Africa’s children face a new child rights crisis

We must do all we can to protect children and support their parents.

Opinion by Maniza Zaman
Girl washes hands in Mathare
16 June 2020

This article first appeared in The Daily Nation on June 15, 2020.

Today we mark the Day of the African Child. Perhaps never before in history has there been so much to celebrate and at the same time so much to be concerned about. Children in Kenya now benefit from universal free primary education, free health services for under-fives and improved access to national child protection services, among other gains. But after decades of progress, children are now facing the risk of a decline in their rights on numerous fronts because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Consider the situation of children living in Korogocho, an informal settlement in Nairobi. It’s home to around 200,000 people who live beside and often work on the city’s garbage dump. Among them is Ali, one of 11 siblings who live with their mother in a one-room dwelling made from corrugated metal sheets. Last year, Ali’s mother got by selling homemade perfume on the streets.

Despite their poverty, Ali, said that he led a “positive life” and enjoyed being a member of the local football academy, Acakoro, which is supported by UNICEF to provide tutoring and sports activities. “They pay my school fees and give me a uniform,” Ali said. “I get to eat at the academy.”

But children in Korogocho can’t play football at the moment. Like children the world over, their lives have changed since COVID-19 brought dramatic changes with school closures, restriction of movement and putting the health system under enormous pressure.

It is families like Ali’s that we should be the most concerned about. We know that in any crisis, the young and the most vulnerable suffer disproportionately. With one in two Kenyan children living in poverty, the ripple effects of coronavirus are daunting. We cannot let this health crisis turn into a child rights crisis. Now, more than ever, we must do all we can to protect children and support their parents.

We all listen to the daily briefings on how the COVID-19 pandemic is evolving in Kenya. The Government’s approach and ordinary people’s resolve to slowing the transmission of the virus appears to be working. However, the social and economic impact is mounting.

In Korogocho and other informal settlements, poor sanitation and overcrowding has made regular hand washing and social distancing difficult to practice as recommended. Similarly, we need to be aware of the living situation and challenges facing the nearly 500,000 refugees who live in camps in Dadaab and Kakuma.

Children have been directly affected, with some 18 million students across the country out of school. A survey conducted by Kenya Institute for Curriculum Development found that seven in ten respondents are accessing lessons, mostly through TV, followed by radio and the Internet. This means that at least three in ten of Kenya’s students are not able to access remote lessons, at times because their homes lack simple equipment like a radio.

Away from the safety of school, children are at greater risk of abuse and neglect. In many homes, family members live in fear of the virus, loss of livelihoods and uncertain futures. Household tensions mount and children can become the outlets. Adolescent girls are especially vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence and UNICEF partners have reported an increase in child marriage in some areas.

The pandemic poses significant risks of increases in illness and deaths from other preventable and treatable diseases. When health services are overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases, this can come at the expense of routine healthcare. This is starting to happen in some areas in Kenya, with some essential health services such as hospital deliveries and outpatient department visits for children under five dropping significantly.

UNICEF is working with the Kenyan Government and other UN Agencies to stop the transmission of the COVID-19 virus, reduce deaths and minimise the effect on health and social services. We are procuring and distributing hygiene items, including soap and jerry cans, and constructing water points in informal settlements. We are working to ensure the continuity of health services such as immunization and providing behaviour change communication.

At the same time, UNICEF is supporting the most vulnerable students with access to education through radio, TV and online lessons. We’re addressing the problem of families who cannot access lessons by expanding radio access and supporting parents to engage in home learning. And we’re expanding our cash transfer programme to support additional vulnerable families.

Before COVID-19 reached Kenya, every afternoon after school Ali would descend on the football pitch in Korogocho, then alive with boys and girls, running and kicking balls. And so it will be again. With a determined effort and in support of the Government’s priorities, UNICEF and our partners will do all we can to see that Kenya’s gains for children do not slide back and instead stay on course for a bright future for every child.

By Maniza Zaman, UNICEF Representative in Kenya.