Reporting by Tenagne Mekonnen, Africa Regional Communication and Administration Manager, and Arthur Tokpah, ChildFund Guinea
Today is the International Day of the African Child, a day to honor children’s rights. The continent-wide event looks back to a terrible day in 1976, June 16, when thousands of schoolchildren marched in Soweto, then a township in South Africa, to call for higher-quality education and the right to learn in their own languages.
Hundreds of children were shot. The official number of deaths was 23, but estimates put the number much higher. One of the first casualties, 13-year-old Hector Pieterson, would become the icon of a movement promoting children’s rights. Since 1991, the Day of the African Child has marked the tragedy and served as an occasion to advocate for children’s rights across the continent — and, in particular, for children themselves to raise their voices.
This year, children from seven African countries marched through Soweto from the Mandela House to the Hector Pieterson Monument and Memorial Museum, joined by representatives of the South African government, the United Nations, international nongovernmental organizations and other official bodies.
During the march, children and others chanted slogans against early and forced marriage, this year’s theme for the Day of the African Child: “Don’t talk about us without us!” “Stop early marriage now!” “Girls are not a commodity — do not trade them for money, but send them to school!” Later, children performed dramatic monologues, poems and other speech advocating for children’s rights.
This year, the Day of the African Child is joined with a parallel celebration of this month’s 25th anniversary of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. The African Union crafted the Charter based on the United Nations’ global Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which marked its 25th anniversary in November. The Charter echoes the CRC but is geared more specifically toward Africa’s needs, particularly with regard to protecting children from harmful traditional practices.
The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child explicitly calls for all African countries to push the minimum age of marriage to 18, but child marriage — as well as accompanying issues such as early pregnancies and lack of education and job opportunities for young women — remains a challenge throughout Africa, home to 15 of the world’s 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriage.
“We young girls want to be in a school,” said one girl participating in the march. “That is where we belong — not to marriage.”
Soweto is not the only site where the Day of the African Child is celebrated, and June 16 is not the only day; in Guinea, which is recovering from the Ebola outbreak, thousands of children, joined by government and NGO officials, gathered on June 6 in Siguiri, a prefecture on the Niger River, to launch a Month of the African Child.
Near the site of Guinea’s celebration is a gold mine, and many young children work there, missing school and placing themselves in danger. That was the issue on Mamadou’s mind, and the 14-year-old ninth-grader was excited to exercise his right to speak out: “This moment is an occasion for me to pass messages to parents and even friends,” he said. “In my district, most of the children of my age and even younger are in the gold mine. Some are there through because of pressure from their parents. These children are not attending school. Instead, they spend every day from morning to evening digging hard, rocky ground in search of gold.
“Parents, please help your children to go to school,” he said. “School builds children’s minds and prepares them for tomorrow so that they can be helpful to you.”
He worries about his friends’ thinking that money is the answer to problems. “I am telling them that I agree with them that money is good, but you need to have the education and training to be able to manage money and know how to multiply it,” he said. “I tell my friends who have gone to the mine to go back to school for the education and training that will let them manage money, because school builds the mind.”
Reporting and photos from Emmanuel Ford, ChildFund Liberia, and Arthur Tokpah, ChildFund Guinea
This week, ChildFund’s president and CEO, Anne Lynam Goddard, visited Liberia, which was declared free of Ebola last Saturday, and Guinea. Guinea and Sierra Leone still have some active cases of Ebola, but the numbers are considerably lower than several months ago, at the height of the epidemic.
Since last spring, when the virus began spreading quickly through West Africa, ChildFund has worked with governments and other nongovernmental organizations to make communities aware of preventive hygiene practices and also help survivors and children affected by the virus.
The centerpiece of our work, starting in October 2014, was the opening of Interim Care Centers, where children who had lost caregivers to Ebola could receive care and attention while being watched for symptoms of Ebola. People working at the ICCs were often Ebola survivors, who are immune to the disease. They also worked to find homes for these children — many of whom are orphans — after their releases from quarantine.
Today, ICC staff members are still checking on the welfare of these children and their caretakers, some of whom have taken in several children and need assistance. As schools and public institutions reopen, life may look more normal in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, but the struggle for children who lost parents, siblings and other loved ones to Ebola remains quite painful.
Goddard spoke to Ebola survivors this week at Kelekula Interim Care Center in Monrovia, Liberia: “The memory will be part of your life forever, and don’t think of being a victim but a survivor.
“I know this is not the end,” she added. “I know that many lives have been affected that will not go back to normal, and we know that it will take a lot to bring people, children, families and communities back on the path toward the future.”
Read more about Anne Goddard’s West Africa visit at her Tumblr page.
By Emmanuel Ford, ChildFund Liberia
Liberia is the first of the three hardest-hit West African countries to be declared free of Ebola, 42 days after the last confirmed case. The announcement by the World Health Organization came May 9 in Monrovia, prompting celebrations throughout the country.
Since March 2014, the Ebola outbreak has claimed more than 4,700 lives in Liberia and caused more than 11,000 deaths in West Africa overall. Neighboring Guinea and Sierra Leone continue to see infections, although at a much lower rate than before. In Liberia, the last confirmed Ebola death was March 27, and there have been no new cases since April 23.
On the morning of May 9, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf visited the ChildFund-supported Kelekula Interim Care Center for children affected by Ebola. She and her entourage toured the center and lauded ChildFund and its partners for our efforts in running the centers in Monrovia, Kakata and Ganta.
Welcoming the president were children who had spent time at the center, along with the center’s caregivers, many of whom had survived the virus and are now immune.
Speaking on behalf of the caregivers, Decontee, an Ebola survivor, spoke about some of the challenges of working there. “We went through sleepless nights taking care of 2- to 4-month-old babies at the center,” she said.
The Kelekula Interim Care Center was started in October 2014. Since then, the center has seen 55 children, three of whom died at Ebola clinics, and one who died of other causes after leaving the center. Many more have gone home — in some cases, new homes because they’ve lost their parents to Ebola. At this time, the interim care center staff members check in with children and caretakers every other week, and community members continue to wash their hands regularly to prevent the future spread of Ebola. Sick people are being screened for symptoms of the virus when they enter clinics or hospitals.
To date, ChildFund continues to distribute Hasbro Toys and TOMS Shoes, as well as school materials, to children throughout the country under its gifts-in-kind program.
“I am thankful to all of you who made this end a happy ending,” President Johnson Sirleaf said. “Thank God we are free, but we need to be more vigilant.”
By Julien Anseau, Global Communications Manager
Adanech has never lacked ambition — just opportunity. Before ChildFund started working in her community, her family, like many others, scraped every day to make ends meet. Today, the Ethiopian mother owns a business, employs five people and is looking to grow her enterprise further. “More importantly, my children are healthy and in school,” she says.
Adanech first learned of ChildFund’s Yekokeb Berhan program a little over a year ago and signed up for training in business development and micro-enterprise. “Before, we had no money,” she says. “It was a real struggle to make just enough money to live. I had a small weaving business, and I wanted to learn how to make a success of it.” She became involved in a savings group and was able to access a small loan on favorable terms.
The PEPFAR/USAID-funded Yekokeb Berhan program has worked in Ethiopia since May 2011 to put in place a child-focused social welfare network that allows all children, including the most vulnerable, to thrive. Focusing on HIV-affected communities, Yekokeb Berhan aims to reach 500,000 highly vulnerable children throughout the country and is a collaboration among Pact, Family Health International (FHI360) and ChildFund International, along with many local partner organizations.
Adanech took out a loan of 10,000 Birr (USD $500) to get started and has not looked back since. Now, after household expenses such as rent and food, staff wages and loan repayments, Adanech and her husband, Meteke, still have 3,000 Birr (USD $150) at the end of the month that they can save or invest in the business.
“Life is so much better now,” says Meteke. “We live for our children. We can send them to school. And they are healthy.” He adds, proudly, that their 9-year-old daughter, Bizuayhue, dreams of becoming a doctor and helping the family, and that 2-year-old Yohannes is “happy running around for now.”
Adanech’s community of Zenebework is one of the poorest in Addis Ababa. Most residents are migrants from poor rural areas, attracted to Ethiopia’s rapidly growing capital city by better job prospects. The city dump is nearby, and families scavenge for food and anything they can resell. The HIV infection rate is among the highest in the country, and a high proportion of children grow up in broken homes.
Yet Adanech is upbeat: “Life is also changing in the community. Life can change if you are given the opportunity. People here have never been scared of hard work. From the moment they wake to the moment they sleep, people here are working. They just need the opportunity to work smarter.”
At 28, Adanech is full of ambition. “I am looking to hire five more employees and buy a singeing machine to make more elaborate patterns on my fabrics, which I would then sell at a higher profit. The machine costs 10,500 Birr [USD $510], which is a lot.” For now, she sells her textiles at the local market, but she aspires to sell to merchants at Merkato, Africa’s largest open-air market, and in Bole, an upscale area in Addis Ababa.
“Sometimes, all people need is an opportunity,” says Meteke, 31. “Before, we did not have the money to grow our business. No one would give us a loan other than loan sharks, who asked for 100 percent interest. Now our loan repayment, including interest, is 450 Birr [USD $22] every month, which is manageable.”
Yekokeb Berhan’s livelihood support is important, says Abraham, a program officer for ChildFund’s local partner called Love for Children and Family Development Charitable Organization, which implements the program. “Giving families opportunities to earn a decent living is the most sustainable approach to helping them meet the needs of their children.”
He adds, “Ethiopia is seeing rapid economic growth, which is great. But with growth comes increasing inequality. I am proud of being part of this program, because I can see the changes in the lives of children who would otherwise have been left behind.”
Reporting by Emmanuel Ford, ChildFund Liberia
In Liberia, the last known Ebola patient was discharged from a treatment center last week. We’re receiving updates on children who were at the ChildFund-supported Kelekula Interim Care Center, which served 55 children who lost caregivers in the outbreak, providing them a safe place to spend their 21-day quarantine period after exposure to the virus. Afterward, staff at the centers coordinated with government officials to help place children with relatives or in stable foster care situations.
Social workers now conduct regular visits to the homes of all children who stayed at the KICC to find out how they are coping with the loss of their loved ones and how they are getting along with their caregivers. ChildFund also distributes packages of clothes, mattresses, school materials, footwear, toiletries and food, such as rice and oil, to each child while reuniting them with their caregivers.
These four children have returned to their communities and are living with family members or other caregivers. All have lost family members to the deadly virus but are managing to move forward in their lives. Here are their stories:
Jesse, age 6
At the KICC, Jesse liked playing with friends. They rode the swing and the merry-go-round and played football in the compound. Jesse enjoyed the food they served each day. He has been reunited with family friends who live in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital. “I am happy with the people I am living with now,” Jesse says.
His mother and grandparents all died from Ebola, and Jesse was visibly grieving when he was first reunited with his family friends, although he is doing better now. He looks forward to returning to school soon. “For now, we actually need some supports like clothes and school fees,” Jesse’s caregiver explains.
Lawrence, age 15
Lawrence (left, in photo above) has a disability that causes him to struggle with balance and to salivate uncontrollably, which caused hardships for him even before the Ebola outbreak, during which he lost his parents and siblings. After staying at the KICC for 21 days, he now lives with Pastor Amos Weah — a “prayer man” taking care of eight children — and hopes to become a preacher himself one day.
Happily living with the Pastor, he said he liked being at the KICC and would enjoy going back there, where he ate well and had fun with other children.
Zinnah, age 6
Ebola claimed Zinnah’s parents and four siblings, and he’s being cared for by a teacher, Mr. Brown.
“We used to ride seesaw,” he says of the KICC, and he learned about preventing Ebola, how to read and other basic life skills. Both Zinnah and his guardian are looking forward to the reopening of his school, and in the meantime, he plays with friends and often takes a leading role in their activities.
Jestina, age 6
Jestina lost her mother and grandparents to Ebola, but her father survived. He sells cabbage to make a living, and they live in one of Monrovia’s slums. Jestina (pictured while talking with her father) liked living at the KICC, where she had the opportunity to play with other children and also learn, during bedtime stories, about preventing the virus. She is hopeful that one day she will be a banker. “I want to be a money girl,” she says.
Jestina loves to write and read, and she wants to see that all children are happy and free from dangerous illnesses like Ebola. Her father says that she seems happier lately and plays with her friends frequently.
Earlier this week, ChildFund President & CEO Anne Lynam Goddard visited the White House for the launch of Let Girls Learn, a U.S. government initiative that aims to make education accessible for all girls worldwide, despite some daunting obstacles. Girls’ rights and the barriers to them figure strongly in our work at ChildFund, so it is thrilling to see such a major push led by the Office of the First Lady, involving USAID, the State Department, the Peace Corps and other agencies. You can read more of Anne’s thoughts on Let Girls Learn on her Tumblr page.
On the ChildFund blog, we’ve written about many girls and young women who have overcome significant barriers to attaining a full education — including early marriage, spotty electrical power, long walks to school and cultural mores that discourage women from getting an education. Read about Phanny, a Zambian woman who works as an automotive repair supervisor; Mahdia, an Afghani woman who is learning to read despite the objection of some of her male relatives; and Alexia, a Dominican police officer who encourages her younger siblings to remain in school. They’re heroines in our book.
By Arthur Tokpah, ChildFund Guinea
After schools were closed for six months during the spread of the deadly Ebola virus, classes began again in Guinea on Jan. 19. Attendance was low the first day, but students seemed happy to see each other after the long quarantine.
After going through the process of hand washing at washing stations distributed by ChildFund and having their temperatures taken with non-contact thermometers, children greeted one another happily and expressed how much they had missed each other and their schools.
“This is my first day in school,” said Djenabou, age 14. “Ebola has done us wrong by keeping us out of school for six months. I was so scared when I used to come out to buy food. I thought everyone was going to die. But thank God that I am still alive and back to school again. I am very happy to meet my friends.”
While walking her 5-year-old daughter to school, Mrs. Diallo said, “Some parents are not ready to let their children come to school. Yesterday I was in the market, where I told some parents that schools have reopened. One of the ladies said that she was not yet ready to let her three children return to school unless people stop using non-contact thermometers at school. She mistakenly thinks this is a means of transmitting the virus to children.”
When you go around the areas where ChildFund works, you will notice practical measures have been put in place at schools and universities to protect teachers and students against Ebola and prevent its return. We have helped set up hand-washing stations and provided non-contact thermometers to 1,175 schools, reaching more than 500,000 students as of mid-February.
ChildFund Guinea is deeply engaged in the fight against Ebola and continues to provide training to local authorities, religious leaders, traditional healers and traditional birth attendants, all of whom are raising awareness about Ebola prevention measures in communities.
Below, take a look at a slideshow of images from Guinea’s schools.
By Arthur Tokpah, ChildFund Guinea
Fatoumata, 25, is in job training with ChildFund Guinea after completing her degree at university. Currently, she is involved in branding hand-washing kits with ChildFund’s logo before distributing them to schools. The kits, which consist of a rubber bucket, a chlorine solution and hands-free thermometers, are very important now that schools are reopening since the Ebola outbreak in Guinea has been contained. Fatoumata recently expressed what it means to her to be part of the fighting force against the Ebola virus.
“If Ebola was something visible that one could attack face to face, I could fight it with all my might until the last bit of the virus gets out of the country. I am happy to contribute to efforts in fighting against the disease.
“Many children are stigmatized today because of this deadly virus. Last month, when I had the opportunity to go into the field with the ChildFund Guinea team, I saw orphan children often rejected by their friends, only because either both or one of their parents died from Ebola. This condition calls for an approach that will facilitate their social inclusion.
“Also, children have stopped enjoying their educational rights during the past six months because schools were closed due to Ebola. They need to go to school and learn to prepare for their future. They need to have peace of mind at home and when they are playing with their friends. So, every possible measure needs to be taken to wipe away the virus.”
By Jacqui Ooi, Social Communications and Media Manager, ChildFund Australia
Schools in Guinea reopened this month after being closed for much of last year, as the country fought to contain the Ebola outbreak. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, where infection rates are also now stabilizing, schools are set to reopen in February and March respectively.
It’s the first step back to normalcy for millions of children whose lives and educations have been disrupted by the worst Ebola crisis in history. An estimated 5 million children in the three countries have been out of school for up to eight months. This has put children at high risk of dropping out of school permanently or ending up in child labor.
“Schools have been closed for a long time, so there are concerns that children are beginning to forget they were schoolchildren, that the continuation of their studies will be difficult the longer schools take to reopen,” says Billy Abimbilla, ChildFund’s national director for Liberia and Sierra Leone. “It has also been realized that many of the older girls are becoming pregnant because they are at home and they are not occupied. So, in some ways, the sooner schools reopen, the better.”
However, while there is an obvious need to get children back in school, there are also concerns about their reopening too soon, risking exposure to the virus.
“There is a school of thought that thinks it is too early to reopen these schools, because even though infection rates are declining, Ebola has not been completely eradicated and so reopening schools could spike another round of infections,” Billy says. “Also the fact that opening them too early will put some parents in a difficult situation because many livelihoods have been eroded, and many parents do not have enough money to pay school fees. So they need a bit more time to be able to organize to pay the school fees.”
With the decision to reopen schools winning out, the government and NGOs in all countries will be working hard to ensure children are protected at school and also help families get back on their feet.
ChildFund will extend its support of children affected by Ebola to help ensure that school staff and students continue to be careful about prevention measures as schools reopen.
“We will provide them with hygiene kits so teachers and students can continue the practice of washing their hands, and avoid intimate touching with each other through things like spacing of seats in the classroom,” Billy explains. “We’ll also continue with education on how Ebola can be contracted or not, and form children’s Ebola clubs to raise awareness in schools.
“Provision of water and sanitation is also crucial in terms of reducing infection. So we’ll be looking at supporting the government to supply wells fitted with hand pumps for schoolchildren to wash their hands and ensure that whatever information children get at school, they can also be voices to get back to the community level and educate their parents.”
You may have seen a New York Times article this week about a 4-year-old girl called Sweetie Sweetie who is staying at one of ChildFund’s Interim Care Centers in Sierra Leone. She lost her parents to Ebola, like thousands of children in West Africa. Sweetie Sweetie, whose given name we don’t know, has remained healthy and not shown signs of the disease. Here, you can read an update on her condition and learn how to help other children orphaned by Ebola.