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Malnutrition, Poverty Face Children in West, Central Africa

A regional meeting on children and poverty in western and central Africa opened in Gabon with more than 100 delegates participating. Some of the challenges needing urgent attention include the lack of education for girls and child trafficking.

Almost half the population in the region is under 15, but job opportunities are few.

Aid agencies say that in the Sahelian belt, from Cape Verde in the west to Chad in the east, about one million children and women suffer from acute malnutrition.

Gianpietro Bordignon, from the World Food Program, says high fertility rates combined with slow economic development will increase challenges in the years ahead.

"Many of the countries in the region have appallingly high malnutrition rates," said Mr. Bordignon. "The whole region - in fact the continent - is facing a major demographic problem because the population will more than double from now until 2050, so altogether these are problems that are a challenge for us in the face of insufficient resources."

Representatives for donor countries and financial institutions are among those attending the three-day meeting in Libreville. Organizers include the World Food Program, along with other United Nations agencies, such as the children's fund UNICEF, and the Population Fund.

Mr. Bordignon says the World Food Program will stress the importance of education for girls, so they can empower themselves in reproductive matters.

"It has been proven by independent research that as soon as a girl and then a woman can go through the first cycle of education, there are immediate results on the reproductive health, on the control of her decisions on her reproductive health," he said.

UNICEF says only 35 percent of women in the region can read and write, compared to 57 percent of men.

Another issue seen as needing urgent attention is the trafficking of young boys and girls for forced labor, despite assurances by governments that this practice will be eradicated.

New York-based Human Rights Watch recently disclosed evidence of child trafficking in at least six countries in the region.

Researcher Jonathan Cohen says meetings such as the one in Libreville are good to find common ground on commitment, but actually doing the work to improve the plight of children is still lacking.

"We documented two broad types of trafficking," said Mr. Cohen. "The first was the trafficking of girls into domestic labor predominantly in Gabon, but also in Nigeria and in Benin and Niger. The second was the trafficking of boys into agricultural labor, principally in Benin and in southwestern Nigeria.

"One of our major concerns," he continued, "is always that there is going to be a lot of talk and no action. There are a number of very important regional efforts that are occurring to combat child trafficking, but there is a lack of coordination."

Mr. Cohen says more aggressive cross-border prosecution of child traffickers is needed.

Organizers of the meeting in Libreville say one of their aims will be to better coordinate efforts between governments, and between aid agencies. Aid workers say that all too often in the past different United Nations agencies worked separately on different country projects. Now they say, they are finally trying to tackle problems in a concerted manner and on a regional basis.