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A Speech by Dr Assefa Bequele

A Speech by Dr Assefa Bequele
Executive Director of the African Child Policy Forum on the occasion of The Larissa Award: The Issues and the Winner
June 15, 2005
Addis Ababa , Ethiopia
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
On behalf of the African Child Policy Forum, I would like to welcome you all to this ceremony honouring the winner of the first Larissa Award for Outstanding Service to the Cause of African Children.
The Larissa award commemorates the tragedy of one in five African children who die before their sixth birthday. This prize, which bears the name of a girl child who passed away tragically at the age of five years, strikingly coincides with the name of the moon of the stormy and windy planet, Neptune . This, in a manner of speaking, symbolizes the plight of most African children who endure untold miseries and yet remain unaccounted for convulsing in the embrace of a turbulent continent.
It is no mere coincidence that this ceremony is being held on the eve of the Day of the African Child 2005, whose theme is African Orphans: Our Collective Responsibility. A s we are preparing to celebrate this Day, we are exhuming the buried voices of millions of other children who had succumbed and may continue to succumb to a similar fate. Life for hundreds of millions of African children still remains difficult, dangerous and, all too often, tragically short. Despite modest advances for children in some African countries in the 1990s, children in sub-Saharan Africa are far more likely to die before the age of five than children in any other region, more likely to be ill and less likely to be in school.
To make matters worse, we in Africa are today faced with the crisis of orphan-hood, and the trend in recent years is nothing short of staggering. Just note this:
• In 1990, fewer than 1 million children in sub-Saharan Africa under the age of 15 had lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS.
• At the end of 2001, 11 million in this age group were orphans because of HIV/AIDS, nearly 80 per cent of the world total.
• And note this again: by 2010, 20 million in this age group are likely to be orphans from this single cause, comprising about half the total number of orphans expected in the region.
Because of this- the orphan crisis, that is - family structures and relationships are changing in a strange and unprecedented way. Families are splitting and re-forming in different ways in response to these stressful circumstances. New forms of family structures such as female-headed households, grandparent-headed households and child-headed households are now evolving and, I regret to say, could well become the rule rather than the exception.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The social, economic and psychological consequences of orphanhood are far-reaching. But, even more devastating are its direct effects on the daily lives of children. On the economic side, parents are the foundation on whom the young ones can rely financially, materially and morally and therefore when they go, so goes the very foundation for daily sustenance. And when grandparents with all their age-related psycho-physical frailties step in to fill the parental void, the cornerstone represented by parents disappears. This would leave weak links which can in no way sustain a happy and promising childhood. A survey of over 400 such households in Mwanza region of Tanzania reported that almost 40 % of them could not cover even basic expenses.
On the socio-cultural dimension, the emergence of the phenomenon of grandparent-headed households threatens the intergenerational transmission of familial legacy that would normally go from parent to child.
Perhaps the most unusual phenomenon of all, unprecedented in human history, is the emergence of what the African Child Policy Forum calls Child-headed Households - that is, children heading households. In a manner that moves all of us into profound anguish, we see children with glazed eyes, toothpick limbs and hideous bellies roaming Africa 's streets looking for food for siblings of their own age. These children have shouldered the awesome responsibility of providing the material and psychological needs of other children that are wholly dependent upon them, responsibilities which are way beyond their experience or capacity. In Africa, where raising children used to be traditionally taken by a whole village, little children are now caring for entire households, by their own, spending sleepless nights to make ends meet in a world that is beset with uncertainties.
This, Dear Brothers and Sisters, is the reality in Africa today. But this social reality is a construct in which we have a key role – as originators and operatives of the system. We thus are part of this reality and hence partly to blame for it. We therefore have the responsibility to change that reality. And this means, among other things, taking a mix of preventive and remedial interventions including:
• Arresting and combating the scourge of HIV/AIDS;
• Tackling poverty;
• Eliminating the conditions that lead to armed conflicts;
• Creating a legal and policy environment that ensures access to essential services for orphans and vulnerable children; and
Mobilizing and strengthening community-based responses;
The last, namely mobilizing and strengthening community based initiatives, is especially important, for these orphans live and are best served within the context of community support and protection. Today's prize is an affirmation of the value of such initiatives. And it is a heart-lifting side to the picture of shame and blame. The continent is proud to have people who are relentlessly working to create a better future for these children. I would like to take the opportunity to salute some of them, and I mention for example
• La Maison Shalom of Burundi , an organization that has been offering care and support services for orphaned and displaced children of all the three ethnic groups even at the time inter-ethnic hostility was ravaging and breaking apart that beautiful country.
• Mothers of St. Rita from Kenya , a group of 20 poor and humble village women in the suburbs of Kisumu, who care for HIV/AIDS orphans with unbreakable will and faith and with NO external resources.
• Abebech Gobena Children's Care and Development Organization here in Ethiopia, a centre headed by an inspired and inspiring woman, who started off caring for abandoned children single handed and has now managed to create a full-fledged care and development organization.
• The Ugandan Good Spirit Support and Action Center (GOSSACE), an initiative started by 12 HIV positive adults, who decided to stop the downward spiral of their communities wrecked by the AIDS pandemic and make a lasting difference in the lives of orphaned children.
These are only a few of the growing number of inspirational examples of community-based initiatives that do provide a haven for the many children in need and hope in a world that has consistently failed them.
The Larissa Jury that selected the final winner had a difficult and challenging task. There were a large number of outstanding nominations, nominations from countries as wide apart as South Africa and Liberia . Most of the nominees were winners in their own right, and these included distinguished organizations some of which have won prestigious international awards. Indeed selecting a winner from among them was a really daunting task. In the end judgment on such matters becomes a balancing act among a variety of competing and legitimate considerations. I can only thank the jury members for taking their precious time and coming up with such a distinguished winner as L'Espoir d'Adjouffou .
It is indeed a great privilege for all of us in the Board and Secretariat of the African Child Policy Fourm that we are here tonight to honour this organization with the Larissa Award for Outstanding Service for African Children. This organization is remarkable for its innovative and saintly approach, almost reminiscent of Mother Theresa of Calcutta . Like that sisterhood, it takes in both terminally ill mothers and their children, keeps them together and provides them the necessary care and support. By so doing, it has provided for terminally ill parents the assurance of dying with the knowledge that their children will be educated, clothed and cared for. Even in a hospice and even in death, the physical presence and affectionate embrace of a mother is a gift that the entire world combined cannot provide for a child.
It somehow soothes the flustered spirit to see the continent having people and organizations like these that have given up their mundane luxury for redeeming a generation on the brink of doom. Please allow me to express my high regards for them all in the name of Africa 's orphans.
Finally, on behalf of the African Child Policy Forum, its International Board of Trustees and its staff, I would like to express my heart-felt thanks to you all for devoting your precious time to be with us today in this award giving ceremony.
I thank you.
God bless Africa and its children!
2005 Jun 15