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UNICEF Deputy Executive Director warns of triple threat to child survival in the Central African Republic

© UNICEF/CAR/ Stark-Merklein/2009
Hilde Johnson talks to a group of Peulh women participating in a project for survivors of ethnically motivated abuse in Paoua, northern CAR, run by the Danish Refugee Council with UNICEF support.

Bangui, Central African Republic, 14 October 2009 – On a recent visit to Central African Republic, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Hilde Johnson expressed concern over the deteriorating situation of children as the country’s perpetual crisis is being compounded by the global financial downturn and cuts in humanitarian aid.

Ms. Johnson has been in CAR this week to assess the humanitarian situation and children’s needs on the ground.

She met the prime minister, various government ministers, donors, humanitarian actors and partner organizations in the capital and travelled to the conflict-affected north where she spoke to political actors, local populations and children participating in UNICEF programmes.

"Children in CAR are in the eye of a storm," said Ms Johnson. "The problems they are facing today will only be exacerbated by the triple threat of instability, the dwindling state budget and decline in donor spending."

Years of conflict have taken a heavy toll on the country’s population and children in particular.

Child welfare indicators are among the worst in the world.

One in five children dies before reaching the age of five. The health care system is one of the weakest worldwide.

According to WHO, there were only 137 medical doctors (three for every 100,000 Central Africans) in the entire country in 2006.

Social infrastructures providing basic services are almost non-existent.

Only 38 per cent of girls and 53 per cent of boys are enrolled in school, many of whom will drop out before finishing the last primary grade.

A critical juncture
The global economic crisis is having a serious impact on CAR.

According to government sources, the income in the country’s state budget has decreased by 40 per cent this year.

The crisis is felt most severely in the south-west, where loss of income from the collapsed wood and diamond exports has increased poverty levels.

© UNICEF/CAR/ Stark-Merklein/2009
Villagers in Bamatara in northern CAR show UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Hilde Johnson their houses burned down by armed horsemen earlier this year

Malnutrition rates among local children have risen above emergency rates as parents are no longer able to provide for their young.

Adding to the grim picture is a 42 per cent funding gap in humanitarian aid. "CAR has been a donor orphan for a while," says Ms. Johnson, "but at this juncture, the risk of further crisis is too significant to ignore. The limited resources available in this country are in no way commensurate to the enormous needs and dismal indicators. Financial, political and diplomatic engagement of the international community is needed to ensure the rights of Central African children and enhance their protection."

Disarmament, demobilization and reintegration: hope for stability
One hope for peace and stability lies in the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of combatants, including children associated with armed groups.

Ms. Johnson discussed the release of these children with local authorities and representatives of the rebel group Armée Populaire pour la Restauration de la République et la Démocratie (APRD) who confirmed their commitment to the DDR programme – which is also a prerequisite for the elections scheduled for early 2010.

Ms. Johnson had the opportunity to meet a group of about 40 boys released three weeks ago from APRD ranks in Paoua, who are being prepared for reintegration into their communities in a Transitional Center run by the Danish Refugee Council with support from UNICEF.

Challenges ahead
Ms. Johnson saw the impact of violence on the population when she visited two villages in Nana-Grébizi province that were attacked earlier this year by armed horsemen.

The villagers told her how they fled into the bush when the attackers burned down their houses and stole their cattle.

Many are afraid to come back and are still hiding in the bush, but those who have returned are getting organized to clean up the UNICEF-supported school so that their children can start the school year.

Ms. Johnson also met a team of the International Rescue Committee who identify and support survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in Kaga Bandoro and surroundings.

She spoke to a group of women from the Peulh minority in Paoua who are enrolled in a project from the Danish Refugee Council that helps them overcome the trauma of ethnic targeted violence against their families and teaches income-generating activities.

Stigmatization and exploitation of Peulh people in the north and Aka or pygmee people in the south is systematic and makes women from these groups especially vulnerable.

Destroyed homes and abandoned villages along the rugged road reminded Ms. Johnson of the challenges lying ahead as this country struggles to get back on its feet.

Ms. Johnson’s visit to CAR was the first stop on a two-country mission to CAR and Chad.

By Brigitte Stark-Merklein




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