Protecting children in West and Central Africa

West and Central Africa (WCA) is a region faced with armed conflict, physical and sexual violence, child marriage and female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) – posing numerous threats to the protection and development of children. Amid the political instability and human rights violations, children bear the burden as they are among society’s most vulnerable segments.

Recently the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) outbreak has put children in the region at even greater risk, exposing them not only to the illness itself but also to fear, stigma and grief resulting from the loss of caregivers and loved ones.

What is the role of data when it comes to protecting children? Hard data can provide a window into the fragile state of children in the region by bringing to light the urgency of their circumstances. Numbers provide insight into the specific ecosystem in which a child is born and raised, giving us a glimpse into the factors that impacts children’s growth and development.

By painting both a detailed and comprehensive picture of the situation of children in the region, data can drive change. How so? – by informing policy makers of areas where action is most urgently needed, so that resources can be allocated accordingly. Through the sharing of knowledge gathered through research, local and national leaders can be better equipped to act effectively.

Children in the child-to -child program in Kinshasa, DRC, where 5th and 6th grade students work with 5 year olds. © UNICEF/DRCA2010-00112/Connelly
Children in the child-to -child program in Kinshasa, DRC, where 5th and 6th grade students work with 5 year olds. © UNICEF/DRCA2010-00112/Connelly

So what do the numbers tell us? In West & Central Africa:

  • Almost 9 of 10 children experience violent discipline;
  • 1 in 10 girls have experienced acts of forced sexual intercourse or other forced sexual acts;
  • 4 in 10 young women were married as children;
  • Less than 1 in 2 children were registered at birth;
  • The prevalence of female genital mutilation/cutting is over 80% in some countries;
  • Over 50% of women 15-49 years old consider a husband justified in beating his wife;
  • An estimated 7,500 children across Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea have lost one or both parents to the Ebola Virus Disease

Take a look at the statistical snapshot of Child Protection in West and Central Africa

Goumbo (7) stands among other children outside her school in the village of Dan Gora, Niger.
© UNICEF/NYHQ2005-1796/PirozziGoumbo (7) stands among other children outside her school in the village of Dan Gora, Niger. © UNICEF/NYHQ2013-0269/Dicko

The challenge of addressing these issues is exacerbated by a lack of institutionalized help accessible to children in the region. The majority of children and families in WCA live far from formal child welfare and justice services provided by the government and NGOs, while social workers are limited in number and lack the resources to enable them to do their jobs.

As a result, children rely more heavily on extended families, neighbours and traditional chiefs to prevent and respond to violence and other rights abuses.
Effective approaches to protect children need be grounded in existing community-based practices and reflect cultural and social norms.

Both governments and civil society must be included and supported to understand and strengthen such practices. Armed with this knowledge, UNICEF child protection specialists are taking a data-driven approach to determining the direction our child protection work in the region.

The current metrics tell a story of a region where children are being left behind, hindering progress towards sustainable development. Improvement will require a global commitment to lift these lives. We need to do better for the children in the West and Central Africa to take their rights to protection from paper to reality.

Miranda Eleanor Armstrong is the Child Protection Specialist, UNICEF WCA Regional office; Andrew Brooks is the Chief of Child Protection, UNICEF WCA Regional office; and Anshana Arora is with the Data & Analytics Section, UNICEF HQ New York

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