General elections – why children matter

Services delivered by Government have an impact on children's well-being, safety and development

By Maniza Zaman
Garane with her son at the water kiosk.
30 May 2022

This article first appeared in The Standard on May 30, 2022.

The upcoming 2022 general election will shape the future of Kenya at a critical point in history. The country is starting to emerge from the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic but faces new challenges over the cost of living, global food supplies, drought and climate change. And the people who will be most affected by these issues and the future direction of the country are children.

Almost half the population of Kenya are children. Services delivered by Government have an impact on their well-being, safety and development. Children don’t vote – but if they did, they would be looking at critical issues that affect them now and their life chances in the future. And parents do vote, as do older eligible siblings, family and community members. That’s why we’re calling on all political parties and candidates to prioritize children’s issues and for the voting public to carefully consider the key issues being debated and their impact on children in Kenya.

UNICEF has conducted an analysis of the situation of children and also spoken to children and young people themselves through our Changing Childhood Project. From this process, we’ve identified six priority issues for children, that we recommend the next Government of Kenya focuses on.

First, the best start in life. The early years are a make-or-break window of opportunity in a child’s life. However, in Kenya 26 percent of children under 5 years old are chronically malnourished. That’s 1.5 million children who will not be able to fulfill their full potential. A comprehensive package including good nutrition, health, stimulation and early education is needed. Otherwise, children cannot develop well physically or mentally.

Second, enhancing learning. Kenyan students should thrive in an education system that prepares them for the workplace and society of the future. Digital literacy is a key part of this. Yet, the majority of public primary schools are yet to be connected to the Internet, leading to exclusion of many children. If all children acquire digital skills, Kenya will be well positioned to compete on the global stage.

Third, primary health care and community health. These services help prevent disease and deliver better health care for children at a lower cost. They can meet up to 90 percent of a child’s health needs and help poor families avoid catastrophic medical costs. Currently national coverage of community health services in Kenya is 59 percent, and much lower in some counties.

Fourth, social protection. Living in poverty undermines children’s futures, often with lifelong consequences. Cash transfers and other social protection measures can address this. In Kenya, 13 million children need assistance and 7.5 percent are receiving it. Expanding social protection will reduce inequalities and lift more families out of poverty. 

Fifth, ending violence against children. Around half of all 18 to 24-year-olds in Kenya faced at least one type of violence – physical, sexual or emotional – during their childhood. Violence affects children from all backgrounds and can leave them with disabilities, injuries, health issues and emotional scars. It also makes individuals more likely to perpetrate violence as an adult.

Sixth, climate change. Kenya ranks 49th out of 163 countries in terms of risks to children from climate change. Children and young people are the least responsible for climate change, yet they will bear the greatest burden of its impact. Extreme weather events are increasing in Kenya, including droughts and floods, to which children are particularly vulnerable.

Importantly, these six issues are not just children’s issues. They also link to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which Kenya has signed up to. While progress has been made towards the SDGs, several are off track and prioritizing these issues can bring about the needed acceleration to reach both Kenya’s own developmental goals and global ones.

Given the number of children in Kenya and so to ensure that children’s issues are fully addressed by the next Government, UNICEF recommends that a Ministry of Children’s Affairs is created, either as a standalone ministry or in combination with other portfolios such as youth and with a significant budget. We also recommend a special advisor on children’s issues in the office of the next President.

Our call is for the children in Kenya. They matter, they have rights, and they must engage meaningfully in the future trajectory of their country. Our call is also for the voting public in Kenya – it is your collectively responsibility to build a Kenya where every girl and boy is nurtured, loved and supported to fulfill their dreams. It can be done.

By Maniza Zaman, UNICEF Representative to Kenya.