Children’s early years are at the heart of their life chances. They are the ‘make or break’ years when children are either provided with the opportunities to grow and thrive, or they face adversity that negatively affects their bodies, minds and emotions for life.
A third of all children in Liberia are young children – under the age of 5. Though much has improved in child survival and development in Liberia over the years, many children are still not getting the support they need in early life.
The difficulties start from the time they are inside their mother’s womb. A very high maternal mortality rate of 1,072 deaths for every 100,000 live births means that many children die with their mothers inside the womb, or are born without a mother to take care and nourish them. Only one of every two babies is exclusively breastfed during the first six months of their life.
Many maternal and neonatal deaths could be prevented with adequate health care and referral services. But saving the lives of mothers and babies is difficult when close to 40 per cent of women give birth at home, without the help of a trained midwife. Only 60 per cent of babies are delivered in health facilities where the quality of health care is not always adequate.
Many newborns do not make it past their first month of life. In fact, more than a third of all deaths of children under the age of 5 happen in the neonatal period.
Many mothers are actually teenage mothers – Liberia has a high adolescent pregnancy rate where about one in three adolescent girls are pregnant. The younger the woman, the more dangerous pregnancy and childbirth are to herself and her baby.
And even if children make it beyond their baby years, they still have to face the threat of child killers such as pneumonia, malaria, diarrhea, measles and AIDS. One in 10 children die before their fifth birthday due to these preventable and treatable diseases.
In close to half of all child deaths, malnutrition is a major culprit. Liberia has high levels of childhood malnutrition, with a third of children under 5 stunted and 6 per cent acutely malnourished.
Diarrhea and pneumonia, which are leading causes of child death in Liberia, are also closely linked to unsafe drinking water and poor hygiene habits. Cholera outbreaks are common and the recent Ebola outbreak demonstrated how dangerous the lack of access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene services can be. One in six people don’t use toilets or latrines, and practice open defecation.
Many children are also deprived of birth registration, which would not only give them a legal identity and protection, but also provide them with access to services, entitlements and opportunities. Only a quarter of children under 5 have a birth certificate in Liberia.
Under a third of 3-to-5 year-olds benefit from early childhood education (ECE), and overage enrollment is common. Nearly 50 per cent of students enrolled in ECE are 6 years of age or above. Many learners start ECE late and subsequently do not enter primary school until they are 8 to 10 years old.
Like many post-conflict countries, ripples from the civil war are being felt in Liberia to this day. During the conflict, schools were damaged or destroyed, teachers left their posts and children emigrated to neighbouring countries to continue their education, depend on makeshift community schools or temporarily stop their education.
As a result, overage enrollment remains a civil war legacy. Approximately 40 per cent of primary school students are three years older than the appropriate age for their grade.
Liberia’s education system lags behind most countries, in both access and quality. The country has many out-of-school children. Of the 740,000 primary school-age children, 16 per cent were physically out of school. Schools were closed for seven months during the Ebola outbreak, disrupting learning. More than half of all students do not complete primary school, with more girls than boys failing their grades.
Girls’ education is also negatively affected by the lack of toilets and bathrooms, especially when they begin menstruating and need the privacy and safety of separate
girls/boys facilities. Only 58 per cent of schools have safe drinking water and 56 per cent have functional sanitation facilities.
An estimated 3,900 children aged 0−14 years are living with HIV and an estimated 28,000 children under 18 have been orphaned as a result of AIDS. According to the Ministry of Health’s 2016 report, 1,735 children under 14 were in care and 852 were receiving antiretroviral therapy.
While today’s adolescents in Liberia have benefited from improved child survival rates, primary school attendance and access to safe water, all these gains are at risk if investment in their future does not continue as they grow up.
Yet, most of the country’s young people still face significant challenges in getting quality education, healthcare and social services, or finding meaningful employment. Sexual and gender-based violence remains high, especially against children, girls and women.
Children and adolescents should be safe at home, in schools and in their communities but unfortunately they are not. Harsh child discipline such as beating regularly occurs, and ‘sex-for-grades’ a common practice in schools. Four in 10 women are married while they are still children (under the age of 18) and a significant number of women have gone through the brutal procedure of female genital mutilation/cutting, many at a young age.