Uganda, 17 July: Opening speech by UNICEF Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa Elhadj As Sy, at the Africa Youth Forum 2010
Excellency, President Museveni of Uganda
I am delighted to speak to you on behalf of UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, and I would like to congratulate all of you for holding this very first African Youth Forum under the fringes of an African Union Summit.
Let me express our gratitude to the host of this forum, the government of Uganda, for making this event possible and giving young people the unique opportunity to discuss their concerns and ideas related to health and other issues that are important to them.
I would also like to welcome the more than 100 delegates from over 40 countries to this meeting who represent a whole generation of African youth. UNICEF Director Tony Lake has sent a message to all of you: “I would like to encourage you to use this forum to explore practical ideas to address the development challenges your communities face. Ask yourselves what you need to build a future full of opportunities; a future in which all Africans can have the opportunity to live full, productive lives. And then ask yourselves what you can contribute“.
Children, adolescents and young adults under the age of 25 together represent 62 percent of the overall African population. You are actually the majority, that’s why you and your concerns and voices matter so much. We need you to build our today and our tomorrow.
After this forum, you will have the opportunity to convey your thoughts and suggestions to the African leaders who will come together in Kampala for the summit of the African Union. The theme of this year’s summit is “Maternal, Infant and Child Health and Development in Africa”. Your input to this topic is very important, because you have first-hand knowledge from the communities where you live.
In fact, as you know from this experience, for women it is often very difficult or even impossible to give birth under safe and protected conditions .In Eastern and Southern Africa, the region where I work, nearly 60 per cent of all children are born without the support of a skilled birth attendant. This has severe consequences. On average, every five minutes a woman dies because of complications related to pregnancy or birth. And when a mother dies, the child has very limited chances to survive.
Overall, still one out of every seven children born in sub-Saharan Africa do not survive until their fifth birthday. Many of them die very early of diseases which could be easily prevented, for example through immunization or the use of mosquito nets.
Among them, newborns are actually most at risk. About 26 percent of all deaths among children under five occur within the first 28 days of life. Yet despite the fact that achieving the Millennium Development Goal of reducing child mortality by two thirds to a large extent rests on reaching newborns, they are yet to receive the necessary attention and support.
HIV/AIDS has become an important contributing factor to child mortality as well as to the very high maternal mortality in Africa. Your age group is particularly affected by the pandemic. More than 40 percent of those newly infected are between 15 and 24 years old. And the risk for girls is even much higher than for boys. Further to this, many adolescents and young people have to become adults prematurely because they have to take care of sick parents or of their younger siblings when the parents die because of AIDS or other diseases.
All of this shows the urgent need to invest in children and youth. A lot has already been achieved over the course of the past years, thanks to the commitment of governments in Africa as well as to the support of the United Nations, the international development community and civil society.
Child mortality for example has been reduced significantly. HIV/AIDS treatment has become affordable and available for millions of people, and we now hope that we can virtually eliminate the transmission of the virus from the mother to her baby. This is encouraging news for you, because many of you will become parents in the near future.
But much more needs to be done. It is therefore important to note that the group of the eight leading economies, the G8, under the leadership of Canada also dedicated their annual meeting at the end of June to the topic of maternal, newborn and child health. The rich nations reconfirmed their commitment to accelerate the progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals which deal with maternal and child health. But still, we know that many countries in the developed world have to do more to fulfill their promises and increase their support to Africa.
It’s equally important to make sure that these efforts are matched by similar steps in our countries. African governments have committed themselves to provide 15 percent of their national budgets for health and 20 percent for education. Some African nations have made great progress in this regard. Others, however, still have a long way to go to catch up with these commitments.
But money alone will not solve the problem – there are no easy interventions or quick wins to avert the tragic new born and maternal deaths which happen across the continent. Progress requires working effectively together across a range of areas including infrastructure, communication, family planning, education, health systems, and gender empowerment.
It is only the highest level of political leadership that can bring people together and make this happen. The lack of progress in parts of Africa shows that perhaps wehave yet to reach the point where this commitment is universally in place.
You can use your voices to remind African leaders of their commitments and unique position to change this situation.
You can play a key role in finding solutions to the pressing problems I mentioned before. I have often heard my own children and other young people say: “We are not the problem, we are the solution.” I could not agree more. I know that many of you are responding every day in the most creative and effective way to all sorts of situations. We want to learn from you and build on your creativity. We need your drive and your ideas to develop new approaches to maternal and child health and tomany other problems.
We should also not forget that these problems at times become so big that young people engage in survival strategies which put them at great risk. Such risks include exploitation and abuse, unwanted pregnancies or getting infected with HIV.
We have to address these challenges and make sure that you can unleash your positive energy and creativity by creating an enabling environment. UNICEF stands ready to support you and your governments in this regard.
I know how passionate many of you are when it comes to using the internet to communicate amongst each other. Modern technology can actually help a lot to improve healthcare or education opportunities. We at UNICEF, and many of our partners are using SMS messages for example to gather health and nutritional data and to inform people about available health or HIV prevention services. We are also using new technologies to map areas of particular concern or to show the availability of safe water sources and other services. In fact, many young Ugandans, who are not with us here today, have shared their opinions over SMS to feed into these discussions.
SMS and other modern technologies are particularly important to reach remote areas. In all our efforts to improve healthcare and other services we have to reach out to these areas to make sure that the children, young people and families livingthere, who are often the most disadvantaged, are included and not left behind.
Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, dear delegates
UNICEF has supported the preparation of this forum, both here in Uganda and in many other countries around the continent. For us, it has been particularly important to capture the voices of young people from rural areas and from poor and marginalized urban centres, and to make sure that they are heard and listened to.
We hope that this Africa Youth Forum will only be the first step in a long-term process, and that from now on children’s and young people’s concerns always play an important role in the summits of the African Union. It will therefore be important todevelop mechanisms to follow up on the recommendations which will be developed during this forum.
We at UNICEF stand ready to support this process through our country offices and through our regional offices.
I wish you a very productive and creative meeting.