By Sam Mort
[Bo Viktor Nylund, UNICEF Burundi Representative, talked to Sam Mort, Senior Communications Advisor, UNICEF Brussels, about how deteriorating conditions in Burundi are affecting children.]
It’s tough to be a child in Burundi – and it’s getting tougher by the day.
Burundi’s children – who account for half the population of 10 million – are, the Global Hunger Index reports, in the hungriest country in the world. Three in five are stunted – which means they’re not only shorter for their age than they should be, but their brain’s ability to develop fully is compromised. They live in one of the poorest nations on earth, where the majority survive on less than $1.25 a day. Recent harvests have been poor and food prices are rising, making it harder for families to feed their children. Access to basic services, such as healthcare and education, is increasingly out of reach for the most disadvantaged. And there are reports of police and army personnel in and around schools.
Violence and civil unrest escalated last April and since then conditions for children have deteriorated drastically. Over 200 children have been arbitrarily detained and imprisoned alongside adult offenders. More than 237,000 Burundians – half of whom are children — have fled to neighbouring countries; an estimated 25,000 more are displaced internally.
Children on the move are vulnerable children. They’re frightened children. They’re at risk of being exploited, trafficked or kidnapped by armed groups – especially girls. They can’t learn or play in safe environments. And the longer they’re out of school, the harder it is to get them back into class, jeopardising their ability to learn and earn in later life.
Twenty four children have, so far, died as a result of the violence; thousands more have been injured and witnessed scenes that don’t belong in any childhood.
In January, the UN cautioned that “…a complete breakdown of law and order is just around the corner.” The growing number of reported atrocities prompted the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to warn that “…all the alarm signals – including the increasing ethnic dimension of the crisis – are flashing red.”
As a result of the unrest, significant numbers of foreign donors have pulled out of Burundi, and in a country where social issues, such as education, health and agriculture, depend heavily on external support – at times, as much as 80% – the consequences are dire. In response, the Government recently adopted a new austerity budget severely limiting its ability to deliver basic social services to the vulnerable population. The health budget, in particular, was cut by 54%, threatening the provision of basic medicines and drugs basic social services.
The sustained hardship is straining families’ coping mechanisms. UNICEF Burundi Representative, Bo Viktor Nylund, is particularly concerned about levels of malnutrition. He cautions that unless malnourished children receive therapeutic food urgently, there is risk of a major nutrition crisis. Already between October and December 2015, the number of children admitted for severe acute malnutrition in Bujumbura has doubled.
If the present situation continues, Nylund believes the entire social services sector could be at risk of collapse.
UNICEF is responding to the fast-moving and challenging situation in a variety of ways.
Child Friendly Spaces are helping thousands of children – a quarter of whom show signs of psychological trauma – to heal from the stress of conflict and displacement.
Following the Ministry of Health’s request for support in procuring vital medicines, UNICEF is supplying necessary drugs to ensure basic healthcare in the most disadvantaged communities is not drastically reduced.
In response to the heavy rains which damaged infrastructure, and the fighting which kept children away from schools, the team is working with the Government and local communities, to rebuild classrooms and get children back to school – even as it strengthens advocacy efforts to keep schools as zones of peace so that children can enjoy safe, protective learning and continuous access to basic education.
And, as a result of intense efforts with the Ministry of Human Rights, Social Affairs and Gender, and the Ministry of Justice, UNICEF has also helped secure the release of 53 children who were arbitrarily detained and imprisoned with adults. UNICEF and partners are now supporting these children as they recover from their experiences and begin to rebuild their lives.
These efforts are making a real difference in the lives of children – but they are a fraction of what is required. The cumulative effect of declining social services and aid combined with on-going conflict is hitting children first and hardest. Those least responsible for this crisis are paying the highest price.
We must do better. And we’d do well to heed Bo Viktor Nylund’s message: “This is not the time to stop investing in Burundi’s children.”
He’s right. This is the time for the global community to rally around the children of Burundi and help them realise their rights to health, protection, learning and participation. And more – to help them simply be children again.
Sam Mort is Senior Adviser, Communications, OED. She is currently on stretch assignment in the Brussels Office from where she undertook two field trips to see how the EU is supporting refugee and migrant children.