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Central African Republic

Deputy Executive Director Hilde Johnson warns of triple threat to child survival in CAR

© UNICEF CAR/2009/Stark-Merklein
Hilde Johnson talks to a participant in a UNICEF-sponsored programme for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, run by the International Rescue Committee in Kaga Bandoro, northern CAR.

By Brigitte Stark-Merklein

BANGUI, Central African Republic, 20 October 2009 – UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Hilde Johnson has called on the international community to support children in the Central African Republic (CAR) who are bearing the brunt of the country’s declining fortunes.

“Children in CAR are in the eye of a storm,” said Ms. Johnson when when she visited the country last week. “The problems they are facing today will only be exacerbated by the triple threat of instability, the dwindling state budget and decline in donor spending.”

Years of conflict have taken a heavy toll. Child welfare indicators are among the worst in the world. About one in six children dies before reaching the age of five. The health care system is one of the weakest worldwide and basic services are almost nonexistent. Only 38 per cent of girls and 53 per cent of boys of official primary school age are enrolled in school, and many drop out before finishing the last primary grade.

Economic crisis hurts children

The global economic crisis is having a serious impact on CAR. According to Government sources, the country’s state budget has decreased by 40 per cent this year. The crisis is felt most severely in the southwestern part of the country, where loss of income from the collapsed wood and diamond export industries has increased poverty. Malnutrition has risen above emergency rates as parents are no longer able to provide for their young.

Adding to the grim picture is a about a 39 per cent funding gap in humanitarian aid.

“CAR has been a donor orphan for a while,” said Ms. Johnson, “but at this juncture, the risk of further crisis is too significant to ignore. The limited resources available in this country are in no way commensurate with the enormous needs and dismal indicators. Financial, political and diplomatic engagement of the international community is needed to ensure the rights of Central African children and to enhance their protection.”

© UNICEF CAR/2009/Stark-Merklein
Peulh women participating in a project for survivors of ethnically motivated abuse in Paoua, northern CAR. The programme is run by the Danish Refugee Council with UNICEF support.

Releasing children

One hope for peace and stability lies in the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of combatants, including children associated with armed groups. Ms. Johnson discussed the release of these children with local authorities and representatives of the rebel group Armée Populaire pour la Restauration de la République et la Démocratie (APRD) who confirmed their commitment to the Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) programme – which is also a prerequisite for the elections scheduled for early 2010.

Ms. Johnson met about 40 boys released three weeks ago from APRD ranks in Paoua, who are being prepared for reintegration into their communities in a Transitional Centre run by the Danish Refugee Council with support from UNICEF.

Ms. Johnson saw the impact of violence when she visited two villages in Nana-Grébizi province that were attacked earlier this year by armed horsemen. The villagers told her how they fled into the bush when attackers burned down their houses and stole their cattle. Many are afraid to come back and are still hiding, but those who have returned are getting organized to clean up the UNICEF-supported school so that their children can start the school year.

Overcoming trauma

Ms. Johnson also met a team from the International Rescue Committee who identify and support survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in Kaga Bandoro. She spoke to a group of women from the Peulh minority in Paoua who are benefitting from a Danish Refugee Council programme that helps them overcome the trauma of ethnic targeted violence against their families and teaches income-generating activities. Stigmatization and exploitation of Peulh people in the north and Aka, or 'pygmy' people in the south is systematic and makes these women especially vulnerable.

Ms. Johnson’s visit to CAR was the first stop on a two-country mission to CAR and Chad.



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