Surviving Childhood in Africa – Malawi’s success story

There is worldwide agreement that a concerted effort is required to ensure children in under-developed regions, survive and thrive.  Progress on child survival in Sub-Saharan Africa has been patchy, but Malawi is an example of how a poor country can meet global goals.  Political leadership is vital, but NGOs, such as Women and Children First and its partners in Malawi can make an important contribution.

Photo Credit: Gates Foundation
Photo Credit: Gates Foundation (Flickr)

The Millennium Development Goals

The eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were agreed by world leaders in the year 2000.  Each of these goals helps to improve children’s lives, particularly through better health and education.

MDG 4 aims specifically to reduce the number of children who die before their fifth birthday. Using 1990 rates as a starting point, MDG 4 aims to cut deaths by two-thirds by the end of 2015. There has been progress towards this goal but more than 6 million under-fives still die each year, mostly from preventable causes. That’s 17,000 deaths daily. Newborn babies comprise the majority of these deaths.

Success in Malawi

The greatest number of under-fives deaths occur in Sub-Saharan Africa which suffers 15 times the average number of deaths compared to developed regions.

Malawi is one of the few countries in the region to have already reached the MDG 4 target. It has achieved a 72% reduction in under-fives deaths – a fantastic achievement in a very poor country.

So how has Malawi achieved this when neighbouring countries such as Zambia and Mozambique have not done so well?

Firstly, political will and leadership have been really important in setting the context for improvement at the highest levels.  Government policies for maternal and child health have ensured a positive environment for change.

Secondly, practical, low-cost interventions in health centres and in the community have helped considerably. The creation of Health Surveillance Assistants – a network of government employed health workers with basic skills – who live and work in the community have been responsible for delivering a broad range of services such as immunisation, giving health advice to mothers and treatment for diseases such as pneumonia, diarrhoea and malaria.  Ensuring children sleep under a mosquito net to protect them from malaria and encouraging mothers to breastfeed have also been promoted strongly and helped make a real difference.

Innovative ideas make a difference

Kangaroo care is a great example of a low-cost innovative idea which has been widely adopted. Basic equipment is often not available in Malawi’s health centres and incubators are in very short supply. Kangaroo care, where mothers cradle their infants skin-to-skin, helps keep premature babies warm and promotes bonding between mother and child.  This simple intervention can dramatically reduce the risk of hospital infections and hypothermia and encourage breastfeeding.

#Commit2Deliver for children in Africa

As a partner to Every Woman Every Child, Women & Children First is working with on-the-ground organisations in Africa to improve childhood survival.  We want to see governments and world leaders #Commit2Deliver to mobilize and intensify global action through mobilizing communities using far-reaching cost-effective community-based interventions to improve the health of children in Africa, and around the world.

Gates Foundation
Photo Credit: Gates Foundation (Flickr)

Ignorance is Not Innocence: Importance of Sexuality Education

Felogene Post2
Photo Credit: Suzanne Majani

Let us face it: Sex is everywhere. Music videos, television adverts, movies, online pornography, characters in games. Did you know that nine out of ten children aged between eight and sixteen have viewed pornography on the Internet? As a result, young people are receiving conflicting messages on their sexuality, view on relationships, identity and gender. With the evolution of the information age, young people can now transfer information freely and have instant access to knowledge that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to find. The repercussions are vast and varying, not limited to early sexual debut, teenage pregnancies, spread of HIV/AIDS, increased vulnerabilities to sexual abuse and risky sexual behavior.

Education is a central determinant for behavior change. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) identifies the primary goal of sexuality education as that “children and young people become equipped with the knowledge, skills and values to make responsible choices about their sexual and social relationships in a world affected by HIV.” Several global and regional frameworks have acknowledged the importance of sexuality education. The Common African Position on the post-2015 development agenda has called for the strengthening of school curricula by including the introduction of age appropriate and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health for all as part of quality education. For sexuality education to be effective, it needs to include the ABCs.

A – Age and Developmentally Appropriate

Children become curious about sexuality at different ages. Adults have the primary responsibility of shaping children’s future and ensuring they make informed decisions about their sexual lives.  More importantly this education can help avert child sexual abuse by providing an appropriate framework and context for educating young people about sexual abuse. For example, what is “good” and “bad” touch through exploring the body anatomy, how to resist pressure and how to report sexual abuse are all key components of sexuality education that are interlinked with prevention of sexual abuse.

B – Based on facts and Unbiased

Knowledge is power, more so with young people when it comes to decisions that affect their sexual lives. Education should not be used to scare or intimidate young people. As young people, we need to know that the society views us as leaders. Sex education programs need to share medically accurate facts about sex and sexuality. Young people should be trusted to make responsible decisions.

C – Comprehensive

Comprehensive education programs have been associated with positive behavior change among youth; postponement or delay of sexual initiation; reduction in frequency of sexual intercourse; reduction in the number of sexual partner/ increase in monogamy;  increase in the use of effective methods of contraception, including condoms.

With 500 days to the close of the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), last week, young people from over 13 countries in Africa attended a High Level Youth Policy Dialogue in Nairobi. I had the privilege of moderating a session at the event. During the meetings, youth asked leaders to prioritize comprehensive age-appropriate, medically accurate and unbiased sexuality education for use in and out of school. The post-2015 recommendations posited that sex education should aim to prevent unwanted pregnancies, new HIV infections, substance usage, harmful cultural practices and gender-based violence.

Can we really end FGM in a generation?

Can we really end FGM in a generation?

On 22 July, the UK government held the first Girl Summit, a day that focused on how to end Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Child, Early and Forced Marriage (CEFM) in a generation. FGM is the deliberate mutilation of women’s genitalia and has life-long mental and physical affects on their health. The Girl Summit was a fantastic day, full of commitments from leaders and ministers.

Before we can achieve the goal of ending FGM in a generation in the UK, there are many issues we need to address:

We need to understand why FGM happens

Every girl around the world is born free and fearless. In countries where FGM is practiced, many young girls are left broken and fearful. FGM is a gross violation of women’s rights and is a reflection of deep rooted patriarchal structures. The practice of FGM oppresses women and girls. As a result, they are often afraid to assert their rights and thus are continually dominated by men. Men control the society we live in, and practices like FGM exist so women continue to be disempowered. Patriarchy allows men to violate the rights of women and girls with impunity. Men who condone the practice of FGM believe this will guarantee that their future wife will be a virgin and remove a desire for other men.

FGM is a mechanism that many men use to control women and girls. The clitoris is a threat for men and FGM happens so the threat, is taken away. It is a threat for men who believe in FGM because they believe, they can use it to control a woman’s sexual behavior. The idea that some men feel that if a woman has a clitoris, she will be succumb to emotion beyond her control when she sees a man, is absurd.

We need to have honest conversations

In an earlier post, I highlighted how people feel uncomfortable saying the word “vagina.” If we can not say vagina, how can we talk honestly and openly about FGM? We have to be comfortable to talk about FGM, and mainstream it, so that everyone realizes that FGM is everybody’s business. In the UK, the general public is becoming more aware of FGM, but people need to realize that the practice happens in the UK to British girls.

We need to use the right language

I am angry that FGM is still described as a cultural and traditional practice which occurs to retain family ‘honor.’ Dismissing FGM as a cultural and traditional practice allows it to continue and cements the cycle of violence. This promotes violence and abuse against women and girls. There is nothing honourable about having your daughter’s blood on your hands. It is murder. We need to stop using language which sugar coats the violence that women and girls experience. FGM is the most serious form of child abuse, it is a violation of the inalienable human rights of women and girls.

We need to empower young women

Campaigners like Leyla Hussein are fighting against FGM in the UK, Photo Credit: Chris Beckett, Flickr Creative Commons
Campaigners like Leyla Hussein are fighting against FGM in the UK, Photo Credit: Chris Beckett, Flickr Creative Commons

As a young person, I think we need to empower young people to stand up and speak out against practices like FGM. As a young woman, I feel that it is imperative that we empower young women so they can stand up against practices like FGM. We need young women to understand that FGM is a form of oppression.

There are 140 million women and girls currently living with the effects of this harmful practice and millions more at risk. We can not see FGM as a disease that we want to ‘eradicate.’ Before we can really “eradicate” FGM we need to see it as one form of oppression and violence against women and girls. Together we can change systems of patriarchy and gender inequality in order to end the vicious cycle of FGM.


Cover Photo Credit: DFID

When Disaster Strikes, Mothers and Newborns Are the Most Vulnerable

Originally published on The Huffington Post.

UNHCR / F. Noy
European Commission / UNHCR / F. Noy via Flickr

What would you do if disaster struck? What would be the first thing you would think about if you found out that your family had to flee from your home? What would be on your mind as you struggle to stay hidden amongst air raids and bombed streets?

If disaster struck today — if a natural disaster swept away my entire community or if internal unrest escalated to a civil war — I know that I would think about how to stay safe, how to ensure that my family and friends could stay safe and how to keep my unborn baby alive and healthy.

For expecting mothers around the globe, this happens daily. Disaster does hit and they remain pregnant, with a growing baby in their womb that needs care, rest and nutrition. Yet, when we speak of disasters and conflict, we speak about who is to blame, we talk about peace-keeping and humanitarian operations, or we debate asylum for refugees — as a burden for the receiving countries.

What we often forget to speak about are the hundreds of thousands of women and girls who still need maternal health care. We forget to speak about the women and girls who risk giving birth in refugee camps, in evacuated villages or even on the road. Yesterday marked the 500 Day milestone until the deadline to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, and unfortunately, mothers and newborns — especially those in conflict and disaster — have not yet seen the sufficient progress, especially with regard to MDGs 4 and 5, related to newborn and maternal health.

This year’s State of the World’s Mothers Report, released by Save the Children, shows that mothers and children face the greatest risk of death during emergencies.

In 2014, an estimated 80 million people will be in need of humanitarian assistance due to conflict, persecution or natural disasters. The majority of these people are deeply impoverished and over three-quarters are women and children. Furthermore, for those who survive, their lives have been completely altered. Save the Children estimates that the average refugee situation lasts 17 years!

The civil war in Syria is now in its 4th year. It is estimated that 1,000 women and children have been killed in conflict every month. Yet, several hundreds (if not thousands) more have died due to food shortages and the lack of medical care. Women in Syria no longer have a reliable health-care system to access essential maternal, antenatal and neonatal services. Prior to the conflict, Syria was on track to meet the Millennium Development Goals related to maternal and child health, yet the conflict threatens to set back several decades of progress.

Around the world, mothers and their babies need us. The countries with the highest rates of maternal mortality are countries with internal conflict or other emergencies. Thus, we cannot discuss maternal, newborn and child health without speaking about peace and security.

As we discuss the situation in occupied Palestine, the horrific persecution of Christians in Northern Iraq, the ongoing conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia, and the heinous crimes of Boko Haram in Nigeria and beyond — we must remember the mothers and the children who are hit the hardest.

The suffering will only end once we collectively speak up, make our voices heard and in solidarity chime in with their suffering to hold our leaders accountable.

Now is the time to ensure that global and national action is taken, not only to accelerate progress to meet the Millennium Development Goals that are due in exactly 500 days, but to ensure that the goals and targets that are set up in the post-2015 agenda include specific attention to the women and children in conflict settings.

Here are a few things you can do to make a difference:

  • Join the online conversation using #MDGMomentum
  • Contact your government officials to see what your country is doing to support women and children in conflict and emergency settings
  • Read the recommendations in Save the Children’s State of the World’s Mothers Report
  • Read the recommendations in the Every Newborn Action Plan
  • Tell the world what you will do to #Commit2Deliver for women and children
  • Foremost, raise your voice and let others know that you will not stay silent about the women and children affected by conflict and emergencies.

Envisioning a World Where Youth Voices Matter

Originally posted on Huffington Post

As a tenacious 12-year-old girl, a “top secret” girls meeting took place in the basement of a community youth room with my closest friends. During this meeting, I boldly encouraged my friends to consider their worth, strength and value as young girls. Little did I know at the time that my platform for women and girls’ advocacy had just begun. As a young girl, I believed that my friends and other young girls were catalysts for change in their schools, communities and faith groups. During my adolescence, the powerful challenge to empower young women resonated throughout my spheres of influence.

My message was simple: Your voice matters.

In just a few weeks, I will celebrate my 30th birthday. In most areas of the world, I am still counted as a youth. Now more than ever, I believe in listening to and empowering other young women to share their voices, ideas and stories. I have met amazing young women who are advocating for and creating change in their communities. I am inspired by girls like Emmanuella Manjolo, who at the age of thirteen used her voice to publish an article and speak out against child marriage in Malawi. As a result, more young girls in Malawi now understand their rights and are also becoming advocates for change.

I met Gogongtlejang Phaladi, at the 2014 Partners Forum. She is a young woman from Botswana who is a strong advocate for gender equality and human rights. At the age of five, Gogongtlejang spoke out against injustices happening to children in her country. She established the Gogongtlejang Phaladi Hope Project which builds relationships with orphans, refugees and those marginalized by society and provides them with food, clothing and other in-kind needs. Gogongtlejang continues to lead her foundation and uses her voice to raise awareness about the rights and health of women and girls.

I also met Zanele Mabaso. She is a youth representative for the United Nations Population Fund Youth Advisory Panel. Zanele speaks out for youth in her community of Pretoria, South Africa. She created the Young Social Entrepreneurs Academy which strives to offer creative solutions to solve socio-economic challenges for young people in Africa. The Academy empowers young unemployed South Africans living in Gauteng Province. As a result of her work, graduates are empowered with professional skills and offered additional tools to help them excel in a career. Her strong advocacy work and voice for youth has now reached young people all over Africa. Each day, I have the privilege of raising my voice alongside 31 amazing young women who are actively a part of the Girls’ Globe network. These young women work around the world to improve the lives of women and girls.

Young people are making significant strides to raise their voices for global change. Yet, a growing gap remains in the effective implementation of their ideas at the international level. As we craft the new post-2015 framework and other international development agendas we must involve youth, specifically young women, in the conversations. Youth are on the front lines empowering women and girls and fighting for gender equality. Young people are working to improve maternal and child health, combat slavery, alleviate poverty, foster entrepreneurship and make a difference in communities.

This generation is carrying the torch of influence. As organizational leaders, activists, governments, civil society and the private sector we must allow them to move forward. We must listen to and implement their ideas. This week, we celebrate youth around the world. As a global community, we must commit to listen to and celebrate young people every day.

What does the world I want look like?

I want to live in a world where we truly value the voices of young women and girls. It is my hope that the World We all Want includes listening and valuing young people’s perspectives.

Youth voices matter.

Empowering young women to become agents of their own change is key. Young people are the future and their voices are incredibly important. We must bridge the gap between those working at a grassroots level and those making decisions in the international arena. In order for true change to occur, youth should be included in global conversations, and policy and decision-making processes.

Cover Photo Credit: DFID, Flickr Creative Commons