Protect and nurture our children from cradle to career

As we begin the long recovery from the devastation of COVID-19, children and young people must be front and centre.

Op-Ed by UNICEF South Africa Representative, Christine Muhigana & Afrika Tikkun CEO, Alef Meulenberg
UNICEF South Africa/2021/Schermbrucker
02 February 2022

Ahead of this year’s State of the Nation Address, UNICEF South Africa and Afrika Tikkun call for children and young people to be put first in the COVID-19 recovery, to ensure their voices and opinions are heard as we work to reimagine a safer, fairer and better South Africa for every child, for everyone.

Nearly two-years have passed since South Africa locked down to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The immediate response taken was to shield the most vulnerable – the elderly and immunocompromised – who evidently faced the most severe health consequences and to simultaneously protect frontline workers and health systems from being overwhelmed.  

Lives were saved but to date nearly 95,000 people have died and countless others had their livelihoods destroyed and futures uprooted by the pandemic.

Children and young people have thankfully not been mostly affected by severe disease. But since the day we first stayed home, it was clear that they would not be spared from the broader impact of COVID-19.

Twenty-four months later, the data does not provide easy reading.

Nearly 95,000 children have lost parents and guardians, the highest number of COVID orphans on the continent. The percentage of youth aged 15-34-years not in employment, education or training reached almost 65% in the second quarter of 2021. Access to child health services dropped, education has been severely disrupted and children increasingly exposed to violence, while gender-based violence has been described as the second pandemic.

But while it’s easy to lose hope, we haven’t and neither should you, because children and young people in South Africa children are resilient and have not lost hope. They have their futures ahead of them and are determined to do what they can to thrive.

Walk around any Afrika Tikkun center in the most deprived communities of the country and you will see what action and inspiration mean. Engaged and creative children and young people determined to learn new digital skills, to refine traditional skills, such as crop growing, whilst developing their entrepreneurial minds and seeking new ventures that speak to today’s South Africa. 

UNICEF and Afrika Tikkun are just two of many organizations across the country working to maximize the creativity and energy of South Africa’s children and youth, whilst providing a platform for their voices, opinions and solutions to be heard and acted on.

A global intergenerational poll commissioned by UNICEF and released last year on World Children’s Day, November 20, showed that young people are 50% more likely than older generations to believe the world is becoming a better place – yet impatient for action relating to the mounting crises.

Following last year’s July unrest, communities came together to rebuild, with young people at the heart, cleaning the streets and engaging in productive dialogues on community radio.

In the COVID-19 response, youth volunteers have been helping people over 60-years and younger to register for and get access to COVID-19 vaccines. Many young people are engaging in productive dialogue online to tackle misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19 with facts and science-based evidence.

COVID-19 has exacerbated issues that were already affecting children and young people and brought many of them back to the front of our attention.

As we stayed home, the importance of a nurturing and caring childhood once again shone in the spotlight. When COVID-19 stalks fear in our neighborhood, when livelihoods are lost, when the stresses of life become too much for adults, it’s often children who bear the brunt.

Without a nurturing, protective and stable environment at home, children will always struggle to reach their full potential. Positive parenting and early childhood experiences set the scene for a child’s life and can do more than anything to break the horrific cycle of violence against children and women in South Africa.

That’s why we need a collective and sustained response and investment in parents and children, from early childhood development to a productive and fulfilling transition to adulthood. There can be no ‘lost generation’.

Let’s embrace the narrative of hope and use today as an opportunity to build back better.

Op-Ed published by Daily Maverick