A Fair Chance in Life
Every child has a right to reach his or her full potential without discrimination
In West and Central Africa, we seek to understand and address the root causes of social and economic inequality so that all children, particularly those who suffer the worst deprivations in society, have access to basic social services.
The Early Years
Early childhood development is an investment for life. In many countries in West and Central Africa, access to early learning and pre-school services for young children aged 3–5 is improving, but more efforts have to be made in other areas such as nutrition, child care and protection from neglect and violence.
Unfortunately, West and Central Africa is a region where young children are exposed to high levels of malnutrition and abuse. Many children are borne to teenage mothers who are often victims of child marriage themselves and do not have the capacity to raise their children with the confidence and knowledge of more mature parents.
When adults do not play with, and stimulate young children properly, or fail to give them the love and care they need, children experience stunted emotional, social, physical and cognitive growth. The role of adult caregivers is therefore crucial to ensure a stimulating and protective environment for younger children.
Numerous parental education programmes have been developed in the region but they need to be expanded to include interventions that address the daily stresses and hardships experienced by families and caregivers, as well as the harmful social norms and cultural beliefs that affect child rearing.
Adolescent girls are at the centre of population growth and development in West and Central Africa. The region is home to 54 million adolescent girls between the ages of 10 and 19 years.
Realizing the rights of adolescent girls is critical to strengthening gender equality. Girls need to be kept in school and given a chance to find employment when they graduate. They need the right information and services to manage themselves and their bodies. Girls also need protection from child marriage and early child bearing. At the same time, communities need to be brought on board to support their aspirations and opportunities as young women.
This is particularly true in West and Central Africa, where high rates of child marriage and adolescent pregnancy, limited access and learning in school, and widespread violence and harmful gender norms continue to deny adolescent girls their rights, particularly those from poorer households, living in rural areas or in urban slums, or in regions affected by armed conflict.
In West and Central Africa, government funding of social sectors is still very limited compared to international standards and children’s needs. Even this low level of public expenditure on child-related social sectors is not always spent wisely and efficiently, affecting child well-being in many ways.
Financial barriers are one of the greatest challenges for families and communities, who often don’t have enough resources to send their children to school, seek health care or prevent early marriage. Even when basic social services are free, there are usually hidden costs, along with opportunity costs.
Countries that have humanitarian crises face difficulties in bridging the gap between emergency and development programmes, leaving many children – particularly the most vulnerable – in a dire situation after the worst of the crisis has passed.
Children and women in West and Central Africa are vulnerable to multiple threats, including insecurity, conflict, drought, flooding and epidemics. More than 6 million people in the region remain displaced due to conflict. Across the Sahel, repeated droughts and chronic hunger have caused alarming levels of malnutrition. In addition, severe acute malnutrition, a life-threatening condition that needs immediate treatment, affects more than 6 million children under 5. Measles and cholera outbreaks are common, killings hundreds of children.
Early Childhood Development
Caring for Caregivers
Parents and caregivers are vital to children’s healthy development. UNICEF collaborates with partners to develop and implement parenting education programmes that help children get the best start in life.
Best Start in Life
What happens to a child during the first 1,000 days of life — from conception to the age of two — makes a difference for the rest of their lives. This is why UNICEF supports countries to provide an integrated package of early childhood and development services that cover early learning, health, nutrition, water and sanitation and child protection.
Adolescent girls are a large and vibrant generation, yet they continue to face discrimination and disadvantage on a daily basis. UNICEF helps to advance the rights of adolescent girls by influencing policies and developing girl-specific health, education, child protection and social protection programmes.
Adolescents are vulnerable but also powerful forces of change if provided with the right support. UNICEF supports countries to develop, coordinate and implement adolescent programmes that increase access to education, life skills, prevention of HIV, teen pregnancy and child marriage, and protection against violence and abuse.
Investments in Children
To improve child well-being, countries need to effectively channel their public resources to children and their families, especially the poorest ones. UNICEF supports countries to identify funding sources, create consensus around the need to invest more in children, and to use the central and local government budgets as tools to achieve results for children.
Children deserve a special focus in the fight against poverty and inequality. UNICEF works with partners to develop and implement child-sensitive social protection programmes that build family and community resilience and protect children from the harsh effects of deprivation.