Little to celebrate as day is marked
As the world marks the day of the African child this year, the pertinent question that must be addressed is whether the discriminatory attitudes and practices deeply rooted in cultures and traditions of some African Societies have changed.
In 1976, thousands of black children took to the streets in South Africa to protest against the injustices of apartheid, inferior quality of education and refused to be taught in Afrikaans. They paid the price with their lives.
Because the population of Africa is very young, issues involving it’s youth are critical. Since daughters are generally less valued in many cultures as much as sons, they are allocated fewer resources within the existing frames of operation; be it within the family, schools, and churches.
Looking at the girl-child, whose needs are varied and far outweighs that of their male counterparts, more often they end up undernourished and overworked as compared with the boys and the tendency for them to enter womanhood already disadvantaged is very common today as it was in 1976 when those children were killed in Soweto.
Although orphans in general are a vulnerable group, especially with HIV/AIDS pandemic, these children end up being underfed, under educated, and generally neglected by their caretakers.
Lillian 38, a single mother living with AIDS in Nairobi had this to say, "I have constant pain and there is no help for us – just for the rich people who can afford drugs – but if I can find someone to look after my children I can die in peace”.
HIV/AIDS was declared a national disaster in Kenya in 1999 by the then president Daniel arap Moi. But it is a more serious problem to the children left behind to fend for themselves. An estimated one million orphans in the country represent only a fraction of the population of children affected by Aids, which includes those withdrawn from schools to care for the sick relative or parent, those in families caring for orphans and those who have had to become bread winners to replace the income of a sick parent.
Kennedy Kadenge, 15, lost his father 5 years ago when in class 6. When he got to class 8, his mother became ill and bedridden. He sat for his exams but for lack of school fees and support from close relatives he had to repeat class 8 with the hope that things will be better the second time round.
But no, luck came his way. Living in Nyanza province along the shores of Lake Victoria his fate was already sealed, his choice and that of many children like him was to seek employment and fend for his little brothers and sisters including his sickly mother who has since passed away.
Said Kadenge: “I try to do anything to keep us going, our home has now been closed, my young sisters have been taken in by relatives, maybe for me I’ll go back to class 8 and accumulate as many certificates as I can because now there is free Primary education”. His voice echoes those of many children in the AIDS ravaged homes, especially in western Kenya where HIV/AIDS prevalence rates are astronomical.
According to Millie Odhiambo, director of Child Rights Advisory Documentation and Legal Centre [CRADLE], “this is a common story, and it is more than just a bureaucratic run – around; children actually face problems in the system that adults don’t face, whether in situation of war, poverty, HIV/AIDS. Society must wake up to listen to their voices".
Sadly, the capability of the state to protect the right of AIDS affected children is impeded by the impact of AIDS itself, including the epidemics weakening of the extended family and the community based structures. Nonetheless, provision for these children affected by AIDS cannot be put off, because doing otherwise means ignoring those same rights of children and lack of protection and amplifying the same in succeeding generations as the epidemic rages on.
Although many forms of violence and abuse are found in cultural and traditional practices one of it being control to the girl-child. Control of women is culturally practiced and in many cases, it adds to the hindrances in life with which the girl child is already faced. Other forms of abuses like early marriage, son prefences, early child bearing, female genital mutilation are part and parcel of the life of today’s girl child just as it was many years ago.
In order to celebrate the girl child, society therefore needs special attention and focuses on her in order to grow up with the health, confidence and education necessary to take her place with dignity and equality to the male children in society. And culture should equip her with the necessary skills of being a valuable productive member of the society and not only to be a wife and mother.
All those who have a stake in keeping practices and attitudes harmful to children must be enlisted and dialogue in order to change these traditions. Parents, religious and traditional leaders, media, policy and law makers all have to be aware of the negative impact of the many practices in our cultures and encourage people to value and change the status given to children in the society.
This must be done however, with a lot of sensitivity to what some people stand to loose through cultural changes. A lot of power status, and priority is bestowed upon many of those who keep cultural practices and to a lesser extent to those subjected to them.
However, all is not lost. Throughout the African continent, opportunities and rights denied are now being openly discussed and given attention to some extent in policy and planning at different levels.
But as the day of the African Child is marked this year, it must be realized that development will never take place when archaic-traditional and cultural practices are with us each day, and if the majority of the population is subjected to those same traditions. The young people of Africa must demand the change to those practices, just like their counterparts in Soweto did in 1976. Only then shall the African child be truly celebrated.