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UNICEF Marks African Children's Day - 2004-06-16

The United Nations Children's Fund says some 60 million children in sub-Saharan Africa are in vulnerable situations because of poverty, disease and war. UNICEF says strong families are vital to protect children against exploitation.

In 1976, the African Union designated June 16 as the Day of the African Child. This was to commemorate the massacre of hundreds of children who were protesting against South Africa's policy of apartheid in Sharpville, a settlement near Soweto.

The U.N. Children's Fund says thousands of African children continue to die because of war and poverty. UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa, Rima Salah, says the African family traditionally has provided children with a protective environment. However, she says the African family has been weakened by conflict and poverty and is no longer playing this important role.

"We have 60 million children in west and central Africa, 60 million children are in vulnerable situations," she noted. "They are the children that are trafficked. They are the children that are enrolled in the army. They are the children that are also exploited sexually. They are the children that are working in very difficult circumstances."

U.N. statistics present a gloomy picture. The United Nations estimates 14 million African children have lost one or both parents to AIDS. One million children are orphaned by armed conflict, 1.2 million children are trafficked every year and another two million are sexually exploited through prostitution and pornography.

Ms. Salah says UNICEF believes the family remains the best defense against such exploitation and must be strengthened so that it can play its protective role.

She says the African Union has come up with a strategy for shoring up families and will present it to African leaders at a meeting in Addis Ababa early next month.

The UNICEF Official says a key element of the strategy is to put the family at the center of development.

"Most of the countries in Africa are developing strategies to reduce poverty," she explained. "But, unfortunately, families are not part of this. So now, I think the African Union is putting the family as the center of development. The second thing is empowerment. Access of the families to basic social services is very important because poverty is not only economic poverty. Poverty is ignorance. Poverty is isolation. Poverty is also the lack of access to services."

Ms. Salah says the strategy will work only if African leaders are held accountable for their actions. Too often in the past, she said, the leaders have made promises to their people, but did not deliver.