Child protection is as important as health or education for a child and for the nation at large
Maputo, 3 May 2013 – Child protection is as important as health or education for a child and for the nation at large, and requires the same levels of investment and commitment, says Mayke Huijbregts, Chief of Child Protection at UNICEF Mozambique. She told us about UNICEF’s ambitious plans to help create a protective embrace around the most marginalised children in Mozambique.
Q: Can you tell us about the situation of children in Mozambique with regards to protection? Mayke Huijbregts: In Mozambique, the situation is very critical. Over two million children are orphans, the majority of whom live in abject poverty. It is a daily struggle for survival for these children. With stunting rates at 44%, children face challenges in terms of physical and mental capacities. But I am most worried about the lack of love and family affection that far too many children experience. So many of them are neglected and abandoned on the streets to fend for themselves and many children are at risk of violence, exploitation and abuse. Family love and care are the basis for our self-esteem and well-being. It determines how we develop our values and skills for life, as well as our capacity to speak, to walk, to bond and love.
Q: The consequences must be quite sizeable, can you tell us about those? MH: The consequences of this reality on children cannot be overstated. Here are a few figures to illustrate my point. For instance, we know that 15,000 children live in institutional care, 24,000 families are headed by children, 70% of schoolgirls know of a close peer who has been a victim of violence. 18% of girls are married and/or pregnant before the age of 15, and 52% are married by 18. HIV prevalence is at 11.5%, with some provinces registering 25%. Youth unemployment is also sky high. Putting all these figures together, you end up with a massive exposure of children to poverty, risks and vulnerabilities.
Q: It sounds rather bleak.
MH: It is, which is why our interventions have to be on a massive scale to address systemic causes. We need to work from the bottom up to make sure the improvements that do happen are sustainable and have wide impact. UNICEF’s approach is holistic and aims to build a protective embrace around the poorest and most marginalised children, starting by the quality of services provided to them by government. We help train judges, police, social workers, teachers, and medical staff in child protection, mainstreaming it into required basic training of all relevant civil servants. We support government to make sure a solution is found to the enormous vacancy rate for social workers, which is at 90%. In Europe, you have more or less 20 families per social worker, in South Africa it is at 70, and in Mozambique a social worker has 100,000 families to service. We also try to tackle childhood deprivation such as poverty through social protection, which is very high among children and exposes them to a whole range of risks, such as child labor or sexual exploitation.
Q: Birth registration is another important programme, correct? MH: Yes, in the past 6 years we managed to support government in registering almost 10 million people, half a million last year alone. A new civil registry linked to vital statistics is being developed using new technology. This will mean that children and their caregivers’ citizenship are registered, and they can therefore access services across the board, from social and legal services to healthcare and education, thanks to a common civil registry. Another system we are building up with over 1,400 child protection committees is a so-called case management system, monitoring the well-being and children’s access to services. A cornerstone of the child protection programmes is to make sure children live in a family environment by regulating alternative care placement and by building systems around that so children deprived of parental care have a home to grow up in. With such a high prevalence of HIV and other serious life challenges, children experience loss and mourning on a constant basis, and require psychosocial support so they learn to cope better when life gets tough.
Q: The challenges must be enormous. MH: One of the biggest challenges of the work we are doing is to build up the capacity of key government partners at all levels. But the low number of social workers and lack of access to justice services are further challenges. Creating a protective environment for many vulnerable children to prevent and respond to violence, neglect and abuse is not something that can be done by one sector alone. Hence the need for social workers to work together with the court, police, teacher and the doctor in a timely manner to make sure the child is placed in a family environment, or that a victim of violence quickly gets access to medical and legal services. This is a challenge that needs to be addressed in an accelerated manner.
Q: Is child protection understood well enough, or do you feel you still need to make the case for investing in a protective environment for children? MH: The argument still needs to be made again and again. And my appeal is for our partners in government and civil society to recognize that child protection is as important as health or education for a child and for the nation at large, and requires the same levels of investment and commitment. A child who is violated, has no family or is undernourished will have difficulty learning. So if we don’t care, protect and love orphaned and abandoned children, it will be very difficult for them to grow into confident adults who will meaningfully contribute to a nation’s development. We need to continue to support government and civil society to work professionally in an integrated multi-sectoral manner, so favorable conditions can be created, and so that children can grow up balanced and sound of mind and body. But the needs are not on par with the pace of change, and investment must intensify and accelerate. We need to do much more for children in Mozambique, and we need to do it now.