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AFRICA: Stronger Will Needed from Governments to Save Poorest Children

Susan Anyangu-Amu

NAIROBI, Sep 8 2010 (IPS) - “Herding goats is tough with the thirst, sun, loneliness and hunger each day. And it can last forever. You herd as a girl, then as a wife, as a pregnant woman, as a mother and even as a grandmother,” says Rukia Ibrahim whose 13-year-old younger sister was married off to a herdsman.

A young girl from Kenya's North Eastern Province. It is a province where a high level of apathy towards girls' education exists. Credit: Ann Weru/IRIN

A young girl from Kenya's North Eastern Province. It is a province where a high level of apathy towards girls' education exists. Credit: Ann Weru/IRIN

Ibrahim comes from a poor nomadic family in North Eastern Province in Kenya. It is a region that has a significant shortage of qualified professionals and where, between 1991 and 2005, only two girls from the province attended degree programmes at state universities. It is also a province where a high level of apathy towards girls’ education by both parents and primary school girls exists.

But a life of herding goats is not what Ibrahim wants. And in order for her and other disadvantaged children around the world to have a better future, governments and aid agencies need to invest first in the poorest and most disadvantaged children and their communities.

This is according to two global reports on the state of the children released by the United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF) on Sep. 7. The report states that countries can achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for children quicker this way.

The UNICEF reports titled Narrowing the Gaps to Meet the Goals and Progress for children: Achieving the MDGs with Equity, unearthed glaring disparities among children born in poor families compared to those from richer families in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

The reports state these widening disparities will derail the achievement of MDGs and governments will need to refocus their investment priorities to focus on those who need it most in order to change the odds facing the world’s most disadvantaged children.

Ibrahim is one of those children able to benefit from such an investment that will lift her from the cycle of poverty. She is a beneficiary of a scholarship program for bright and needy girls.

The program, started in 2006 by UNICEF and the ministry of education, aims to address the low performance of girls in schools in North Eastern Province. Since its inception, the scholarship program has admitted 300 girls, thus increasing the transition rate of girls from primary to secondary school.

While between 1991 to 2005 only two girls from North Eastern Province joined regular degree programs at state universities, of those who sat for final year school exams in 2009, 59 percent scored a grade of C+ and above – which is the requirement for joining a state university.

For Ibrahim, the opportunity to receive an education has been profound difference. She says seeing her sister get married at such a young age gave her a clear picture of what her destiny would be like if she did not have an education. “Education has an end which could lead to better livelihood…so I have decided to give my very best to books (studying) to change my future,” the grade 10 pupil says.

But a stronger commitment from governments is needed in order to effect change. Hellen Tombo, Pan African advocacy advisor for Plan International – a children’s organisation working with communities in 48 developing countries to alleviate child poverty – says in sub-Saharan Africa a lack of political will and bad governance is hindering the achievement of MDGs aimed at children.

“Heavily rooted, biased, traditional attitudes on age and gender are delaying the emancipation of children and women and our governments are not responding well,” Tombo says. Edward Ouma, chief executive officer of Children’s Legal Action Network – a non-governmental organisation working to promote high quality legal aid services that improve the lives of children, agrees. He says governments in sub-Saharan Africa have focused on the wrong priorities such as heavy spending on military to the detriment of the health sector, education and infrastructure such as roads and hospitals.

“Countries in sub-Saharan Africa need to invest heavily in the education sector. This is in order to increase access to all children, especially the poor. They also need to invest in poverty reduction and come up with initiatives such as direct cash transfers to vulnerable families,” Ouma says.

Tombo says national budgets, plans and policies need to cater for the MDGs that still lag behind, like maternal health. “We need girl-friendly schools with safe learning environments and gender-sensitive curriculums. Countries such as Rwanda and Ghana have been very strategic and prioritised women empowerment and gender equality…they have outlawed child marriages and enforced compulsory school attendance,” she says.

For example, Tombo says, additional meals have been provided in schools in Rwanda and Ghana. Costs like examination fees and uniforms have been scrapped. Special schools have been set up for children from marginalised communities like the mobile schools for pastoral communities in Northern Kenya and Uganda.

Ethiopia has also focused on its health sector by increasing the number of community health workers to 30,000, says Michael Klaus the regional chief of communications UNICEF Kenya.

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