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An answer to West Africa's challenges - Child Rights


The most widely ratified international human rights treaty is 20 years old on November 20th, 2009.

Here the President of the Economic Community of West African States - ECOWAS, Dr. Mohammed Ibn Chambas, and Dr Gianfranco Rotigliano, the Regional Director of UNICEF in West and Central Africa, make a strong case for the Convention on the Rights of the Child as a critical platform to achieve meaningful development in the region.

Imagine a West Africa today where families do not routinely bear the burden of children dying of avoidable diseases. Imagine also a West Africa where clean water and sanitation are taken for granted; where two generations had received sound primary education and where the needy receive government assistance.

These would be some of the benefits enjoyed today if the spirit of the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) had been implemented. This may seem at first glance far fetched.  But the CRC and its twin instrument, The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, are human rights documents that would have far reaching social benefits. They call for the interests of children to be given a priority for the benefit of everyone.

Virtually all ECOWAS countries have ratified both the Convention and the African Charter on the Welfare and Rights of the Child. This regional commitment was reinforced further in 2001 when ECOWAS Heads of State declared a Decade to promote the rights of the Child. Children the leaders insist, have an inalienable right to a better future.    Investing in children, and girls in particular, gives some of the best returns for development

Socio-economic studies have repeatedly shown that investing in children, and girls in particular, gives some of the best returns for development. Not only is it the right thing to do in respect of human rights, but it generates a good return on investment, providing added value to national governments, communities and the children themselves.

Many will argue that this approach is well meaning, but impracticable. Children are not the priority when there are so many other pressing concerns on national budgets.

Underlying this notion is perhaps a long-held view that while children are to be loved, it is adults that count. But that is as short term as the time it takes for a child to grow up. Half the population of this region was born since the CRC was agreed. Many are young adults, frustrated by their lack of opportunity and trapped in a cycle of poverty and deprivation. These have become easy prey to risk factors that could have been reduced or avoided through better provision and education. 

A test of governance
Undoubtedly a lot of progress has been made by countries in our region.

Twenty years ago very few organizations and programmes were devoted to addressing issues of child labour, sexual abuse and exploitation of children, violence against children in schools and at home, the child-soldier phenomenon, justice for children, and the protection of orphans and vulnerable children. But there are now committed agencies in every country working to promote the protection of children and a number of legislation has been enacted in line with international standards. While there are still widespread violations, efforts to confront these problems have greatly increased over the past two decades.

We are beginning also to see real green shoots in social protection with huge implications for families and their ability to look after children. In most countries extending such cover through state sponsored funds to the poor is a major challenge, although it is increasingly being addressed as part of national poverty reduction strategies.

Some countries, including Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Mali and Senegal, have developed national social protection strategies, policies or plans. ECOWAS, at meetings this year in Benin and Gambia, encouraged member states to improve funding for national human rights institutions and the Commission is developing a regional network to assist in the implementation of laws and policies.

But, according to official statistics, West and Central Africa have some of the most acute issues affecting children in the world. Around 3 million children die before they reach their fifth birthday, 25 million are out of school and a third of all maternal deaths in the world are in these regions. Much more needs to be done to ensure the inclusion of children living with disability in the national and regional protection plans and to safeguard their right to a fulfilled and empowered life.

Africa as a whole is about to face new challenges. We still do not know the full effects of the global financial crisis and the reduction in demand for commodities at a time when food prices have risen.  This is a perfect storm for a region where so many children suffer malnutrition, and families live from hand to mouth.We need, more than ever, to make children’s best interests the primary test of governance.

Similarly, we cannot be clear on the effect of climate change. But we are sure Africa will feel the brunt, with very grim prospects for the large number of the vulnerable in the region.

Therefore, we need, more than ever, to make children’s best interests the primary test of governance and develop the capacity to realise their rights. When we improve access to education, health facilities and social services everyone wins.

ECOWAS and UNICEF are calling on communities, donors, governments and other stakeholders to muster the political will and mobilize the necessary funding to get all children in West Africa properly protected, educated and healthy. Without this commitment, the future looks bleak.



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