Nowhere are children and women more at risk of natural hazards and manmade disasters than in Eastern and Southern Africa. For millions of children and their families, their survival and wellbeing are under constant threat due to a sharp increase in food insecurity, political instability, epidemic outbreaks and natural disasters. As critical as it is, however, many states are too fragile and ill-equipped to deal with these threats.
In 2011, the crisis in the Horn of Africa reached a boiling point when the UN declared famine in two regions of southern Somalia. Although the famine officially ended in February 2012, and hundreds of thousands of lives were saved through the combined humanitarian efforts of the governments, international community and partners, the progress remains fragile.
Elsewhere in the region, other emergencies loom. Intense fighting and prolonged conflict in the Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo have left families displaced, and tens of thousands of refugees, majority of them women and children, entering Uganda and Rwanda. Burundi, already struggling to cope with an influx of Congolese refugees, also needs to assist its own repatriated refugees from Tanzania.
In the north, the newly independent South Sudan is trying to rebuild itself after more than two decades of civil war. Two years after it declared independence in 2011, the country is still grappling with multiple crises, from severe food insecurity and government-initiated austerity measures, to the on-going influx of refugees and the continued threat of conflict. In December 2013, fighting broke out between the government and rebel forces. By the time a ceasefire was signed, more than 600,000 people were displaced, with 120,000 also seeking refuge in neighbouring countries.
In Southern Africa, a major food crisis has already put millions of people at risk, largely in Angola, Lesotho, Malawi and Zimbabwe. In Swaziland, the country with the world’s highest HIV prevalence, women and children are particularly vulnerable to natural disasters and economic shocks. In recent years, the country was hit by a financial crisis caused by the collapse of transfers from the Southern African Customs Union, among other factors. Swazi households were rocked with escalating food prices, job losses, wage cuts and reduced access to credit. Shortages of life-saving drugs, including antiretroviral drugs put thousands of children and women at risk.
UNICEF in action
In 2014, UNICEF will continue to respond to emergencies whenever they strike, and invest in long-term solutions by building the capacity of governments and national partners to recognize and respond to the unique humanitarian needs of women and children. A strong focus is on strengthening resilience of families and communities in vulnerable regions such as the Horn of Africa. After all, hazards only become disasters when people’s and society’s capacities to withstand them are compromised.