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Benin: Gianfranco Zola visits UNICEF Programmes for children

© UNICEF/Van Der Belen/ 2008
Zola, kicking the ball off with his head in a rough stadium in Pobè.

Cotonou, Benin, 9 May 2008 – UNICEF Ambassador for the Italian Committee and international former football star, Gianfranco Zola, was in Benin, for a 5-day journey to first hand witness and also have a better understanding of UNICEF-supported projects in Education and Protection. He was accompanied by Alessandro Pinto, responsible for the Goodwill ambassador unit of the Italian Committee, and wife and daughter, Franca and Martina were part of the trip.

Even though it was his first visit to Africa, Gianfranco Zola felt at home in this small country ranked 163rd out of 177, according to the Human Development Index, with approximately 4 out of 10 people living under the poverty line.

The visits brought Zola to better understand the situation prevailing in UNICEF-supported programmes, particularly in the fields of Protection and Education.

In St Joseph Centre, 60 working children aged 7 to 17, are given a second chance to be literate through the alternative education system. They can complete for free, primary education within three years. In this centre run by the Salesian Sisters, the curriculum is divided into 3 levels that take into account the child’s capacities and working hours. It enables vulnerable children to enter secondary school or vocational programmes. To date, 4 primary schools are involved.
During visits to child trafficking prevention programmes, Zola discussed with other vulnerable children. In Kpomassé, he met with Cecile A., a young girl who was forced by her parent into domestic labour when she was nine years old. She used to watch over 2 children, and clean bedrooms and toilets. She ran away after being beaten by her “oppressor aunt” and joined the Salesian Sister. “Now I am very happy to attend school too instead of looking at other children who know how to read and write. I am currently in grade 4, and I cannot accept to be mistreated anymore,” Cecile asserted with a sad, but determined voice.

©UNICEF/Van Der Belen/2008
© UNICEF/Van Der Belen/2008
Zola in a classroom in Dantokpa market where working children learn how to read and write.

Another tour took Zola to the Oasis Center, where a 3-year project targeting 1200 children, run by the international NGO Terre des Hommes. It gives care, educates, rehabilitates, and reinserts children victims of violence, mistreatment and trafficking.   The children’s spokesperson, Dieudonné D. in a warm welcome address, told Zola that his visit testified of his “commitment to the welfare of the youngest” and gave them “hope for a bright future with attention, love, and education”.  Zola, with joy and enthusiasm, said he will be a strong advocate for child protection, and he advised the 37 children aged 5 to 15 to remain determined, and to work for shaping their future.

Empowering families and especially women’s groups is one the fruitful strategies to address poverty and promote children’s rights to protection and education in Benin. This is the reason why income generating activities are the basics for programmes.
This is why Cecile’s mother has received support to develop income generating activities. The principle is to identify children who have been victims of child trafficking and those who are at risk.  Their parents will be trained for undertaking specific activities such as palm oil, cassava and corn flour, beans, tye and dye. Consequently, a loan is granted to parents and accompanying measures are adopted (follow-up visits, plan of reimbursement, additional loans, etc.). Once the loan is reimbursed, they become owners of the activities. Over the past two years, 120 women in 6 villages benefited from this programme that helps preventing child trafficking in the Protection Programme. . 

In Itchohou-Ketty, the delegation met children of a kindergarten and of a primary school, and women’s groups involved in income generating activities to sustain girl’s child education, in the school. Zola, who was very impressed by these activities, said they are “one of the best means to alleviate poverty, and give the children a chance for education”.

As of now, UNICEF has supported 737 women groups within the Education Programme. Even though the children in Itchohou-Ketty school do not have access to drinking water, the number of girls has doubled from 2005 to 2008 (45 to 95). Unfortunately, the level of dropouts is still high due to poverty, and because most children are used as cheap labour force in farming. Zola encouraged children, and told them that “in order to become good football players, they must be very good students first.”

During his tour, Gianfranco Zola kicked the ball off several times, with the children of the Cotonou based International Training Center for football players, with those of the primary school of Kpomassè, and the secondary school of Pobé.



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