27 January 2017

Uganda: Why Ending Child Poverty Is a Moral Necessity


Donning a tired T-shirt that has since lost its original colour and shape - Kutosi, a five-year-old boy in Bunamwani village, Mbale District wears a sweet, innocent face. He is one of the 3.7 million children in Uganda below five years of age living in poverty. They represent half of the under-five population in the country. Some of them - 1.6 million - live in extreme poverty.

Kutosi lives with his parents and six siblings in a small, semi-permanent, one bedroom-house. At night, he humbles his little body on a papyrus mat and covers himself with his mother's 'gomesi' to catch some sleep. In a conversation, his siblings narrate to me how they often survive on one, insufficient meal, a day.

At five, Kutosi is yet to start school. If the nearby government school had pre-school, chances are that he would have started school.

Under such circumstances, there is no doubt he faces treacherous obstacles to success in life.

Kutosi's life is that of millions of children in Uganda where 57 per cent of the population is below 18 years of age. They are born into broken social structures that condemn them to the consequences of child poverty. We fail them.

Child poverty is more than just money. It is about deprivation of two or more of the following basic child rights: Access to nutrition, health, water, education, shelter, sanitation, information and child protection.

Although child poverty in Uganda has reduced significantly in the past 10 years, skewed income distribution has resulted in the rich getting richer and the poor, poorer.

And as usual, it's the marginalised in rural areas and urban slums who bear the brunt, and yet, they ask not for much. At the hands of disparities and lack of equitable opportunities, children in rural areas are three times more likely to live in extreme poverty than their peers in urban areas.

A recent joint situation analysis of child poverty and deprivation in Uganda by Unicef Uganda and the government revealed nutrition is the most common form of deprivation accounting for 33 per cent of stunting in children. Thirty-six per cent of children walk an hour's return trip to fetch water, and 15 per cent of school-aged children have never attended school. Behind these percentages are real lives and hopes of a generation.

This stress is toxic to the ideal environment under which children are supposed to develop.

The good thing is we know what we need to do to address this absurd situation. The Integrated Early Childhood Development Policy is quite elaborate.

Under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); eradicating poverty, in all its forms, is Goal number one. There can be no more pervasive poverty than poverty that ravages the most vulnerable - children.

In a powerful and insightful brainstorming session at a recent event convened by UNICEF Uganda and the UN Foundation in Kampala, we reflected on the connection between Early Childhood Development and the Sustainable Development Goals. It is remarkable how interlinked they are.

Under the National Planning Framework of Uganda's National Development Plan (NDP) II, human capital development is recognised as one of the key pillars for achieving Vision 2040. A key component of this is investing in powerful early childhood development programs.

All said and done, if we are to lift all children out of poverty - one goal I know we can achieve - it cannot be business as usual. We cannot do the same thing over and over and expect different results.

It is our moral obligation to provide all our children their basic rights and access to equal chance in life. We cannot do that without targeting the vulnerable and marginalised. We owe it to them and to the future of this country.

Mr Masake works with Chapter Four Uganda.


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