Angola

Angola: Plight of children still desperate, UNICEF head

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JOHANNESBURG, 15 Jun 2005 (IRIN) - Angola still has one of the highest rates of child mortality in the world, says UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Country Representative, Mario Ferrari, and challenges relating to children remain huge.

Three years after the end of the country's 27-year long civil war, "the situation is that the long period of war had the effect of dismantling the social services, weakening social services in a radical way in the country. The effect is that ... this country has a child mortality rate of 250 per 1,000 - one of the highest in the world," Ferrari told IRIN.

"Many children are not in primary school, and very few go to secondary school; there are still problems with birth registrations despite various campaigns - so, overall, the situation is not good," he noted.

June 16 is the Day of the African Child, and the focus should be on initiatives to improve the lives of children in need, Ferrari said.

"Some progress has been made on some fronts: for instance, the campaigns against polio have continued and there have been no cases of polio since 2001; there was a big measles campaign in 2003 that had a very positive impact and, from that point on, there were no epidemics of measles, so mortality due to measles is very, very limited," Ferrari pointed out.

After these campaigns, routine vaccinations by health services were "reactivated as well ... we have now reached vaccination rates of 60 percent, whereas before we were around 40 to 45 percent", he added.

"In March 2005 there were municipal days for child health, and there was an intensification of actions to protect children: there were vaccinations, vitamin A distributions; there was deworming, and tetanus vaccinations for pregnant women - which is important also, because it indicates that health services are starting to function again."

LONG ROAD AHEAD

However, Ferrari said aid agencies and the government had "a long road ahead of us" in trying to reduce child mortality in Angola.

"The child mortality rate does not move quickly, as there are several factors involved. There is a strategic plan for child mortality reduction that has been adopted by the government. UNICEF and WHO [World Health Organisation] supported the preparation of that strategy, which has the objective of reducing child mortality by 50 percent by 2008," he told IRIN.

The plan aimed to tackle the causes of child mortality: "That is, measles, which has been confronted; malaria; malnutrition, which weakens the body of the child; respiratory diseases and diarrhoea," Ferrari said.

"So, the strategy for child mortality reduction has designed packages to combat these causes not only in health centres, which are the starting points, but also because the coverage of health centres is very weak ... the strategy therefore foresees that health centres must develop, and also action outreach programmes."

He noted that UNICEF was helping to organise educational activities linked to the protection of children, and in 2003 there had been a "big push" by the government, supported by UNICEF, to return children to school in the provinces of Bie and Malanje.

Based on the success of the back-to-school programme in 2003, "the government very quickly decided to expand it throughout the country and took a decision to recruit 29,000 new teachers, which is a huge number".

UNICEF assisted in training the new teachers because, "as you can imagine, you cannot get 29,000 teachers with complete training from the teacher training college, so we helped the government to train the people selected, who, in many cases, had lot of weaknesses in their profiles," Ferrari noted.

By recruiting an additional 29,000 teachers, the government had committed itself to a US $40 million increase in education spending annually, "which this government can afford, as it has the resources but, of course, they have a lot of [other] priorities as well".

This was indicative that the "focus on children is growing more and more", he commented.

On Wednesday, relevant stakeholders met in the Second Forum on Policies for Early Child Development and "decided to develop a comprehensive policy for children, which includes the concept that individuals are children up to the age of 18 - this is an indication that children are now on the main agenda of the country," Ferrari noted. "People aged up to 18 make up 60 percent of the population [in Angola]; you cannot avoid having policies for 60 percent of the population."

TACKLING HIV/AIDS

Key challenges in the year ahead included reducing maternal mortality and extending universal primary education and, "of course, we are very committed to the fight against HIV/AIDS as well," Ferrari said.

Although HIV prevalence rates in Angola are dwarfed by those of neighbouring countries in Southern Africa, "there was a political decision that we should not wait for the numbers to become horrible ... we are working to develop actions on HIV/AIDS in the education system".

The ministry of education was set to embark on a major campaign in secondary schools to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS, including a competition for students to "prepare pieces of theatre in schools".

"UNICEF is working on HIV/AIDS prevention, the vertical transmission from mother-to-child, and improving children's access to treatment: children who are positive are forgotten in general, so we are calling attention to that and advocating treatment," Ferrari said.

In cooperation with several government ministries, the agency was also trying to develop an approach to juvenile justice and improve access to education for adolescents, in accordance with the norms established by conventions and treaties of the UN.

UNICEF and South Africa's Nelson Mandela Foundation were collaborating on 'Schools for Africa', a project that aimed to develop and reconstruct 1,500 schools in Angola by 2008.

"This is a big project with the Nelson Mandela Foundation and there are donors in Germany that are supporting it. There's so much to be done for children in this country," Ferrari observed. "The government is aware that they have to attack on several fronts simultaneously, and we are trying to help."

[ENDS]

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