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COVID-19: African countries urged to promote a safe return to school

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A primary school student studies at home in Kibera, Kenya. © UNICEF/Brian Otieno

School closures implemented to protect students from COVID-19, are hurting them in other ways, while the long-term impact of this disruption to education could create a “lost generation” in Africa, two UN agencies said on Thursday. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF urged governments on the continent to promote a safe return to the classroom while also limiting spread of the virus. 

“Schools have paved the way to success for many Africans. They also provide a safe haven for many children in challenging circumstances to develop and thrive,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.  

“We must not be blind-sided by our efforts to contain COVID-19 and end up with a lost generation. Just as countries are opening businesses safely, we can reopen schools. This decision must be guided by a thorough risk analysis to ensure the safety of children, teachers and parents and with key measures like physical distancing put in place.” 

Closed classrooms, poor outcomes 

A WHO survey of 39 sub-Saharan African countries has revealed that schools are open in only six nations and partially open in 19.  Schools are closed in 14 nations, although 12 plan to resume classroom learning in September, the start of the academic year. 

The disruption to education has resulted in poor nutrition, stress, increased exposure to violence and exploitation, childhood pregnancies, and overall challenges in the mental development of children. 

UNICEF found violence against children has increased in Eastern and Southern Africa.  With 10 million children missing out on school meals, nutrition rates have decreased, with especially high risk among girls, particularly those who have been displaced or from low-income households. 

Potential future earnings losses 

Meanwhile, the World Bank has highlighted the potential long-term social and economic impact of shutdowns in sub-Saharan Africa, which could result in lifetime earning losses of $4,500 per child. 

“The long-term impact of extending the school shutdown risks ever greater harm to children, their future and their communities”, said UNICEF Regional Director for Eastern & Southern Africa, Mohamed M. Malick Fall.  

“When we balance the harm being done to children locked out of schools, and if we follow the evidence, it leads children back into the classroom.” 

Keeping COVID-19 out of the classroom 

WHO, UNICEF and the International Federation of the Red Cross recently issued guidance on COVID-19 prevention and control in schools.  

It covers recommendations for physical distancing measures, such as staggering the beginning and end of the school day, spacing desks when possible, and providing handwashing facilities.   

“The long-term impact of extending the school shutdown risks ever greater harm to children, their future and their communities”, said UNICEF Regional Director for Eastern & Southern Africa, Mohamed M. Malick Fall.  

“When we balance the harm being done to children locked out of schools, and if we follow the evidence, it leads children back into the classroom.” 

While also recommending other important measures, such as regular handwashing and daily cleaning of surfaces, a recent report by the two UN agencies found millions of children attend schools that lack water and sanitation services. 

In sub-Saharan Africa, only a quarter of schools have basic hygiene services while less than half have basic sanitation. 

The COVID-19 pandemic thus provides an opportunity for investment and innovative thinking to address these shortages, according to the UN agencies. 

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Africa Today

Madagascar: Severe drought could spur world’s first climate change famine

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Children under five are among the most affected by malnutrition in southern Madagascar. © WFP/Tsiory Andriantsoarana

More than one million people in southern Madagascar are struggling to get enough to eat, due to what could become the first famine caused by climate change, according to the World Food Programme (WFP). 

The region has been hit hard by successive years of severe drought, forcing families in rural communities to resort to desperate measures just to survive. 

Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the world, has a unique ecosystem which includes animals and plants found nowhere else on the planet. The country experiences a dry season, usually from May to October, and a rainy season that starts in November.  

Daily life disrupted 

However, climate change has disrupted the cycle, affecting smallholder farmers and their neighbours, said Alice Rahmoun, WFP Communications Officer in the capital, Antananarivo, speaking to UN News on Thursday. 

“There is of course less rain, so when there is the first rain, they can maybe have hope and sow some seeds. But one little rain is not a proper rainy season,” she said.  

“So, what we can say is that the impacts of climate change are really stronger and stronger….so harvests fail constantly, so people don’t have anything to harvest and anything to renew their food stocks.” 

Varying impacts 

Ms. Rahmoun was recently in southern Madagascar, where WFP and partners are supporting hundreds of thousands of people through short and long-term assistance.   

The impact of the drought varies from place to place, she said. While some communities have not had a proper rainy season for three years, the situation might be even worse 100 kilometres away.  

She recalled seeing villages surrounded by dried-out fields, and tomato plants which were “completely yellow, or even brown”, from lack of water.  

Surviving on locusts 

“In some areas they are still able to plant something, but it’s not easy at all, so they are trying to grow sweet potatoes.  But in some other areas, absolutely nothing is growing right now, so people are just surviving only eating locusts, eating fruits and cactus leaves,” said Ms. Rahmoun.   

“And, just as an example, cactus leaves are usually for cattle; it is not for human consumption.”   

The situation is even more dire because, she added, “even the cactus are dying from the drought, from the lack of rain and the lack of water, so it’s really, really worrying”. 

Families barely coping  

The plight of families is also deeply troubling. “People have already started to develop coping mechanisms to survive,” she said.  

“And that means that they are selling cattle, for example, to get money to be able to buy food, when before, they were able to get food and feed themselves from their own field production, so it’s really changing the daily life for people.” 

Valuable assets such as fields, or even houses, are also put up for sale.  Some families have even pulled their children out of school. 

“It’s also a strategy right now to gather the family’s forces on finding income-generating activities involving children, so this has obviously a direct impact on education,” Ms. Rahmoun said. 

Providing life-saving aid 

WFP is collaborating with humanitarian partners, and the Malagasy Government, to provide two types of response to the crisis.  Some 700,000 people are receiving life-saving food aid, including supplementary products to prevent malnutrition. 

“The second one is more long-term response to allow local communities to be able to prepare for, respond to and recover from climate shocks better,” said Ms. Rahmoun. “So, this includes resilience projects such as water projects.  We’re doing irrigation canals, reforestation and even microinsurance to help smallholder farmers to recover from a lost harvest, for example.” 

WFP ultimately aims to support up to one million people between now and April, and is seeking nearly $70 million to fund operations.  “But we are also involving more partners to find and fund climate change solutions for the community to adapt to the impacts of climate change in southern Madagascar.” 

COP26: Prioritize adaptation 

In just over a week, world leaders will gather in Glasgow, Scotland, for the COP26 UN climate change conference, which UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called the last chance to “literally turn the tide” on an ailing planet. 

Ms. Rahmoun said WFP wants to use the conference to shift the focus from crisis response, to risk management.  

Countries must be prepared for climate shocks, and they must act together to reduce severe impacts on the world’s most vulnerable people, which includes the villagers of southern Madagascar. 

“COP26 is also an opportunity for us to ask governments and donors to prioritize funding relating to climate adaptation programmes, to help countries to build a better risk management system, and even in Madagascar, because if nothing is done, hunger will increase exponentially in the coming years because of climate change,” she said, adding: “not only in Madagascar, but in other countries.”

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Africa Today

‘Overzealous’ security services undermining South Sudan peace

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South Sudan has suffered years of underdevelopment, corruption and conflict. UNMISS/Amanda Voisard

State security forces in South Sudan have been responsible for imposing new and potentially arbitrary restrictions against the country’s most prominent civil society leaders, issuing “credible” death threats that have undermined peace efforts, UN-appointed independent rights experts said on Wednesday. 

In an alert, the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan alleged that “overzealous” security forces had prevented dissent so dramatically, that civic space was now eroding “at an accelerating pace”, forcing rights defenders to flee and discouraging others from taking their place. 

“The State’s targeting of high-profile human rights defenders will have a chilling effect on civil society and will discourage public participation and corrode confidence in the important processes of transitional justice, constitution making and national elections, which are essential for the success of the transition envisaged by the 2018 Revitalised Peace Agreement,” said Commissioner Andrew Clapham.  

Communication breakdown 

The actions of the National Security Services (NSS) have included detentions, raids, a likely internet shutdown and an enhanced security presence on the streets of Juba, the panel said in a statement. 

Those targeted by threats, harassment and intimidation have included prominent human rights defenders, journalists and civil society actors. Many have played a key role in the country’s peace and justice processes. 

“Jame David Kolok and Michael Wani are among those now sheltering outside the country in fear for their lives,” the UN Commission said, in reference to Mr. Kolok’s membership of the Technical Committee to Conduct Consultative Process on Truth, Reconciliation and Healing – a position reaffirmed in May by the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs.  

Frozen out 

Mr. Wani had been a youth representative on the National Constitution Amendment Committee, according to the UN panel, which noted that both men’s bank accounts, “and those of the non-government organisations they lead, are among those recently blocked on government orders, with other civil society actors also affected”. 

The 2018 Revitalised Agreement for the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan contains power-sharing arrangements between President Salva Kiir and opposition leader, Riek Machar.  

The accord requires the drafting of a permanent Constitution and the establishment of a Commission on Truth, Reconciliation, and Healing. 

Although implementation of these and other measures – such as public consultation requirements – have been slow, government leaders have renewed pledges and taken steps toward these in recent months, the UN Commission said. 

“These latest restrictions and acts of harassment follow the formation on 30 July of a new civil society coalition whose members planned a public assembly to take place on 30 August,” it explained.  

Clampdown in Juba 

The UN Commission – which was appointed by the Human Rights Council in March 2016 to investigate crimes linked to civil war that erupted in 2011 – noted that this public assembly could not take place amid “detentions, raiding of premises, an apparent internet shutdown, and an enhanced presence of security forces on the streets of Juba”.  

Numerous civil society leaders are still in detention and their wellbeing is unclear, the commissioners said. 

“The State’s authorities must respect and protect the rights of human rights defenders; this is an obligation under international law,” said Commissioner Barney Afako. “It would also demonstrate that South Sudan’s commitment to strengthening its systems for the consolidation of human rights is genuine.” 

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UN’s top envoy warns Great Lakes Region is ‘at a crossroads’

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Speaking at a Security Council meeting on the situation in Africa’s Great Lakes region on Wednesday, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy, Huang Xia, told ambassadors that the countries concerned now stand “at a crossroads”.  

For Mr. Xia, the main threat to peace and stability in this region around the Great Rift Valley, remains the persistence of non-State armed groups. 

He pointed to “an upsurge in attacks”, whether by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), or those launched by the RED-Tabara against Bujumbura airport, in Burundi, last September. 

Since the beginning of this year, in DRC alone, at least 1,043 civilians have been killed, including 233 women and 52 children. 

“This violence continues to have serious consequences on the already fragile humanitarian situation, as well as on the socio-economic stability of the affected area”, the Special Envoy said.  

He told the Council Members that “these negative forces also remain involved in the illicit exploitation and trade in natural resources, the revenues of which finance their arms procurement and recruitment.” 

Solutions 

“How to put an end to it?”, he asked. “This is obviously an old question that haunts anyone interested in the region.” 

Despite the challenges, he highlighted several bilateral and regional initiatives, saying they “attest to the emergence of a community aware of the added value of dialogue and cooperation.” 

He also noted the overall peaceful transfers of power in the DRC and Burundi, as well as the signing and implementation of peace agreements in the Central African Republic, South Sudan and the Sudan.  

For him, more than ever, “it is necessary to sustainably consolidate these achievements while firmly addressing the challenges that persist.” 

“The success of such an approach requires learning from the lessons of the past and showing imagination to support the people of the Great Lakes region in building a better present and future”, he added. 

Turning to COVID-19, he said the pandemic has exacerbated vulnerabilities, but also demonstrated the resilience of the region.  

Before the pandemic, 15 million people across the Great Lakes were already displaced from their homes, facing rising malnutrition and food insecurity.  

Mr. Xia also reiterated the Secretary-General’s call for greater solidarity to facilitate access to vaccines and to strengthen health systems.  

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), to date, only 36 million doses of the vaccine have been administered in a region of nearly 450 million people. 

UN presence 

Martha Ama Akyaa Pobee, the Assistant Secretary-General for Africa in the Departments of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and Peace Operations, also briefed Council Members. 

Ms. Pobee informed that the UN is reconfiguring its presence in the region to best address the challenges, highlighting a few areas where the Council’s support is most needed.   

For her, the situation requires “a comprehensive approach rooted in enhanced political engagement, encompassing military and non-military interventions, fostering economic cooperation across the borders and building trust between neighbours and among communities.” 

She also argued that “armed group activity is a symptom of insecurity in the region”, and therefore “the enabling conditions should be addressed upstream.” 

Among those main root causes, she pointed out the illegal exploitation and regional trafficking of natural resources, saying it contributes to the financing of armed group networks but also “creates parallel economy at the expense of States’ budgets whose revenues continue to diminish.” 

The Executive Secretary of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), João Caholo, and a civil society representative also briefed the Council. 

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