The Day of the African Child as a call on government and other stakeholders to address social and cultural practices that have a negative impact on the life and development of children in Sierra Leone.
On 16 June 1976 hundreds of pupils protested in Soweto against the South African Education System. Their peaceful demonstration was brutally put down by the police who shot hundreds of children. In memory of this sad and violent example of a government ignoring the needs and demands of children, the 16th June has become the Day of the African Child (DAC) and is used as a platform to address the challenges children in African countries are facing in their respective environment. This year’s theme of the DAC is “Eliminating harmful social and cultural practices affecting children: our collective responsibility.” The objective is to draw attention to social and cultural practices that are harmful for children and their development.
In Sierra Leone harmful traditional practices are among the many factors that hamper development and prevent the country from reaching the Millennium Development Goals. Social and cultural practices are one main contributor to the high child and maternal mortality rates the country is struggling with. For the Agenda for Prosperity to ‘prosper’ to its full potential and lead the country out of poverty and bad health, these practices have to be addressed and eliminated.
Malnutrition for example is the underlying cause of 40% of children’s death in Sierra Leone. Exclusive breastfeeding during the first six months of an infant’s life is the safest and cheapest way of preventing a child from becoming malnourished. At the same time the mother through the breast milk transfers her immune system to the child and protects him or her from disease. And yet in Sierra Leone only 31% of women exclusively breastfeed their children for six months. Some women believe it is important to add water to the breast milk; others stop breastfeeding early because they believe if they have sexual intercourse while still nursing the milk will go bad. While in fact sex does not have any influence on the quality of the milk, the early weaning off or watering down of breast milk puts the infant at high risk of malnourishment and disease.
But it is not only habits related to nutrition that prevent children in Sierra Leone from growing up healthy and develop to their full potential. About a month ago the government of Sierra Leone launched a strategy to prevent teenage pregnancies, acknowledging that this phenomenon poses a serious barrier to development in the country. Among the multiple causes behind this problem are lack of knowledge on reproductive health and inhibiting attitudes towards contraceptives as well as cultural practices like early marriage and gender roles which do not allow girls to make their own decisions.
The consequences of early pregnancies are alarming: Teenage pregnancies are the reason for about 40% of maternal deaths and the leading cause of death for adolescent girls. Teenage mothers face a much higher risk of developing serious complications during child birth such as fistula. Teenage pregnancies also greatly contribute to reinforcing the cycle of poverty in the country: The girl drops out of school and without a proper educational background will not be able to earn a living for herself and the child. The lack of education and knowledge will lead to the teenage mother engaging into harmful practices when raising her child – starting with not knowing how to feed her child properly, when to bring it to the health center and how to protect it from disease.
A traditional practice furthering teenage pregnancies in Sierra Leone is child marriage. The practice affects both sexes, but girls in much greater number. Although Sierra Leonean law forbids marriage under the age of 18, 16% of girls are getting married under the age of 15 and 50% under the age of 18. Married children are usually removed from their immediate family and friends, taken out of school and denied interaction with their peers. In their isolation especially child brides are at great risk of becoming victim of abuse, violence and exploitation.
Another harmful practice affecting the girls in Sierra Leone is Female Genital Cutting (FGC). Families and individuals practice FGC, because they believe the girls need to be cut to qualify for marriage. At the same time FGC is in Sierra Leone associated with becoming a full member of society. Experiencing FGC is always traumatic with immediate complications such as excruciate pain, shock, urine retention, ulceration of the genitals and injury to adjacent tissue. Other potential complications include blood poisoning, infertility and obstructed labour. Many parents are aware of the harm this practice brings to their daughter, but they believe it would bring greater harm to her if they don’t confirm to this obligation and leave her at risk of becoming an outcast of society.
Changing traditional practices requires a strong political will and a fundamental legal basis. The government of Sierra Leone has demonstrated its commitment towards children by signing the Child Rights Act which prohibits all forms of violence against children. Furthermore UNICEF and other stakeholders have been supporting the government in drafting a child protection policy which included a comprehensive review of existing laws as well as consultations with various stakeholders to ensure proper coordination of planned actions. However, the laws and policies will only have an impact if they are implemented effectively including the allocation of adequate financial and human resources. A substantial lack of capacity in regards to human resources and a budget allocation of only 0.9% to social welfare are substantial barriers to putting good plans into practice.
Another important aspect of change is that it cannot only come from government level alone, society needs to be willing to join in as well. Traditional and religious leaders and other networks on community level have to become part of the battle. They are the ones who have the power to show people that most harmful practices are actually not defining their culture. Without harmful traditional practices, the Sierra Leonean people and culture would still be the same and it would have a big advantage: Eliminating the harmful practices can save thousands of lives and contribute substantially to the development of the country. If all stakeholders on all levels agree on that and work together, Sierra Leone has good chances to prosper as planned for in the Agenda for Prosperity and we can look forward to low child and maternal mortality rates and a self-confident female population which is eager and able to contribute to the development of their country.