Making Every Day the Day of the African Child

As we celebrate the Day of the African Child this week, we hold in our hearts the brave Nigerian schoolgirls -- those in captivity, those who have escaped, the thousands whose fearless assertion of their right to an education has put them now at such risk.
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As we celebrate the Day of the African Child this week, we hold in our hearts the
brave Nigerian schoolgirls -- those in captivity, those who have escaped, the thousands whose fearless assertion of their right to an education has put them now at such risk. Our thoughts also turn to the estimated 9,000 child soldiers unwillingly waging someone else's ethnic war over the right to control the spoils in South Sudan, in hopes that their dreams not be shattered by this ravaging experience. Of the 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the region where we at the Millennium Cities Initiative have worked these last nine years, seven are on the United Nations' "List of Persistent Perpetrators," regularly violating at least four of six grave violations of children's rights. This is seven too many.

This important holiday affords us all a moment to reflect on the progress made with regard to children's rights and opportunities on and across the African continent. Indeed, there have been brilliant advances on behalf of children in most African nations; yet in far too many countries, hundreds of thousands of children remain hungry or food-insecure and are pressed into service as barely-paid laborers, sex slaves, soldiers and as human shields. Despite the important, world-altering focus of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) on improving maternal and child health and reducing the prevalence of infectious disease, resources have not poured in as promised, and children's access to reliable medical care remains irregular, at best.

There has been tremendous improvement in the numbers of students attending primary school -- improvement compelled by the second Millennium Development Goal and enabled by the abolition of school fees, the inclusive policies of public school systems region-wide and significant efforts to keep girls in school. Yet the African Union's own report suggests that access to pre-primary, primary, secondary and tertiary education alike is still unacceptably limited, especially for girls and vulnerable children, and completion rates remain shockingly low for those who do attend. Teacher quality and deployment warrant more focused attention, as does the much-needed government oversight of those schools operated by the private and religious sectors.

As part of our work in assisting selected sub-Saharan regional capitals in their efforts to attain the MDGs, the Millennium Cities Initiative (MCI), a project of Columbia University's Earth Institute, has assessed children's health and schooling needs, attempting to diagnose the challenges facing each city's public health and education system and to estimate the costs, in human and financial terms, of meeting those challenges. Because the Millennium Cities are all located in nations at peace, child soldiering and systematic abductions of children at gunpoint are not occurring in our sites. But in the course of our work in the schools and in public health, we do see rape on an appallingly regular basis, usually followed up by no adverse consequences for the perpetrators; we see many brave young girls who have come alone to the city from the countryside in order to continue their education taken advantage of by older men, in exchange for shelter and school fees, nearly always with little recourse; and we see far too many preventable neonatal deaths, undernourished children and chronic exposure to devastating waterborne illnesses, due largely to poor sanitation and unclean water sources.

Millennium City leaders now know what it will cost to attain the MDGs in water and sanitation, health, education and gender parity. Many of them have now incorporated the MDGs into their annual budget processes, wherein they appeal to their national governments for the requisite funding to realize their top MDG-based priorities. But while most of the region's national governments are committed to attaining these Goals and have organized themselves to use donor assistance wisely toward this end, the donor funds have never come in as promised, and national budget officials are regularly forced to make draconian choices that often leave local governments with less than half of what they require in order to meet their people's most fundamental needs. Those most detrimentally affected by these shortfalls, of course, and by this monumental shortsightedness on the part of the international community, are the children, whose developing bodies and psyches are still so fragile.

We know now, after years of study and practice, what is needed and what works to help people find their way out of extreme poverty; the many brilliant and cost-effective solutions are ready to be implemented at scale. But the will, on the part of so many who could help, is somehow missing in action. And we will all be left with a world where an unfathomable number of today's impoverished, undereducated and insecure children will have grown into improperly prepared, rightly enraged adults with little deference for those who have denied them the fulfillment of their human potential.

What catastrophe, or what miracle, must occur, in order that we all do what it takes, to actually take care of our children?

The Day of the African Child was established 24 years ago by the African Union Assembly, to commemorate the deadly 1976 Soweto protests by schoolchildren, a seminal moment in the eventual fall of South Africa's brutal apartheid regime. Poverty and the concomitant absence of opportunity can be equally crushing; our focus on sub-Saharan cities emerged from the knowledge that this region was the furthest off-track in its efforts to achieve the MDGs, meaning that, without determined, targeted interventions, several hundred million African children will be deprived of hope.

May this week's celebration of the Day of the African Child, with this sober reckoning, be viewed 24 years from now as a turning point, as we rededicate ourselves to a seriously resourced effort to protect all our children, our planet's most precious asset.


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