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Safeguarding the Future of the African Child: The Critical Need for Children to Be Safe to Learn

By Dr Tabitha Mpamira
Article Safeguarding the Future of the African Child: The Critical Need for Children to Be Safe to Learn
WED, 12 JUN 2024 LISTEN

Nearly half of Africa's current population is under 18, according to UNICEF Data. Steady growth in births and declining mortality rates globally will bring Africa’s child population to 1 billion by 2055. Nowhere else in the world is the number of children growing in this way.

Despite Africa's projected population growth over the next 30 years, UNESCO’s research shows that Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rates of education exclusion in the world. More than one-fifth of children aged 6 to 11 are out of school, followed by one-third of youth aged 12 to 14. This rapid population growth presents both challenges and opportunities and has several implications relating to sexual violence, particularly against children.

As the population grows, schools may become overcrowded and under-resourced, making it difficult to provide a safe and conducive learning environment which can lead to increased bullying, harassment, and potential for sexual violence between peers and amongst teachers.

Violence Against Children
Violence against children is a global human rights violation that spans every country worldwide. It is estimated that over 1 billion children globally experience physical, sexual, or emotional violence annually. The Violence Against Children Surveys (VACS) conducted across several countries demonstrate a high regional prevalence of violence against children. For example, the prevalence of childhood sexual violence across seven countries in the region ranges from 25% to 38% for females and from 9% to 18% for males.

Childhood sexual violence is a pervasive and deeply troubling issue in Africa. It impacts millions of children across the Continent. Protecting the future of African children from sexual abuse is critical to fostering a secure and supportive learning environment. This requires a multi-faceted approach involving policy, community engagement, education, and sound support systems.

In times of great stress, or trauma, the brain activates its deeply instinctive “fight, flight, or freeze” responses while dialing down the areas of the brain where learning takes place.

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, chronic exposure to traumatic events, especially during a child's early years, can: adversely affect attention, memory, and cognition. It reduces a child's ability to focus, organize, and process information which interferes with their effective problem-solving and planning.

In 2015, on a visit to volunteer in Southwestern Uganda, I encountered a second-grade student who had been raped the day before. Although the girl's family knew about the rape and knew her 35-year-old assailant, there were many barriers to getting her the help she needed and deserved including something as little as $5 that would have provided the required medical care to prevent illnesses.

This girl and many others inspired me to be brave enough to speak up about my own story. I set up Mutera Global Healing to ensure that children were safe, protected, and able to secure an education that would lift them out of these traumatizing situations.

As a survivor for 27 years and a mental health therapist for 15 years, it was not my professional training, family, community, or friends that prompted me to process my trauma. It was the bravery of other survivors. They reminded me that I wasn’t alone and ignited a hope for a possible future where children are safe and free from sexual violence. Each one of us can play a role in making that future a reality.

Having experienced trauma myself as a child, I understand that vulnerable children, if they have any hopes of recovering, need medical, legal, and mental health support but, most importantly, a safe community that will lay the groundwork for them to thrive to reintegrate themselves into society and be mentally sound to be adequately educated.

Creating An Enabling Environment For Children To Be Safe To Learn

Ensuring children are safe to learn involves creating an environment where they are protected from various forms of violence and can focus on their education without fear.

Survivors of childhood sexual violence can play a significant role in safeguarding the future of African children, ensuring they are safe to learn. Their involvement can provide valuable insights from lived experience, foster empathy, and drive impactful change within their diverse expertise.

Now, I am fighting for a world in which trauma does not define its victims. It is possible to heal and thrive as a survivor of childhood sexual violence, but some barriers must be broken down to speed up that process. Here’s how I think we can do it.

By strengthening legal frameworks, raising awareness, creating safe trauma-informed learning environments, providing support services, engaging communities, addressing root causes, and fostering international cooperation, we can build a protective environment where every child can learn and thrive without fear. This collective effort requires the investment of governments, Non-Governmental Organizations, communities, schools, and international bodies to ensure a comprehensive and sustainable approach to ending sexual violence against children. “The question is not whether we can afford to invest in our children; it is whether we can afford not to.” Marian Edelman

The Day of the African Child (DAC) is an annual event observed on June 16th to honor the memory of students who participated in the 1976 Soweto Uprising in South Africa. These brave children protested against the poor quality of education they were receiving and demanded the right to be taught in their languages. Tragically, many were killed during the protests. This day now serves as an opportunity to focus on African children's plight, rights, and education.

Conclusion
Safeguarding the future of African children from sexual violence is essential for their safety and educational success. Safety in the learning environment is integral to their mental, emotional, physical, and social development. Guaranteeing safety in schools is a fundamental responsibility of educators, communities, and governments, and it is essential for building a better, more equitable future for all children. We each can be brave so that our children can be safe. As the African proverb states, alone, you can go fast; together, we can go far. I invite you to join all of us survivors on this journey of ending childhood sexual violence, so we can go as far as eradicating it.

The writer is a survivor of childhood sexual violence, CEO of Mutera Global Healing, and the co-founder of the Brave Movement. For more information visit www.bravemovement.org or email [email protected]

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