Children’s health and education needs should be addressed for them to realise their potential
Today, June 16, 2021 is the Day of the African Child. Celebrated since 1991 to commemorate the black children killed during the Soweto uprising in South Africa, the Day of the African Child is also used to raise awareness for the ongoing need to improve education of children living across Africa today. In Uganda, approximately 48.2 per cent of the school children drop out or lose study hours and thus fail to realise their potential. Some of the issues responsible for school drop outs are related to health. So, as we celebrate the 2021 edition of the Day of the African Child we reflect on the health challenges that affect children’s education in Africa including the Covid-19 pandemic.
Injuries are a common cause of illness and disability or even death among children. Among children, unintentional injuries are responsible for the largest share of injury events. In fact, it is approximated that in every 10 children in Uganda, five have suffered from unintentional injuries. The commonest unintentional injuries among children include falls, burns and cuts and largely occur among boys as a result of playing. While some of the unintentional injuries occur at playgrounds, schools, streets and along the road, majority occur at home. The situation is dire in low-resource communities such as slums where congestion, uneven topography among others increase the risk of children to unintentional injuries. So, homes are an important environment in the prevention of unintentional injuries among children especially those under five years of age. As we celebrate this day, we need to strive to ensure that our homes, schools, play grounds, streets and homes are safe for children.
Sanitation and hygiene including menstrual hygiene are responsible for poor child health and education outcomes in Uganda. Twenty out of 100 girls have been reported to miss at least one school day due to the embarrassment and fear for teasing related to menstruating. Access to safe drinking water and sanitary facilities at home and in schools is another challenge that children in sub-Saharan Africa battle with. With latrine coverage at 79 per cent in urban areas and less than 50 per cent in rural areas in Ugandan homes, chances of contracting diarrhoeal diseases like typhoid and dysentery are high among the already vulnerable population segment. In addition, the sanitation and hygiene situation in schools is also alarming, with facilities lacking anal cleansing materials and hand washing facilities. Such conditions contribute to the spread of diarrhoeal diseases in children and thus disrupt their education. The Day of the African Child reminds us of the need to improve sanitation and hygiene in homes and schools in order to ensure better education and health outcomes.
With lockdowns implemented to reduce the spread of Covid-19, schools have been closed twice, in March, 2020 and June, 2021 in Uganda. This has greatly interrupted the school terms and/or semesters. In fact, many children especially in the rural parts of Uganda have dropped out of school as a result of unwanted pregnancies contracted during the lockdown. While the pandemic presented as less severe among children in its early days, new statistics from Uganda have revealed that the disease is prevalent and has claimed their lives. The Day of the African Child calls upon us to ensure that our children are protected against the disease and other associated effects.
Other communicable diseases like malaria, pneumonia, and HIV/Aids have also claimed lives of many African children or derailed their education. Specifically, malaria and pneumonia are among the top 5 causes of illness and death among children under five in Uganda. In fact, Malaria is second after neonatal death. Malaria and other communicable diseases affect children’s health and education. Uganda has made tremendous progress in the prevention of malaria and pneumonia especially with the distribution of mosquito nets and anti-malarial treatment. However, the Day of the African Child encourages us to continue the struggle and ensure the dreams of children in Uganda and Africa are not dented as a result of preventable conditions like Malaria and pneumonia among others.
The plight of the African child is determined by several health challenges including unintentional injuries and now the Covid-19 pandemic. As we celebrate the Day of the African Child, we are reminded of our role in ensuring that the African child’s health and education needs are addressed to enable them realise their potential. There is therefore need to prioritise child health and education within the continent.
Charles Ssemugabo is a Research Associate and Doctoral Student in the Department of Disease Control and Environmental Health at Makerere University School of Public Health.