Randburg — As the world celebrates Universal Children’s Day on 20 November, Africa’s children have a lot to look forward to. Since the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1959, the continent has improved school enrolment rates for both boys and girls, increased access to health care, and built awareness of children’s rights.
Yet, many children and youth continue to have a lot on their plates.
High HIV prevalence rates, legacies of conflict and crime, and extreme poverty plague much of the continent. As a result, a growing number of children suffer emotional trauma, depression, neglect, abuse, overwhelming grief, upheaval, discrimination and social exclusion affecting their social, emotional and mental health.
For impoverished families and communities coping with a whole range of day to day challenges, children’s emotional well-being can often be far from a first priority. However, according to REPSSI, an NGO working in 13 East and Southern African countries to lessen the devastating effects of HIV and AIDS, conflict and poverty on children by providing psychosocial support, young people’s emotional wellbeing can break cycles of poverty and abuse, and is key to human development in the region.
“All children have material needs such as food, shelter, health care and education. But children also have the right to be cared for, loved, and protected,” explains Noreen Huni, Executive Director at REPSSI. ”Care and support is not just about finding means, but about changing attitudes about children’s rights and roles in society.”
Once a hopeless teenager struggling to cope with the death of his parents, 22-year old Tshikukulume from rural Limpopo, South Africa, knows how invaluable emotional support and encouragement can be. The teenager turned to the Far North Drop-In Centre, supported by the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, to find something to eat, but found much more than he expected.
“After a while I realised that what I was learning there was important, they were telling me that I could do something with my life,” he recalls, describing how he participated in a Tree of Life exercise designed to encourage people to think about their life journeys.
“It made me realise that every tree, even the biggest, starts small but can grow big. As you grow you always face challenges but you don’t have to move backwards, or to turn to crime or become negative.” Tshikukulume and his friends have since formed a group to fight substance abuse, teach people about HIV and AIDS, and encouraging school drop-outs to go back to school.
“I’m really thinking about being a social worker... I want to be remembered for getting street kids back to school, for playing a role in stopping alcohol and substance abuse. I want to be remembered for bringing hope.”
In a region in which one in every six children (28 million) have lost one or both parents, such care, support, and most of all hope, is crucial. What’s more, an estimated two thirds of the population in the Southern African region live below the international poverty line of US$1 per day. One in ten children die before their fifth birthday - a third of these deaths are directly attributable to poverty. (REPSSI 2012)
However, in spite of such poverty, community workers in the region are making inroads to improving conditions for children, and countering deeply engrained social attitudes harmful to young people. There is also increasing understanding that some of the most important aspects of care, emotional support and love, have no cost at all.
Peter Aduda, Kisumu Area Manager with ChildFund Kenya, credits the partnership with REPSSI for changing attitudes about the importance of emotional health. “We realised that there are crucial things in people’s lives that do not necessarily cost money... like attention, like love, like care.”
This sentiment is echoed by Nancy Chidzankufa, Director of Programmes with the Malawi Girl Guides Association (MAGGA), who has used REPSSI’s resources to encourage care in her community. “The community has come to realise that they can help a child to develop holistically without money,” she says.
Tackling stigma and care issues can be particularly important for children who are themselves living with HIV. The number of children receiving ART increased from about 456 000 in 2010 to 562 000 in 2011, but this represents coverage rate of only 28% among children in need of paediatric ART (WHO 2012).
While change is being felt at the community level, there has also been policy shifts at the regional level in Southern Africa. REPSSI worked hand in hand as a technical assistant to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to develop two key SADC documents for the region - the Minimum Package of Services for Orphans and Vulnerable Children & Youth and the Psychosocial Support Conceptual Framework.
These guidelines that can help all Member States ensure that psychosocial support is mainstreamed and accessible to all children and youth.
While there is increasing recognition of the importance of children’s emotional and psychosocial wellbeing, there is still far to go. And while community workers and organisations have many steps to take, much of what needs to be done falls to individuals to reach out to children and families. A helping hand is sometimes a compassionate and listening ear.