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2006: A Terrible Year for Africa's Children

Africa has the highest infant and under-five child-mortality rate in the world. It also has the lowest life expectancy at birth. The statistics paint a grim picture of what it means to be a child in Africa. The past year has seen children caught in conflict, children killed, abused and exploited. But, within this gloomy scenario, some bright spots of hope emerge. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

The U.N. Children's Fund sees the situation of children in Africa as a patchwork quilt of good and bad news, but, mostly bad.

"An absolutely, absolutely terrible year for children in Africa. We are looking at man-made as well as natural disasters. In the Horn of Africa, particularly bad, " said UNICEF spokesman, Michael Bociurkiw.

He says about 1.5 million people are affected by heavy flooding in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia.

"By the end of the year, right around the time people are celebrating Christmas in other parts of the world, we are talking about three million people affected by the floods. And, a high percentage of that is children. I would say at least one-third are children that are being affected," he added.

And, then, he says, there is the scourge of AIDS, which has orphaned children in unprecedented numbers.

"For example, by the end of 2005, 12 million children across sub-Saharan Africa had been orphaned by AIDS," he said. "You have a lot of stories in places like Darfur, for instance, of children if not losing their parents, they themselves are victims of killings, of torture, of being drafted into military service. You name it, the problems are there."

"The refugee children are facing the same kind of problem that all forcible displaced persons are facing," said Marie-Christine Boucom, Deputy Director of the African bureau at the U.N. refugee agency. "That means security, the need for assistance. But, because of the natural vulnerability, because they are children, they are also exposed to some additional problems."

She says women and children comprise three-quarters of the 2.6 million refugees in Africa. And, 44 percent of them are children under 18. She says refugee children are sometimes separated from their parents. It may take years before their parents are traced. Sometimes, they are never found.

"Because of their vulnerability, they may be much more exposed or sexually abused," she said. "And, also to military recruitment. You know countries that are under a conflict, this is a recurrent problem of recruitment of children."

The United Nations says there are an estimated 300,000 child soldiers around the world. Most are fighting in conflicts in Africa.

In the midst of these tragedies, Bocum says there is some good news to report. She says many long-enduring conflicts have ended, and after years in exile thousands of refugees are going home. She says about 90,000 refugees have gone back to Sudan and more than 400,000 refugees and internally displaced people have returned to Liberia.

"We also have a repatriation to DRC, Democratic Republic of Congo, which is going on well. The repatriation to Angola is almost at an end. So, there are some success stories at least. So, it is not all bad," she said.

A recent report by the World Health Organization calls sub-Saharan Africa the most dangerous region in the world for a baby to be born. It says nearly 1.2 million babies die in the first 28 days of life. But, it says about 800,000 of these lives could be saved by applying a few simple medical procedures.

WHO Child and Adolescent Health Department Director Elizabeth Mason says they include immunizing women against tetanus to prevent neo-natal tetanus and providing a skilled attendant at birth.

"Treating newborn infections promptly and educating mothers about proper hygiene, keeping the baby warm and exclusively breast-feeding their infant," she said. "These interventions are also not expensive. They would cost approximately, $1.39 US per capita or one billion dollars a year."

Dr. Mason says six low-income African countries have made significant progress in reducing deaths among newborn babies by using some of these measures. She says the reduction ranges from 47 percent in Eritrea, to 39 percent in Burkina Faso and 20 percent in Tanzania and Malawi.