Poor children face brutal existence
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SCHOOL children pray before eating donated food.

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A RECENT report has painted a gloomy picture involving the dangers that stalk women and children in Zanzibar. We are told that sexual predators are on the loose and that women and children are not safe.

This is moral decay at its worst. This is frightening news in a country that has always been a safe haven for all. The report says that North Unguja logged 122 rape and sexual assault cases last year.

The number, however, rose to 136 between January and July this year. North Pemba registered 101 sexual assault cases last year and a further 41 incidents were recorded between January and July this year.

This is a frightening situation considering the stark reality that most rape or assault incidents are never reported. A similar situation is likely to prevail on Mainland Tanzania but figures are hard to come by.

In most cases it is the children who suffer most in incidents such as rapes or sexual assaults. Children are also victims of other forms of exploitation. The atrocities, for example, wrought by ruthless employers and other morons on under-age, hapless children are, indeed, boundless.

Children’s health is ravaged without any second thoughts. But these ruthless morons overwork other people’s children--not their own. Many under-age quarry stone crackers, fitters, cart pushers, cattle minders, miners, domestic servants, farm helps, factory hands and even “employed” prostitutes are slogging it out for miserable living.

Further afield, working children have been seen fishing on the high seas and others wielding outsize guns in highly dangerous combat zones in several parts of Africa. Here, underage girls, serve as comfort women for soldiers and concubines for warlords.

This is outrageous, to say the least. In Tanzania , exploitation of child labour has become so commonplace, especially in urban centers, that the average person no longer sees it as a heinous offence.

Toiling children are not in cities alone. Some are in rural areas. The number of children who experience injuries and illnesses as a result of working in hazardous conditions in farms or elsewhere accounts for a very high proportion.

Some work in sisal, sugar, tea, tobacco and coffee plantations. Others work in deep mine shafts. Working under-age children suffer physical and mental impairments. On agriculture farms chil dren cut sugarcane, weeds and tall grasses using hand tools.

Others tend cattle, milk cows and goats; and take care of other farm animals. They lift and carry heavy baskets and bags containing crops. Similar hardships are experienced in family farms. Heavy lifting, carrying and prolonged stooping affect musculo-skeletal development of children.

On large-scale farm projects children mix, load and apply pesticides or fertilizers--which are highly toxic and potentially dangerous to their health. Children’s bodies suffer the effects of fatigue due to excessive energy expenditure faster than those of adults, and most of these children also suffer from malnutrition because of inadequate food intake, which makes them more vulnerable to illnesses.

On the global front, Unicef’s State of the World’s Children Reports have repeatedly shown that children around the world continue to face a brutal existence mainly because of poverty, disease and war.

In Tanzania, and elsewhere in the developing world, we have children might not be facing horrendous wars but there is a prevalence of poverty and HIV/Aids. We must give children a normal childhood as a matter of right and not a matter of privilege.

In fact, the conditions in which the majority of children live actually deny them a normal, enjoyable childhood. The majority of children who experience extreme difficulties live in the developing world--over a million of them in Tanzania.

Indeed, considering that of the 2.2 billion children in the world, at least 1.9 billion live in the developing world, the picture for children is very worrying in poor countries. Without really playing the blame game, it should be the responsibility of every government in the world to ensure that children are given a chance to live decent lives.

But as the immediate past the Unicef observed that the problem is that too many governments are making informed, deliberate choices that actually hurt childhood. But again, what should trouble our minds is that when half the world’s children are growing up hungry and unhealthy, when schools have become targets and whole villages are being emptied by AIDS.

Nations, including Tanzania, should be ashamed that they have failed to deliver on the promise of childhood. The consequences of not paying attention to the problems of children do not need to be overstated.

This being the stark reality, meeting the Millennium Development Goals depends on reaching vulnerable children throughout the developing world. There cannot be lasting progress if we continue to overlook the children most in need the poorest and most vulnerable, the exploited and the abused.

Be that the indisputable reality, more than one billion children in the world do not have access to at least one of the seven commodities deemed essential: shelter, water, sanitation, schooling, information, healthcare and food.

In fact, it is estimated that more than 600 million children of the world do not have adequate shelter. And the majority of them are in developing countries. In our case, in Tanzania, for instance, it is estimated that over 200,000 children live on the streets.

These children do not have homes, they only have food at the mercy of alms givers and they spend cold nights on the streets. These are children who do not have any hope of getting an education.

These are children whose future has been shattered. Another scourge that has not spared the world’s children is war. In the 1990s, about 20 million children fled their homes because of war.

The Unicef estimates that nearly half of the 3.6 million people killed in wars since 1990 have been children. Millions more were displaced by conflict, or even forced to take part as child soldiers. As if that were not enough, the problem of HIV/ AIDS has not spared the world’s children, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

In just two years (20012003), 15 million children lost at least one parent to AIDS. AIDS is a growing threat to children, not just through HIV infection, but because millions have been orphaned by the disease.

There are many childheaded homes today because children have lost one or both of their parents. In Africa , even the dying extended family sys tem is failing to cope with the burden of HIV/AIDS. Children are being left in the hands of aged grandparents who have no income to help look after orphaned children.

In some extreme cases, children simply do not have any one to look after them and they are being left on their own, daily fending for themselves in a survival strategy that is too hard to bear and usually leaves them with tears every day.

Apart from being denied their right to education because of lack of adequate education facilities or the lack of sound policies or programmes, children the world over continue to suffer from diseases that are curable or that can be prevented.

Thousands of children in most developing countries, with the exception of a few countries such as Cuba , die before the age of five because of poor health care systems for them. Millions of other children die from malnutrition because of lack of food.

These are the hard realities that governments should face if the future of children has to be secured. There is no choice but to deal with these realities.

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