Protecting Children’s Rights – An Imperative, Not an Option

Chargé d'Affaires a.i. David J. Young
Chargé d’Affaires a.i. David J. Young  

June 1, 2014 – by German Ambassador Bernd Finke and U.S. Chargé d’Affaires David Young

June 1 is International Children’s Day. It is a day to recall the aspirations, rights and, sadly, all too often the plight of the children of the world. International Children’s Day was proclaimed in 1925. Our societies have seen fundamental changes since then. But some truths remain valid: we were all children once; children remain the most vulnerable members of our societies; each generation of parents wants to create a better future for their children; and the well-being of our children must be a universally cherished aspiration. The stakes are high: if we fail a child today, we will fail our tomorrow.

On International Children’s Day we recognize the fundamental importance of children to our lives, our families, and our futures. We celebrate the joy that children bring to our communities. For many of the world’s 2.2 billion children, however, the future holds little hope. The statistics provided by UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, are sobering. Nearly 300 million boys and girls live with violence, exploitation, or abuse, including child labor, armed conflict, defilement, and harmful cultural practices. Approximately 75 million of them do not have access to education, and up to 55 percent live in fragile states. Nearly 10 million children die of preventable diseases every year (more than 27,000 every single day), and 40 percent of these die in their first month of life. International Children’s Day urges us not to turn a blind eye to these facts.

Zambia is a country blessed with a very young population. More than 50 percent of Zambians are under 18. Last week we visited St. Lawrence Home of Hope, a shelter for homeless children near Msisi compound. There we learned about the plight of Lusaka’s many street kids and how many of them are trapped in a cycle of poverty and abuse. Likewise, when we have visited maternity wards across Zambia we have noted many early pregnancies and early marriages. We have heard the sad figures of high child mortality rates and met some of the 600,000 AIDS orphans.

In Zambia many projects have achieved concrete results. We salute First Lady Christine Kaseba Sata for her pivotal role in speaking against early marriages and promoting children’s and mothers’ rights. The Zambian Government, with UNICEF support, is committed to the promotion of maternal and child health. Zambia has made steady progress on primary school enrollment and completion rates. Germany and the United States are active in the fight against HIV, including strengthening life skills in order to prevent infections. And our two countries put a special focus on improving access to safe drinking water and sanitation.

While the challenges are manifold, there is one area of particular concern to us where we call for increased commitment. We all must speak out against violence against children, especially girls. Children in Zambia continue to be vulnerable to child abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, beatings and violence.

What can we do? There is a Health and Wellness Survey being planned for August involving seven Ministries, UNICEF, and the United States that will help define the extent of violence against children in Zambia. We also plan to support increased training of key influential groups and access to services including health and psychosocial support for abused children. On ending child marriage, we are partnering with the Ministry of Chiefs and Traditional Affairs to roll out a campaign to end child marriage in targeted chiefdoms. And we applaud NGOs such as Zambia’s Media Network on Child Rights and Development that have recently highlighted early childhood education and other child’s rights programs in the media.

No doubt greater programming to protect children’s rights is good investment. At the same time, what is critical is a fundamental change of consciousness among fathers, mothers, siblings, friends, neighbors, schoolmates and teachers. We need opinion leaders, religious leaders and traditional leaders to speak out against child violence and help shape attitudes against it. Child violence is a severe crime, and not a petty offense or an excusable expression of traditional customs. Fighting for our children’s rights and welfare is an obligation we must fulfill.

Fighting violence against children requires zero tolerance, and we commend President Michael Sata and Minister of Gender and Child Development Inongwe Wina for advocating this approach in Zambia. We need to make the fight against child violence a part of the daily business of all of us. Addressing violence against children must become a responsibility that cuts across all fields of society. The Zambian media should enhance reporting on child protection; pastors should make the evil of child abuse a constant theme of their preaching; and traditional leaders should act as champions of children’s rights in their chiefdoms. A special responsibility falls upon us men: Our attitudes and actions as men will influence how both our sons and daughters behave, think and feel throughout their lives. As violence against girls and women can be handed down from father to son, so too can gentleness, fairness and openness.

With a view to reinvigorate the fight for children’s rights, the American and German embassies are organizing a meeting with church leaders, traditional leaders, civil society organizations, journalists and other stakeholders to discuss ways to further fight child violence in Zambia. We want to participate in a coalition of men and women who work hard to have Zambia’s children experience childhood free of violence and full of joy and peace.