We could do better not to fail children

Eight years ago, a Norwegian comedian and father of two daughters set out to understand why, despite his country’s high level of gender equality, studies kept showing girls and women as underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Eight years ago, a Norwegian comedian and father of two daughters set out to understand why, despite his country’s high level of gender equality, studies kept showing girls and women as underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Indications are that we are failing many of Africa’s children. It is, therefore, only fitting that, even as this month is dedicated to women, there should be some focus on them.

The UNICEF report, Progress for Every Child in the SDG Era, released last week, asks, Are we on track to achieve the SDGs for children?

It is the first thematic report assessing performance toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) global targets that concern children and young people.

The general prognosis is that it remains a precarious life for many children on the continent. Another UNICEF report, “Every child alive, the urgent need to end newborn deaths”, released last month, shows that eight of the 10 most dangerous places to be born are in sub-Saharan Africa, where pregnant women are much less likely to receive assistance during delivery due to poverty, conflict and weak institutions.

In low-income countries, the average newborn mortality rate is 27 deaths per 1,000 births.

East African countries – Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania – fair only slightly better with an average newborn mortality rate of just over 20 per 1,000 births.

Individually, however, Rwanda stands out as the safest country for newborns in the region, having improved from 41 deaths per 1,000 births in 1990 to only 16 in 2016.

Uganda follows in the region recording 21 deaths, followed by Tanzania with 22 children dying per 1,000 births, and Kenya 23 infant deaths in 2016 before their first month.

Globally, 2.6 million babies die before turning one month old every year. One million of them take their first and last breaths on the day they are born.

With such figures to contend with, UNICEF’s Executive Director laments that “given that the majority of these deaths are preventable, clearly, we are failing the world’s poorest babies.”

On its part, the Progress for Every Child in the SDG Era report tracks movement on five dimensions of children’s rights: health, learning, protection from violence and exploitation, a safe environment and equal opportunity.

However, in seeking answers, it encounters a challenge not immediately surmountable at the outset. The report finds “an alarming lack of data in 64 countries, as well as insufficient progress toward the SDGs for another 37 countries where the data can be tracked.”

It warns that 520 million children live in countries which completely lack data on at least two-thirds of child-related SDG indicators, or lack sufficient data to assess their progress – rendering those children effectively “uncounted.”

Where sufficient data is available, notes a summary of the report, the scale of the challenge posed by the SDG targets remains daunting. And the projections don’t look good.

It quantifies how far short of the global goals the world is currently expected to fall, measured in human costs. Among some of the projections between now and 2030, 31 million children will be left stunted due to lack of adequate nutrition. 10 million will die of preventable causes before their fifth birthday.

To come back to the other UNICEF report, “Every child alive, the urgent need to end newborn deaths”, high-income countries record a rate of only three infant deaths per 1,000 births.

It notes that if every country brought its newborn mortality rate down to the high-income average by 2030, 16 million lives could be saved.

Looked at comparatively in the region, though there’s still some considerable distance to go, Rwanda is doing fairly well in the short time progressive policies such as those relating to maternal and child health have been in place.

The report notes the country’s success in reducing child mortality rate in its political will to invest in health systems that prioritise newborns and reaching out to the poorest and most marginalised, especially through the near-universal health coverage under the Mutuelle de Sante scheme.

The country’s achievements could serve as a benchmark to attainable outcomes, of which the report alludes to calling for strong cooperation among governments, businesses, health-care providers, communities and families to give every newborn a fair chance to survive, and to collectively work towards the achievement of universal health coverage.

On the other hand, the report on SDG progress for children emphasises the importance of data in coming to grips with the depth of the problems to be addressed and urges renewed efforts to deal with the data-deficiency at the grassroots through to the global level.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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