Harare. “They really need support to get tested.”

Nonetheless, more people aged 15-24 are testing, compared to the 2006 DHS. The percentage of sexually active young males who have tested tripled to 23 percent, while females increased five-fold to 45 percent.  This is higher than the regional average of 22 per cent for females and 14 percent for males.

Still a long way to go, still many Mlambos who need help to overcome their fear, but the trend is encouraging.

*Not her real name

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OP-ED: Why Keeping Girls in School Can Help South Sudan Thu, 10 Oct 2013 07:00:27 +0000 AgnesOdhiambo As a result of decades of civil war, many adults and children in South Sudan did not go to school. Government statistics for 2011 show that only 39 percent of primary school students and 30 percent of secondary students are female. Credit: John Robinson/IPS

As a result of decades of civil war, many adults and children in South Sudan did not go to school. Government statistics for 2011 show that only 39 percent of primary school students and 30 percent of secondary students are female. Credit: John Robinson/IPS

By Agnes Odhiambo
NAIROBI, Oct 10 2013 (IPS)

Mary K. loved to study and wanted to be an accountant. However, when she was 16 and in class six (grade eight), her father forced her to leave school to marry a 50-year-old man who paid him 60 cows.

Mary pleaded with her father to keep her in school. But her father was adamant. “He said it is a waste of money to educate a girl and that girls are born so that people can eat,” Mary told me in 2012, when I visited South Sudan to interview girls and women about child and forced marriages. “He said marriage, not education, will bring me respect in the community.”

Recently, I attended the African regional conference of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Beyond 2014 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The meeting was held to review progress, gaps and challenges to carrying out the 20-year action plan for human rights development from the landmark ICPD conference in 1994. At that original conference, 179 governments made a commitment to deliver human rights-based development.

It was encouraging to hear delegates from South Sudan’s government talk about the importance of promoting girls’ access to education in the post-2015 development agenda, and their government’s commitment to ensuring that all girls in South Sudan go to school. Indeed President Salva Kiir has reiterated this message time and again.  A lost opportunity for education not only hurts the girls forced into early marriage, but has far-reaching and long-lasting repercussions for their children and communities.

To its credit, the government of South Sudan has identified education as a priority in its development plan. It has taken various policy and programmatic steps since it gained autonomy from Sudan in 2005 and independence in 2011 to increase school enrolment, including advancing the rights of girls to education. The 2008 Child Act and Transitional Constitution provide for the right to free and compulsory primary education. The Child Act also explicitly states that no girl can be expelled from school due to pregnancy and that young mothers must be allowed to continue their education.

South Sudan has an Alternative Education System that offers people who have not had access to formal education, including pregnant girls and mothers, the opportunity to go to school. In 2011, close to 70,000 girls and women went to school under this programme.

Despite these efforts, providing quality education in South Sudan is not an easy task. Government statistics for 2011 show that only 39 percent of primary school students and 30 percent of secondary students are female. The new country faces substantial development and humanitarian challenges, and education is no exception. As a result of decades of civil war, many adults and children in South Sudan did not go to school. Internal insecurity and conflict continue to disrupt education. School infrastructure is underdeveloped, and the country has few trained teachers.

For girls like Mary, these challenges are often compounded by child marriage. According to government statistics, close to half – 48 percent – of South Sudanese girls ages 15 to 19 are married, with some marrying as young as 12. Many girls in South Sudan do not attend school at all or don’t complete their education as they are married off by their families for a number of reasons – including receiving cows, money and other gifts.

Many of the girls and women I interviewed told me their dreams of continuing school to become accountants, teachers, or doctors were cut short when they married. Despite the government’s initiatives, most of those who had been in school left after three to five years of primary education — when they were hardly literate. Those who dropped out told me they found it difficult to continue after marriage because of financial constraints, domestic chores, childbear­ing and social norms that view marriage and schooling as conflicting.

As South Sudan celebrates the second International Day of the Girl Child –  whose theme is “innovating for girls’ education” – with the rest of the world tomorrow, it should recognise that strengthening girls’ access to education requires positive steps to curb child marriage. This should include enforcing the existing laws on child marriage, and developing and carrying out comprehensive programmes that address the root causes of child marriage. South Sudan needs a national action plan on child marriage to ensure a coordinated and effective response.

A lost opportunity for education not only hurts the girls forced into early marriage, but has far-reaching and long-lasting repercussions for their children and communities.

When I interviewed Mary in 2012 she was 24 years old, had three children and was struggling to meet their basic needs. Neither she nor her husband had any source of income. Her eldest son who was seven and her five-year-old daughter had not started school because, Mary said, she did not have money to get them to school.

I asked Mary what she thought about her father’s comments that marriage, not education, was important for her. She told me: “Now I have grown up and I know that this is not true. I cannot get work to support my children and I see girls who have some education can get jobs. Education is important for women.”

If South Sudan is to realise its vision of education for all, as well as economic development, it should listen to Mary’s words.

* Agnes Odhiambo is the Africa researcher for women’s rights at Human Rights Watch

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New Laws May Fail to Protect Children in Sri Lanka Wed, 09 Oct 2013 07:37:53 +0000 Amantha Perera Experts recommend stricter laws and wider awareness building to stem incidents of child abuse. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Experts recommend stricter laws and wider awareness building to stem incidents of child abuse. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO, Oct 9 2013 (IPS)

Stricter laws could curb the rising trend of child abuse in Sri Lanka, experts say. However, recommendations like witness protection, special courts and procedures to hear abuse cases and more legal assistance to victims are unlikely to be included in a new draft Child Protection Policy that is to be presented to parliament before the end of the year.

Although detailed data are not available, estimates suggest between three and five incidents of grave child abuse are reported daily in this island nation of 20 million.

“The reported number of cases has been rising in recent years,” confirmed Ediriweera Gunasekera, a spokesman for Sri Lanka’s National Child Protection Authority – the main government body responsible for formulating policy on child abuse prevention and monitoring abuse incidence and victim assistance.

“Certainly there is more reporting of cases that is taking place now,” he told IPS.

According to figures tabled in parliament, the Sri Lankan police recorded 1,759 reported cases of child rape, including incest, in 2012, up from 1,463 in 2011.

And in the first six months of this year, according to police statistics, 805 cases of child rape were reported.

In 1995, the penal code was amended to require that sexual acts with minors under the age of consent, 16, be tried under the offence of statutory rape, or under Article 365 of the penal code, which defines unnatural sexual acts and grave abuse.

But delays in legal proceedings, lack of witness protection and lack of assistance to victims are discouraging families and victims from reporting cases or seeking help, says a recent study by the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

“This study indicates, as does literature over the last two decades, that the procedures for investigation and prosecution of child abuse, witness protection, and support for the victim are grossly inadequate,” the report says.

Of the more than 1,450 cases reported in 2011, not a single conviction was reported by end of 2011, and a backlog of 8,000 cases dates back six years. Officials at the UNICEF country office said the justice system remains overwhelmed with backlogged cases and is in need of a complete overhaul.

“The entire system needs to be assessed and rebuilt, through all the stages, with efficiency as a key priority,” UNICEF said in an emailed statement to IPS.

Harini Amarasuriya, a lecturer at the Open University of Sri Lanka and co-author of the report, said the Sri Lankan legal system was focused on prosecution and lacked support services like assistance to the victim and witness protection.

She also recommended that the country reform its laws to introduce special procedures to deal with cases of child abuse.

“Unfortunately, there is no indication that these issues are being given priority,” she said.

While officials at the Ministry of Justice and the National Child Protection Authority confirmed that a new national child protection policy was currently being drafted, provisions for witness protection and special procedures to deal with child rape cases were not among the new recommendations, they told IPS.

UNICEF officials, however, said that efforts were underway to clear the backlog of outstanding cases. The U.N. agency, along with various government offices, launched a programme last year to train police officers and officials at the attorney general’s department to efficiently handle child abuse cases.

The police department has also opened special district-level bureaus with trained personnel dedicated to handle child abuse and rape cases. In 2012, two special courts were also established, including one in Colombo and another in northern Jaffna, to hear child abuse cases.

Amarasuriya said that while increased awareness-raising had resulted in more cases being reported to police, more work was needed to bring about behavioural changes.

UNICEF said: There is a need for much more awareness and discussion on the issue,” adding that “behaviour change reduces incidents of abuse”.

Girls are more likely to fall victim to abuse than boys, Amarasuriya noted. Estimates suggest around 70 percent of reported cases involve girls.

“The social stigma is directed more towards girls who have been abused rather than boys,” she added. Girls who have been abused are more likely to be ostracised by their communities, particularly in the future, when they attempt to find a marriage partner.

UNICEF reported that abuse incidence was high in rural areas, like the North Central Anuradhapura District and the Central Rathnapura District. Officials also said that while the number of cases reported to the police had increased, there was still a significant amount of underreporting.

Research has also shown that child abuse is a contributory factor to rape, sexual abuse and violence against women.

“Men’s experience of emotional abuse and neglect as children was associated with non-partner rape perpetration in two countries, China and Sri Lanka,” says a recent study by the U.N. Development Programme titled Why Do Some Men Use Violence Against Women and How Can We Prevent It?

The report found that almost 18 percent of the Sri Lankan female respondents said they had been subjected to rape, while 32 percent said they had been subjected to physical abuse, rape or both. Twenty-seven percent of the Sri Lanka men interviewed for the study said they had subjected their partners to physical abuse, rape or both.

At least half of these men had been abused in their childhood, the survey found.

“Child abuse was a common phenomenon across the region, with 50 percent of Sri Lanka-national men reporting experiences of childhood emotional abuse and neglect (i.e. being publicly humiliated or insulted, parents being too drunk or drugged to care for child, etc),” the report that interviewed 13,000 participants across six countries in Asia and Pacific found.

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Somalia Takes Teaching to the Extreme Fri, 04 Oct 2013 08:08:04 +0000 Ahmed Osman Islamic studies curriculum in Somalia’s schools is a radical form of Islam that analysts say is contributing to the growing militancy of the country’s youth. Credit: Ahmed Osman/IPS

Islamic studies curriculum in Somalia’s schools is a radical form of Islam that analysts say is contributing to the growing militancy of the country’s youth. Credit: Ahmed Osman/IPS

By Ahmed Osman
MOGADISHU, Oct 4 2013 (IPS)

Mukhatar Jama has been teaching at a secondary school in Mogadishu for the past decade. Religious education is part and parcel of the curriculum of all schools in Somalia, but he says most parents are unaware of exactly what their children are being taught – a radical form of Islam.

“The Islamic studies curriculum you hear is the pure Wahhabism, exported from Saudi Arabia, that teaches children that all those who are not Wahhabi are non-believers, including the children’s parents, and that it is ok to kill non-Muslims,” Jama told IPS.

While there are no statistics on how many schools there are in Somalia, most here follow the Saudi curriculum, which advocates and inculcates Wahhabism. This is a far more radical interpretation of Islam than the moderate Sufi school that older generation of Somalis follows.

The radicalisation of Somalia’s youth has already started spilling over the war-torn country’s borders to its neighbours, influencing the region’s fragile security situation."Al-Shabaab, which means youth in Arabic, has realised the potential of Somalia’s young and are working to capitalise on it in our schools." -- analyst Omar Yusuf

It has taken root not only in Somalia and Kenya, but in the whole sub-region, Omar Yusuf, an analyst in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, told IPS.

“The event of Westgate is perhaps one of many wake-up calls for governments in the region to tackle the growing radicalisation and the logical next step of deadly militancy in the youth of the region,” Yusuf said.

The Sep. 21 attack on the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi by the Somali Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab left more than 70 dead and dozens injured.

The Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabaab had repeatedly vowed to target Kenya after the country’s troops crossed over the border into Somalia in 2011 and ousted the radical group’s fighters from key areas in southern Somalia, including Kismayo.

Al-Shabaab advocates the establishment of an Islamic State not only in Somalia, but in East Africa. It adheres to the fundamentalist Wahhabi school of Islam. The extremist group’s ideology seems to be gaining ground in Somalia due to a number of factors.

“Think about it, schools in Somalia provide Al-Shabaab with the radical ideological teaching for the youth and when they graduate what they just need is to give [them] military training and there you have a qualified Al-Shabaab fighter,” Yusuf said.

Both teachers and parents seem divided over what is being taught at Somali schools, with some accepting it as part of the children’s religious education, and others expressing concern that their children are being indoctrinated to be Wahhabists without their consent.

“I came to know that my son gets indoctrinated with extremist views at school. He had to change schools a number of times but all schools in Mogadishu use the same Wahhabi books that we took from Saudi Arabia. The whole country will covert to Wahhabism in no time,” one parent, who sought anonymity for fear of reprisals, told IPS.

Another parent, Omar Kulmiye, disagreed that his children were being radicalised by this teaching. “I don’t [know] much about religion but I think since they are learning Islam it is ok with me and I have not sensed anything different in my children since they started school five years ago,” he told IPS.

 Zakia Hussen, a researcher with the Mogadishu-based Heritage Institute for Policy Studies (HIPS), explained “there’s no one root cause but several factors that have led to Somali youth being recruited into militancy.”

Hussen said three factors have contributed to radicalisation and militancy among Somali youths. Lack of political participation, and of employment and education opportunities draws youth to militant groups, she said.

“The search for a ‘second family’ and a sense of belonging offered by militant groups…has attracted many youths,” Hussen said. “Young recruits are offered a group to belong to, a job with salary as well as marriage – things that are otherwise hard for them to obtain in Somali society.”

The unemployment rate for youth aged 14 to 29 is 67 percent — one of the highest in the world. According to the United Nations Development Programme’s “Somalia Human Development Report 2012”, 70 percent of Somalia’s 10.2 million people are under the age of 30.

The attack on the Westgate Shopping Mall comes as no surprise as Al-Shabaab has been spreading its radicalising tentacles in the region, local security expert Muhumed Abdi told IPS.

“This was a crisis that has been simmering for years because the radical groups have found not only Somalia but neighbouring countries fertile ground to grow and recruit, with governments in the region seemingly unprepared,” Abdi said.

However, the Somali government, along with the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and international partners, is currently trying to implement an ambitious initiative to put one million children to school. Through this Go 2 School Initiative the government has also proposed changes to the curriculum in the hope that this will help fight radicalism. According to UNICEF, enrolment rates here are among the lowest in the world with only four out of every 10 children attending school.

But the government faces huge resistance from private school administrators and parents who fear the changes would make education devoid of religious moral teaching for the young.

Islamist groups have condemned the campaign as an attempt by the government to westernise Somali education and sideline religious studies.

Numerous calls by IPS to Somalia’s ministry of education remained unanswered while one official declined to comment on the allegations that schools are used as breeding grounds for militancy in Somalia.

But Hussen said the Somali government recognised that youth are the “future of Somalia” and need empowerment.

“However, the government has not been very forthcoming in the implementation of this … as youth are still very much marginalised from the political arena,” she explained.

Yusuf agreed, but said the approach needs to be far more radical and start with a critical look at the kind of education Somali children receive in school during their formative years.

“There is a need for holistic approach to youth problems in Somalia because Al-Shabaab, which means youth in Arabic, has realised the potential of Somalia’s young and are working to capitalise on it in our schools. We need to change that,” Yusuf said.

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Relief Brings Its Own Disasters Wed, 02 Oct 2013 08:17:13 +0000 Malini Shankar Children at a care home in Orissa in India. Children worldwide are particularly vulnerable in disasters. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS.

Children at a care home in Orissa in India. Children worldwide are particularly vulnerable in disasters. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS.

By Malini Shankar
DEHRADUN, India , Oct 2 2013 (IPS)

In Uttarakhand, the small Indian state in the Himalayan foothills that was a victim of flash floods that killed at least a thousand people in June this year and uprooted thousands of families, the story is told of a child who went every day to the helipad, believing his father will return when, in fact, the father died in the floods.

There are many such stories, Ray Kancharla of Save the Children told IPS.

Children are the most vulnerable when natural calamities strike. Children, women, the frail and infirm, and the elderly need special care and attention in disaster zones. Often they are unable to cope with the aftermath of a disaster, even if they have survived it, and might not be able to access search and rescue personnel, food aid, or relief material.

Separation is a trauma peculiar to children. Search and rescue workers, because of the emergency nature of their work, tend to be hurried. Often they do not have the time to check how many members of a family or group are still missing. Only visible survivors are picked up and evacuated to scattered shelters. Reunification becomes the task of disaster managers and relief agencies.

In January 2010, an earthquake struck Papua New Guinea, the small island state in the Pacific Ocean, and all the fatalities reported were helpless children because training in ‘disaster risk reduction’ had equipped adults with the knowledge that when the sea withdraws it heralds a deadly tsunami.

“No adult died because adults knew that when the sea withdraws [from the shore], it portends the arrival of a tsunami, and all the adults fled to higher ground,” said Aloysius Laukai of the New Dawn FM radio station. “The unfortunate casualties were all children,” Laukai told IPS.

“Mapping of the frail, infirm and elderly is very important in any disaster-prone area,” Aapga Singh of HelpAge India, an NGO dedicated to the elderly, told IPS after the Uttarakhand flood disaster. “It would not only be helpful to rescue these people in an efficient manner during emergencies, but also in relief disbursal; vulnerable people are either left behind or get in last.”

There are instances of children being separated from their parents and families during every recent natural calamity. The December 2004 Asian tsunami saw a seven-year -old girl separated from her family for nearly eight years before she was reunited with them in Sumatra in Indonesia only in 2012.

Even if public memory is short, trauma to the survivors can last a lifetime. Lessons learnt have to be documented in public domains to avoid recurrence of disasters in calamity-affected landscapes, say activists.

Separations have been rampant after the Asian tsunami, the Kosi floods in Bihar in India (2008), Cyclone Aila in Bangladesh and India (2009), a super cyclone in Orissa, India (1999), floods in Assam in India (2012), and the Uttarakhand floods (2013).

Trauma in children manifests itself in ways such as “thumb sucking, bedwetting, clinging to parents, sleep disturbances, loss of appetite, fear of the dark, regression in behaviour, and withdrawal from friends and routines,” Murali Kunduru of Plan India, an NGO, told IPS.

With loss of appetite manifesting in children suffering from separation-induced trauma, the significance of culture-sensitive food security assumes critical importance.

Apart from the primary trauma of separation, and battle for survival against the power of calamities, women and children are particularly vulnerable to lack of water and sanitation.

”Without adequate nutritious food, both children and adults lose immunity and become predisposed to water-borne infections and sicknesses like “diarrhoea, cholera, typhoid, respiratory infections, skin and eye infections which are all likely to occur when water supply and sanitation services are disrupted during disasters,” adds Kunduru.

When nursing mothers are rendered homeless because of disasters, they need to be housed in shelters which have gender sensitivity and adequate privacy. Similarly shelters need to conform to the needs of physically challenged persons – ramps for wheelchair-bound refugees have to be factored in during their construction.

In the Uttarakhand floods, the tourist economy was hit so hard that people dependent on tourism for their livelihood migrated to larger cities and towns in the plains to seek employment.

“Children’s education is affected by disasters when adults migrate in search of livelihoods, often leaving adolescent boys in charge of families; young children, especially boys, drop out of school to earn a livelihood, disrupting their education resulting in lifelong impact,” says Shekhar Ambati of Aide et Action.

With women moving out of kitchens to supplement family incomes being earned by their young wards, children’s nutrition suffers.

“As part of our working paper on development-induced displacement we found that around 25 percent of children had to drop out of school. This is one of the risks to the population due to displacement,” writes Dr. K Hemalatha, a community worker, in a working paper on development-induced displacement, co-authored by Fr. Arun Anthony and Pitambari Joshalkar and published by Christ University, Bangalore. The study was funded by the International Federation of Catholic Universities.

Often the lack of inclusivity rebounds on the vulnerable during disasters. Planning can go a long way in efficient disaster mitigation. Database management of population, knowledge of consumption patterns, standards of living and human development index have to go into planning to mitigate the effect of disasters, particularly on children and the vulnerable in calamity-prone areas, say activists.

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OP-ED: Getting Children Into Somalia’s Classrooms Sat, 14 Sep 2013 07:53:17 +0000 Maryan Qasim The Somali government, in conjunction with the United Nations Children’s Fund has begun a campaign to get one million Somali children to school. Credit: Abdurrahman Warsameh/IPS

The Somali government, in conjunction with the United Nations Children’s Fund has begun a campaign to get one million Somali children to school. Credit: Abdurrahman Warsameh/IPS

By Maryan Qasim
MOGADISHU, Sep 14 2013 (IPS)

Somalia is well-known for being a country torn apart by decades of conflict, by hunger and instability. Today, with fragile stability emerging and a new government in place, there is an opportunity to define a new future of peace, prosperity and justice.

The capital city, Mogadishu, is changing at an extraordinary pace. On the streets the “thwack-thwack” sound that rings out in the mornings is not the clatter of machine guns, but the sound of hammers. The painters are painting and signs of construction are visible everywhere. There is hope.

Yet, that hope can only bear fruit when we have built the right foundations for our children.

Today in Somalia, the United Nations Children’s Fund estimates six out of 10 children aged between six and 12 have never seen the inside of a classroom. Never had the joy of discovering how to read, to write their name and translate numbers into practical knowledge. Never had the pride of a teacher telling them they have done well and encouraging them to do even better. Never belonged to a school community, where in that safe space they can learn to dream and believe in their potential.

I believe the success of a stable Somalia can only be measured by reversing the numbers of children, who are deprived their right to an education and by getting them into school, giving them hope to believe in a common future.

This month the country is mounting the Go-To-School Initiative (“Aada Dugsiyada”), which aims to enrol an additional one million children and young people back into the education system over the next three years. As part of this first phase we are enrolling nearly 100,000 additional primary school children across Somalia.

Schools will teach our children the basic skills of reading and writing skills, but more importantly it will educate them on what peace looks like by providing them with the stability of going to school every day and the experience of continuity and stability rather than violence and insecurity.

Somalia’s Minister for Human Development and Public Services Dr Maryan Qasim says that the success of a stable Somalia can only be measured by giving children an education. Courtesy: Susannah Price/UNICEF

Somalia’s Minister for Human Development and Public Services Dr Maryan Qasim says that the success of a stable Somalia can only be measured by giving children an education. Courtesy: Susannah Price/UNICEF

Of course this is only the first step in reaching our ultimate goal of providing free quality education to all Somali children. But it is a quarter of the number of children and young people who are currently out of school and it is a historical first step in breaking with the past.

Its success though is a collective responsibility. Already, the Somali community has shown incredible support – volunteering and working with us day and night out of a deep sense of responsibility towards their country.

The Somali government is made up of many who have returned from different parts of the world to work alongside those who have always been here. Many of the staff working are people who have returned from the diaspora to help rebuild the country and believe in our ambitious goal.

Yet, despite the billions spent on securing the military victory, we urgently need a much greater investment now in the social sector. We cannot build schools, train teachers, and provide school books without these resources.

So while international partners have yet to commit, we have to rely on innovation and what little funding infrastructure we have to get children back to school.

My own dream is of a united, peaceful Somalia – at peace with itself, its neighbours and the rest of the world. My dream is for every Somali child to be in a safe and secure learning environment with quality education.

My dream is to see a Somalia where children are not afraid; where they can play out in the open fields like we used to play in our villages.

My dream is for Somalia to become a productive member of the community of nations and a country where the rule of law is respected, human rights are upheld and a country on the path of economic and human development.

I know that my dream can only become a reality by providing children with the opportunity to learn. After all, peace, education and development ought to be basic right, not luxuries, for every child in the world – including Somalia.

A more educated Somalia is a more peaceful Somalia.

* Dr Maryan Qasim is the Minister for Human Development and Public Services in the Federal Government of Somalia

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Hopeful but Homesick in Peshawar Schools Fri, 13 Sep 2013 04:13:44 +0000 Ashfaq Yusufzai Girls in a hostel in a school in Peshawar, sent there by parents defying Taliban threats to education. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

Girls in a hostel in a school in Peshawar, sent there by parents defying Taliban threats to education. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Sep 13 2013 (IPS)

“I miss my mother and cry every night,” eight-year-old Afaq Ali tells IPS. He is a Class 5 student at the University Public School in Peshawar, capital of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and the administrative centre for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to its west.

Ali’s parents shifted him in 2010 from their village Pranghar in FATA’s Mohmand Agency to a school in Peshawar, 157 km away. The Taliban militants have since 2005 systematically destroyed 120 schools in this Pakistan district, one of the seven agencies that make up FATA on Afghanistan’s southeastern border.“It’s a massive sacrifice that I have allowed my 10-year-old daughter to stay in a hostel.” -- Gul Fam, a housewife from Aka Khel village in the FATA district

“I feel extremely bored and lonely because most of my classmates are from around here and stay at home with their parents,” adds Ali, his frame pencil-thin. “Because of this, I cannot study.”

Like Ali, there are many other homesick children in Peshawar’s schools whose families in FATA’s militancy-afflicted districts have had no alternative but to send them out to study.

Zareen Gul from the Dande Darpa Khel village in North Waziristan is unhappy about having to send his eight-year-old daughter Spogmay to a Peshawar school. A cobbler by profession, he travels 200 km to the city every month to see her.

“It was a very hard decision for us to send Spogmay to Peshawar because we miss her very much,” her mother Reshma tells IPS.

“The Taliban militants are responsible for our woes. We want education for our children, but they just don’t allow it,” says Gul. So, even though it wrenches his heart, he is determined to send his daughter to school.

Studying in Class 3 at the Umar Farooq Public School in Peshawar, Spogmay herself says she has loving teachers and good friends at school and in the hostel but they cannot replace her parents. “I love my father, mother and sisters,” she tells IPS. “Living away from them is difficult. But I will study because that’s what my parents want.”

Peshawar has a total of 5,000 schools, 2,000 of them in the private sector. These are already overburdened with local students. “The hostels are finding it hard to house more students,” says Saleem Khan, warden of the Turangzai hostel at the Islamia Collegiate School in Peshawar.

Rooms meant for two people are being allotted to four students, he says. “The situation is becoming increasingly difficult as more students arrive from FATA every year.”

Muhammad Fakhr Alam, a Peshawar-based education officer, says they had registered about 20,000 students from FATA for admission to schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2012. “About 90 percent of the students from FATA live in hostels,” he tells IPS.

There are, however, about 10 percent children from FATA whose parents have taken up rented accommodation in Peshawar for the sake of their wards’ education, Alam adds.

The Taliban militants, says Akhtar Rasool, deputy director of the education department in FATA, have destroyed 766 schools in the region till date. This has deprived almost 80,000 children, mostly girls, of education.

“Those who can afford it send their children to Peshawar and other adjacent districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,” Rasool tells IPS. The bulk of the children stay back, without a school to go to.

Any initial sympathy the Taliban might have attracted when they were hounded out of Afghanistan in 2001 and forced to cross the 2,400-km porous border into Pakistan has long turned into anger.

“We are repentant over the hospitality we extended to Taliban and their Al-Qaeda friends when they came to seek refuge here,” says Salamat Gul, 50, a cloth merchant in the Ghareebabad village of Bajaur Agency, the smallest of FATA’s districts, located in the north.

The Taliban have destroyed 115 schools here. “They are hell-bent on depriving our children of education,” says Salamat Gul.

Twelve children from his family, including his two sons and daughter as well as nine nephews and nieces, are in Peshawar schools, he tells IPS.

Salamat Gul has travelled 120 km to Peshawar to get two of his nephews examined by doctors. They were both running a fever, and their families were extremely anxious on this account, he says. “There’s no one to take care of them at the hostel,” he tells IPS, as he waits outside the Peshawar Model School for his nephews to come out.

The Pakistan government, with financial assistance from the United States Agency for International Development, started building 130 schools in FATA in 2010 to ensure that students get back to school. “We have also contacted other donor agencies to rebuild the Taliban-damaged schools as soon as possible,” says Rasool.

Meanwhile those who are sending their children away think of it as a necessary sacrifice for their children to get educated. “It’s a massive sacrifice that I have allowed my 10-year-old daughter to stay in a hostel,” says Gul Fam, a housewife from Aka Khel village in Khyber Agency, the FATA district west of Peshawar and said to be its most literate.

Fam’s daughter Javeria Bibi is a Class 2 student at the University Model School in Peshawar and lives in a boarding house nearby. “She is very good in studies,” the proud mother tells IPS. “And not just that, she also takes part in sports and extracurricular activities.”

Fam has made a 150-km journey to Peshawar to attend the annual day function at her daughter’s school where she too was participating.

Fam now hopes that their sacrifices will bear fruit and her daughter will grow up to be an educationist who can help spread education back home. “Without education, the people of FATA cannot progress,” she says. That realisation is a battle half-won.

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Poor Picked for ‘Paradise’ Wed, 04 Sep 2013 07:45:41 +0000 Ashfaq Yusufzai Captured Taliban members say poverty drove them into the arms of terrorism. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

Captured Taliban members say poverty drove them into the arms of terrorism. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Sep 4 2013 (IPS)

“I consider myself lucky after finding my son,” says Muhammad Jabeen, a juice vendor in Bannu, one of the 25 districts of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in northern Pakistan. The Taliban had taken his son, Mateen Shah, away from a madrassa to join their ranks.

Jabeen says his son was only 16 when he was abducted in October 2011. The boy was taken to a half-destroyed building in Waziristan where he was given lessons in jihad. “His captors would have brainwashed him to become a voluntary suicide bomber had he not escaped after four months.”

The fundamental reason Mateen Shah was abducted was that he lived on the poor side of inequality that cuts through the area.“I was informed by a Taliban group that [Jawad] blew himself up in Afghanistan. The Taliban congratulated me to say that Jawad had gone to paradise.” -- Shaukat Ali, father of suicide bomber

“Bannu houses more than 100 religious schools where children from poor families are admitted because their parents cannot afford the high cost of education in modern schools,” Muhammad Jamal, a political science teacher at the Postgraduate College Bannu, tells IPS. At madrassas children are given free food and clothes.

Bannu has become a breeding ground for terrorism because the Taliban have recruited hundreds of boys for their fighting squads over the past 10 years, Jamal says.

Bannu is close to North Waziristan Agency, a Taliban hotbed. The Taliban routinely pick up boys from poor families in Bannu and train them to use guns, improvised explosive devices and to become suicide bombers, says Jamal.

Two boys who went missing along with Mateen Shah have still not been traced.

Police officer Khalid Khan tells IPS that the Taliban have kidnapped more than 500 children in the past five years. “About 40 have escaped but the whereabouts of others are not known.”

Orphans are known locally to be the most vulnerable to recruitment because they are easily “available”. The Taliban say they have no children in their ranks, but Khan says they have actively been recruiting orphaned and homeless young boys to train them in terrorism.

“Affluent people send their children to modern schools to get formal education. Terrorists hunt for young starving children to be trained to plant bombs, lay roadside traps or [be used] in fighting and for carrying out suicide attacks,” Khan said.

Fazl Hanan, a resident of Lakki Marwat district, says his nephew fell into Taliban hands after his poverty-ridden father employed him at a roadside restaurant. “He disappeared from the place. It was said that he used to meet with a few local Taliban members frequently. He may have opted to join them.”

Districts such as Lakki Marwat, Bannu, Dera Ismail Khan and Tank are thick with insurgents. They took refuge in the adjacent Federally Administered Tribal Areas after being evicted by U.S.-led forces from Kabul towards the end of 2001.

“These districts are all grounds for recruiting local children, especially those in madrassas or who have part-time odd jobs,” Khan said.

“The Taliban took away my son from an automobile workshop in March 2011 by promising him a lucrative job,” Shaukat Ali, a vegetable vendor from Charsadda district, told IPS. “Three months later, he (the son) called to say he was in Waziristan.”

Jawad Ali, who was 18 then, was his only son. The boy had been supplementing the father’s income to feed his 12-member family.

“We were hoping that Jawad would return. But I was informed by a Taliban group that he blew himself up in Afghanistan. The Taliban congratulated me to say that Jawad had gone to paradise.” Shaukat Ali was told his son had died in a suicide attack on U.S. soldiers.

Boys recruited by the Taliban do manage sometimes to escape. On Jun. 1, 2009 about 20 teenage boys escaped from Taliban custody. “The Taliban kidnapped us from religious schools in Dera Ismail Khan and kept us in a massive mud-built compound in Waziristan where we were lectured by a long-bearded man,” Imran Ali, 15, one of the kidnapped boys who escaped, told IPS. 

But he said some boys were happy that they were getting food without doing any work.

“I was also happy, but one of the boys explained to us that we would ultimately die in suicide bombing or some other terror act. We waited for an opportune time and escaped.”

Many of the boys picked up are never heard from again. Abdur Rehman, 15, was taken away in 2006 from the Swat district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

“Like 200 other boys who went missing in Swat, he is still untraced,” Muhammad Rehman, his father, a construction labourer, told IPS. “Since his disappearance, there is no clue. I don’t have resources to travel to Waziristan and locate him.”

Police officer Khan says that overall about 400 children recruited by the Taliban have been traced and arrested. “We have shifted them to internment centres where they are being de-radicalised. They are being given skills in tailoring, embroidery, carpentry, etc so they could start their business.”

Gul Muhammad, 19, is one of them. He was 14 when he went missing from Swat. In 2010, he was arrested from a Taliban training camp in Swat and sent to jail.

“I was shifted here from jail four months ago. I am learning tailoring and will start my business,” Muhammad, who was given a tailoring certificate in July at the interment centre, told IPS. “Now I am free from Taliban and will help my poor parents.”

But there are many poor where he came from. And that is where the Taliban look, and find.

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Spanish Baby Theft Case Crosses the Atlantic Tue, 03 Sep 2013 18:14:49 +0000 Marcela Valente The prevailing impunity has made it impossible to gauge the true dimension of the phenomenon of baby theft in Spain, but even the most conservative estimates put the numbers in the tens of thousands. Credit: Bigstock

The prevailing impunity has made it impossible to gauge the true dimension of the phenomenon of baby theft in Spain, but even the most conservative estimates put the numbers in the tens of thousands. Credit: Bigstock

By Marcela Valente
BUENOS AIRES, Sep 3 2013 (IPS)

The mystery still surrounding the massive business of stealing and buying babies, practised for decades in Spain by the regime of Francisco Franco (1939-1975), could start to be clarified in courtrooms in Argentina.

“In my country, most of the cases have been shelved, which is why we decided to bring legal action in Argentina,” Soledad Luque from Spain told IPS. Her parents were told that her twin brother Francisco had died shortly after birth, in 1965. But they were never shown his body.

Luque testified as part of a collective lawsuit Monday Sept. 2 before Argentine Judge María Romilda Servini.

Under the principle of universal jurisdiction, Servini is investigating crimes against humanity allegedly committed during Spain’s 1936-1939 civil war and the Franco era.

Luque and her brother were born in the Maternidad Provincial de O’Donnell maternity hospital in Madrid. Francisco was put in an incubator. But a few days later, the parents were told that he had suddenly died of meningitis.

The family asked for his body, but were told that he had been cremated. However, they were not given his ashes either, Luque said.

Forty-five years later, similar cases began to come to light, and Luque started to investigate what might have happened to her brother. She filed a lawsuit in Madrid in 2010. But in less than a year she was told the case had been shelved because there was no evidence that a crime had been committed.

People in a similar situation, who had received the same message, began to hook up over the social networking sites.

Information gathered from the official records by associations of people affected by the phenomenon of baby theft indicates that between 1960 and 1990 some two million babies were adopted in Spain. And in many cases, payment was involved.

It is difficult to gauge the magnitude of the phenomenon. But legal experts estimate that 15 percent – some 300,000 – of the cases could have involved newborns who were stolen and old to adoptive parents.

The lawsuit in Argentina is focusing on the cases of babies and toddlers seized from women who had taken part in the civil war on the Republican side and were imprisoned under the Franco regime.

According to Luque, around 30,000 babies were stolen up to 1952. “After that, the phenomenon became more difficult to measure,” she said.

The evidence indicates that after that year, the strategy shifted – with the direct participation of institutions of the state and of the powerful Catholic Church – to a focus on poor families with many children, and single mothers.

“Those numbers scare me, but they might actually be underestimates,” Luque told IPS, referring to the estimate of 300,000 stolen babies. “We don’t know, because we have asked the prosecution service to give us the information, but they have not done so.”

In her search for Francisco, Luque created the Asociación Todos los Niños Robados Son También Mis Niños (the “all stolen children are also my children” association). On Monday, she testified in representation of her organisation and eight others that are seeking information about hundreds of missing babies.

There are many other associations of families affected by the phenomenon in Spain, but not all of them agree that the cases fit in the category of human rights crimes attributed to the Franco regime, Luque said. Many see the theft of babies as common crimes, she explained.

“We belong to the case against Franquismo because we were also its victims,” said the activist, who flew to Buenos Aires with other relatives of missing babies and their attorneys, who include Carlos Slepoy, a human rights lawyer from Argentina who has lived in Madrid for years.

Thousands of lawsuits were filed in Spain, but only one went to trial, against an elderly Catholic nun, María Gómez. She was charged with stealing babies in two maternity hospitals in Madrid, the Santa Cristina and San Ramón. But she died early this year at the age of 87 while the trial was still ongoing.

Slepoy told IPS that the purpose of the visit to Buenos Aires was to “revitalise the original case” against Franco regime crimes, which he said had suffered some setbacks, largely because of the Spanish government’s lack of political will.

The lawsuit in the Argentine capital began to be put together in 2010, when relatives of two victims summarily executed by the Spanish dictatorship filed charges, invoking the principle of universal jurisdiction, and the case began to grow as additional families joined as plaintiffs.

Under the principle of universal jurisdiction, crimes against humanity, genocide and terrorism, which are not subject to statutes of limitation or amnesties, can be tried at any time in any place.

The strategy was a response by human rights organisations in Argentina and Spain to the disbarring of internationally renowned Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón on charges that he overstepped his jurisdiction when he began to investigate Franco-era human rights crimes.

Garzón had decided to investigate what happened to at least 113,000 victims forcibly disappeared during the civil war and the early years of the Franco regime.

Servini asked the Spanish courts for information. When she was informed that no trials on the human rights crimes were moving forward in Spain, she scheduled a trip to Madrid. But Argentina’s Supreme Court did not approve the expenses involved, so she decided instead to take depositions via videoconference.

Witnesses and plaintiffs were going to give their testimony in the Argentine embassy in Madrid, while the judge questioned them from Buenos Aires.

But a complaint from Spain’s foreign ministry brought the hearings to a halt.

Despite the hurdles, “the lawsuit has made strides,” Slepoy said. “It exists, it has support, and it is the only one in the world investigating Franco-era crimes. That is why it has awakened such high expectations.”

The Spanish delegation received a warm welcome and a wave of support in Buenos Aires.

On Wednesday Aug. 28, the lower house of Congress issued a “strong condemnation of the crimes against humanity committed in Spain by the Franco dictatorship, and of the impunity enjoyed by those responsible.” The statement also expressed support for the legal action in Argentina.

Luque met with the president of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, Estela Barnes de Carlotto. Her organisation has tracked down nearly one-quarter of the roughly 400 children who were kidnapped as babies along with their parents or born into captivity to political prisoners and stolen during Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship.

But Luque said it was important to understand the differences between the baby theft in Argentina and in Spain. In Argentina, she noted, many of the stolen children were raised by military couples or other families with links to the dictatorship.

In Spain, meanwhile, “the adoptive families may have committed the crime of paying, but we don’t know if they knew the children had been stolen.”

For that reason, she said, the legal charges do not target the adoptive families, but the network of doctors, priests, nuns, public notaries and judges who allegedly stole babies in clinics and hospitals mainly linked to religious organisations and sold them to couples who could not have children.

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DR Congo Armed Groups Increase Child Recruitment Thu, 29 Aug 2013 08:09:18 +0000 Taylor Toeka Kakala Former child solider from Democratic Republic of Congo, Mulume (front left) feels hopeless about his future. In DRC, child soldiers face the double challenge of starting life afresh and proving themselves in the community. Credit: Einberger/argum/EED/IPS

Former child solider from Democratic Republic of Congo, Mulume (front left) feels hopeless about his future. In DRC, child soldiers face the double challenge of starting life afresh and proving themselves in the community. Credit: Einberger/argum/EED/IPS

By Taylor Toeka Kakala
GOMA, DR Congo , Aug 29 2013 (IPS)

Over 2,000 children are still being used as soldiers by 27 armed groups in North Kivu in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo despite efforts by the United Nations Children’s Fund to remove them from the frontlines and return them to their homes.

Between January and July, about 1,700 child soldiers were part of the UNICEF demobilisation and reintegration programme. But at the end of July, UNICEF condemned the worrying increase of child victims in the ongoing conflict that has rocked North Kivu since fighting broke out in May 2012 between the Congolese armed forces and the M23 rebels.“I allowed my son to be reintegrated into my home because they promised him economic support. Now they have broken the promise, he is likely to take up arms again.” -- Father of a former child soldier

Basile Bashimbe is a legal expert on the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programme for former child soldiers at Caritas Goma, a division of Caritas International – the federation of Catholic organsations working with international development. He believes that the presence of former child soldiers within the ranks of M23 is only one dimension of the problem.

“Even though the DRC is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, our country is on the [U.N. child solider] ‘list of shame’ of armed forces and groups involved in recruiting and exploiting children,” Bashimbe said.

In a region where nationalist propaganda, ethnic claims, land disputes and minerals drive the war, “the militias use the children as a vulnerable and impressionable source of labour,” he elaborated.

Justin Akili, who participated in drafting the DDR operational plan for the DRC in 2003, said that former child soldiers who are “unleashed” onto families that are frightened of them because of their past, receive one goat as a “family reintegration” donation. Child soldiers of school-going age also receive school supplies and fees to pursue their studies until they obtain their state certificate (Baccalaureate).

When IPS met 16-year-old Maurice, he was seated under a tree, staring ahead into the distance with a dazed expression. The former child soldier, who fought on the side of both the armed forces and rebel groups, was pulled out of a North Kivu militia group called Nyatura. It was his second demobilisation after previously being removed from the Coalition of Congolese Patriotic Resistance.

“The economic hardships the first time I was reunited with my family were so hard that I decided to go back to fighting,” Maurice told IPS.

He was taken to Nyakariba Transit and Orientation Centre for former child soldiers, to be reintegrated into civilian life. And he too was given a goat by Caritas Goma for returning to his family. But, he said, his family ate it when he was away.

Child soldiers face the double challenge of starting life afresh and proving themselves in the community. So the DDR provides for their socio-economic reintegration through income-generating activities or apprenticeships.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visits each child soldier three months after they are reunited with their families to check on their reintegration and child protection issues, Rita Palombo the ICRC delegate in Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, explained to IPS.

But “because of economic hardship and the persistence of militia, the children, who were previously armed fighters, can’t adapt to normal life, so they revolt and set their minds on returning to the bush,” Akili told IPS.

In 2003, the U.N. estimated that children constituted 40 percent of certain armed groups in the DRC. That same year, it was estimated that the DRC was home to half of the 130,000 child soldiers in Africa, out of a total of 300,000 worldwide.

According to UNICEF, by 2006, the government commission in charge of the DDR programme had only demobilised 19,000 former child soldiers before it ran into difficulties.

With the arrest of certain Congolese warlords for using child soldiers amongst other ranks, the International Criminal Court has created such alarm that the statistics have gone down, said Potient Bashonga, who is in charge monitoring former child soldiers at UNICEF, Goma.

But Bashimbe stressed that currently “the issue of socio-economic reintegration remains critical” in every village where children were recruited into the ranks of the Congolese army or armed groups.

“I allowed my son to be reintegrated into my home because they promised him economic support. Now they have broken the promise, he is likely to take up arms again,” said the father of a former child soldier who requested anonymity.

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What Egypt Is Blind To Mon, 19 Aug 2013 06:09:09 +0000 Cam McGrath In Egypt, there are few resources for children with disabilities. Credit: Cam McGrath/IPS.

In Egypt, there are few resources for children with disabilities. Credit: Cam McGrath/IPS.

By Cam McGrath
CAIRO, Aug 19 2013 (IPS)

Dina Gamal, whose 10-year-old son was born blind, says it is not him but Egyptian society that lives in the dark.

“They are the ones with the disability,” she says. “They have eyes, but cannot see past his blindness. He is able to do far more than most people think.”

Her son Mahmoud likes music, excels in languages, and with the aid of special software, can surf the Internet. He hopes to be a journalist one day.“A lot of parents feel shame. So they just hide their special needs children and never let them go out of the house.” -- Hanaa Helmy, founder and coordinator of NGO, MOVE Middle East

Sociologists say children with special needs or disabilities in Egypt face formidable barriers that prevent them from participating in society and exercising personal agency. The barriers are a result of ossified institutional structures and deeply-entrenched stereotypes that marginalise those who are physically or mentally different from perceived norms.

“Egyptian society is not ready to accept or integrate children with disabilities,” says Hanaa Helmy, founder and coordinator of MOVE Middle East, an NGO that works to improve the mobility of children with severe disabilities. “Children with disabilities are almost invisible to society, and those who do see them often don’t know how to deal with them. People feel bad, so they look away.”

Based on a 2006 census, government agencies recognise nearly a million Egyptians – about one in 80 – as having some form of disability. Civil society organisations argue that the actual figure may be closer to eight million, of which nearly half are minors.

“It’s hard to know the real number because many families are usually reluctant to discuss their children’s disabilities,” Helmy tells IPS. “They don’t tell their neighbours, and they certainly don’t tell strangers who show up at their door with surveys.”

The stigma of having a physically or mentally disabled child puts societal pressure on Egyptian families. Parents often worry about the impact the child’s disability will have on their siblings, fearing for example that prospective grooms will turn away when they learn that a girl has a brother who is handicapped.

Making matters worse, traditional Egyptian lore ascribes a child’s physical or mental disabilities to the curse of “jinn” (malevolent spirits). Many Egyptians believe that “jinn” inflict the disabilities on children to punish their parents for moral transgressions.

“A lot of parents feel shame,” says Helmy. “So they just hide their special needs children and never let them go out of the house.”

Disabilities also carry a heavy financial burden in a country where a quarter of the population lives below the United Nations-recognised poverty line of two dollars a day. Few families can afford the medical and physical therapies that could enrich the lives of children with disabilities. Fewer still can afford a basic education.

“Most of these children cannot go to regular schools,” says Helmy. “The schools here won’t accept children with physical or mental disabilities, and are not equipped to handle them.”

She says that most public schools, and all private institutions, require the parents and child sit for an admissions interview. Even a minor disability such as hearing disorder or a crippled leg is likely to disqualify the child.

One alternative is to send the child to the handful of “tarbiya fikriya” (conceptual schools), special schools set up to handle children with learning disabilities. But even these state-run institutions have a lot of conditions that exclude many disabled children, or make their admission prohibitively expensive, says Helmy.

“They often insist that the family provides a ‘shadow teacher’ for the child, but only rich families can afford this,” she says.

Sometimes just getting to school can be a challenge, says 22-year-old Eman Ibrahim, whose younger brother has Down Syndrome. She speaks of some of the difficulties in taking her brother to classes at a “tarbiya fikriya” in the southern Egyptian city Aswan, 15 kilometres from her village.

“My brother cannot get around on his own,” she explains. “There is no school bus, so I must accompany him on a microbus every morning and wait under the trees outside the school with the other mothers and sisters until his classes finish and I can take him home.”

Ibrahim says that besides the added cost of school transportation, the responsibility prevents her from working, further reducing the family’s income.

Abeer Eslam, a former programme manager at Wayana International Foundation for Integration and Awareness, a local NGO working to integrate people with disabilities into the community, says transportation is one of the biggest obstacles for Egyptians with disabilities.

“Our city planners have completely overlooked the disabled,” she says. “Moving in the streets is extremely difficult for them. Imagine not being able to hear cars honking and having to walk in the middle of the street because there are no sidewalks, or having to be carried up stairs because there is no wheelchair access.”

“Public transport and uneven sidewalks are hard enough for normal people to manage, let alone those with mobility disabilities or in a wheelchair,” she adds.

MOVE’s Helmy says the transportation gap typifies Egyptian society’s attitude towards people with disabilities, either ignoring their existence, or identifying them exclusively in terms of their disability.

“We need to change the culture, to make Egyptians aware that people with disabilities exist,” she says. “It’s not just about teaching people how to accept disabilities, it’s about making integration not the exception but the norm.”

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One Recipe for the Homeless Fri, 16 Aug 2013 19:30:25 +0000 Simba Shani Kamaria Russeau At the Romdeng restaurant. Credit: Simba Shani Kamaria Russeau/IPS

At the Romdeng restaurant. Credit: Simba Shani Kamaria Russeau/IPS

By Simba Shani Kamaria Russeau
PHNOM PENH, Aug 16 2013 (IPS)

Following the death of his parents when he was just four, Samlain Chey, now 22, found himself living on the streets along the river near the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. Until he met a social worker from Mith Samlanh.

Mith Samlanh, which means ‘friends’, is a local organisation that facilitates reintegration of youth into their family, the public school system, the workplace and their culture. And it has found innovative ways of doing so.

It picks up homeless people and trains them as chefs at its training restaurants Romdeng and Friends. Besides what the restaurants do for the homeless, they do something for food – both have garnered local and international recognition for contemporary and traditional Khmer cuisine.

Samlain was 15 when the restaurants found him. They gave him a home and a future. “I was given housing while I learnt traditional Khmer cooking, and about the hospitality and service industry,” he told IPS. “After a month of learning I wanted to be a head chef and open my own restaurant.”

Upon completion of his three-year training, Samlain was offered a teaching position. As a former street youth, he feels he now has the opportunity to help others who are like him.

“For young people, it’s hard living on the streets because we don’t eat enough, there’s no security, we start using drugs and no one seems to care about our future.

“I’m happy working here because I’m also able to share my story, which gives the students the confidence they need to not give up.”

In Cambodia, 44.3 percent of the population of 15 million is under 18 years of age. According to official statistics, 35 percent of the population lives below the poverty line – which in Cambodia is 45 cents per person per day.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), between 10,000-20,000 children work on the streets of Phnomh Penh.

Seventeen-year old Bopha is one of them. She lived on the streets until she was 14. Bopha says it was difficult for her parents to support a family of eight selling cakes on the roadside in Phnom Penh.

“My life was very difficult because there were times when we couldn’t make enough money for food and I was unable to attend school,” Bopha told IPS.

“Things changed when a social worker from Mith Samlanh started visiting us on the streets to offer food. They asked me if I would be interested in gaining computer skills and learning traditional cooking. At first, I felt hesitant because I was afraid that if I left, I wouldn’t be able to help my family earn a living by selling cakes.” Later, she took the offer.

Finding work is a struggle. The economy has been unable to absorb the nearly 400,000 new labour market entrants per year.

According to the Ministry of Labour, some 200,000 to 300,000 youth migrate out of the country annually in search of low-skilled jobs due to lack of proper training or education – and lack of opportunities.

“Street children have lost their right to education,” Friends restaurant communication officer Menghourng Ngo told IPS. “For children aged 3-14 we provide informal education so that they integrate easily into the public school system. Youth aged 15-24 are more interested in employment, so we offer them vocational training at our centre.

“Our training focuses on developing confidence, self-respect, proper hygiene and hospitality skills. Upon completion, we assist in finding them jobs. Our nationality is Khmer so the programme also instils a sense of pride in the Khmer culture.”

The vast numbers of the young, and their vast problems, have caught political attention.

Approximately 50 percent of eligible voters are under 25, and calls to increase youth employment did well for the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in the elections last month.

Many believe that the 22-seat loss for Prime Minister Hun Sen in the elections sent a message to the ruling party that resentment among youth could deepen if their quality of life fails to improve.

“It’s my dream to see my family have a comfortable way of life. I would like to own a house and open my own business one day, sharing Khmer cuisine with the international community,” says Bopha.

“Since coming to Mith Samlanh, I feel more excited about my future. It’s very important that I was able to access their vocational trainings because now I will have the skills to make my dream a reality.”

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