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Report: African Children Need 'Education Friendly' Laws to Thrive

Children listen to a school teacher after the reopening of Mahamane Fondogoumo elementary school in the town center of Timbuktu, Mali, February 1, 2013.
A new study finds opportunities for millions of children around the world are being limited by the failure of governments to enact adequate policy measures in areas seen as vital to a child’s healthy development. Researchers say this is particularly true in Africa, where critical gaps exist between what can be done and what is being done.

In a report released Wednesday, the World Policy Analysis Research Center, a University of California-based data center that studies global social and economic policy, said that while many countries around the world have made “impressive advances” when it comes to improving the lives of children, it isn’t enough.

Jody Heymann, founding director of the World Policy Analysis Center and a lead author on the report, and a team of researchers spent seven years looking at data from 193 countries around the world.

Heymann said that many countries have made great progress in improving a child’s welfare, but the goal now should be to see a child not only survive, but also to thrive.

“Certainly, there is no more fundamental goal than child survival. But for any of us - in our own families, communities, neighborhoods - we wouldn’t be satisfied with child survival being enough. So what would a reasonable goal mean? I think an equal chance at healthy development during childhood and an equal chance for a full and productive adulthood that follows it,” said Heymann.

Heymann said this includes such things as providing affordable, quality education to all school-age children, enforcing laws on child labor, enacting measures that allow parents to better provide for their children, and promoting equal rights and anti-discrimination policies, especially for girls and disabled children.

She said that when it comes to implementing and enacting such measures, government action does make a difference. One example is education.

“With the Millennium Development Goals, there was a great commitment to primary education, and in fact, there’s been incredibly important progress. Right now, only eight countries remain that charge any tuition for primary. Because there’s practically no tuition charge, children around the world, regardless of whether their families are living in poverty or not, get to attend primary school,” said Heymann.

Heymann said the same commitment must now be made for secondary education.

In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, more than 60 percent of countries still charge for secondary education. This has forced many students, particularly the poor and marginalized, to drop out after primary school.

Implementing such initiatives isn't always easy, especially in developing nations, where governments often face disproportionate political and financial challenges.

The African Union’s head of social welfare, John Strydom, recognizes these challenges, but said there is no reason why a country cannot adhere to the AU’s charters and action plans relating to the rights and welfare of children.

“There is no excuse that our children should go uncared for on this continent. Some of our low-income countries are doing very well. So that is not in itself a reason why the needs of children cannot be catered for," Strydom. "The chances that they implement the provisions of these legal instruments are very good, because they have to report back to the African Union and it will not look good if they haven’t done proper, or good, child-friendly budgeting.”

In cases where funding is a concern, Heymann said there still are many policies with no that have associated financial cost that can improve a child’s opportunities.

“[One example is] child marriage. Child marriage is a huge barrier to girls completing secondary school. It puts their health at tremendous risk because girls are far more likely to marry young than boys. When they do, their own health is threatened by early pregnancy, which tends to follow, and the health of their child,” she said.

Heymann said the data shows that once countries implement and enact measures, such as a minimum age for marriage, major transformations can be seen on the overall welfare of children within the course of just a few years.