By Gordon Jonathan Lewis, UNICEF Gambia Representative
Seventy-five years ago today, the world came together to create the UN children’s agency to support and secure the lives of children affected by World War II. UNICEF was founded on the principle that no child, no matter who they are or where they come from, should be subjected to violence, abuse or neglect, and on the commitment to galvanize efforts to build a world where every child can survive, thrive and reach their full potential. For 75 years, UNICEF has stayed true to this cause, and for decades, UNICEF has championed child rights in The Gambia and around the world.
As we celebrate this historic milestone, we are also reminded of the promise we made to children, 32 years ago, when the world adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In ratifying the Convention, The Gambia committed itself to put the best interests of children first in everything it does. Children and young people are The Gambia’s most treasured resource – they will lead the next generation that will usher in change and build the future that every Gambian aspires.
Building that future requires urgent action by the government, its partners and local communities to improve the quality of education, make vaccines available for every child, invest more in the mental health of children and young people and scale up efforts to address the climate crisis.
With more than 78% of primary-school-age children in school, The Gambia has made remarkable gains in making education accessible to children across the country. But for many children, being in school does not equal learning. Like most developing countries, The Gambia faces a learning crisis which, if left unaddressed, could jeopardize the country’s development. We must urgently reverse the situation by investing in an education that builds basic reading, writing and math skills, as well as competencies in problem-solving and critical thinking that young people need to be productive. We must also invest in building the skills of teachers and motivate them to teach more effectively.
Making vaccines available and accessible to every child helps protect them against diseases, such as measles, polio and smallpox, and to grow healthier and perform better in school. The Gambia has an impressive vaccination record and we must work together to sustain it. We must invest more in the procurement of vaccines, improve cold chain facilities and combat misinformation that is driving vaccine hesitancy. In tandem, we must do more to reduce wasting and stunting among young children and scale up programmes and policies that guarantee the nutritional health of every child.
Digital technologies are revolutionizing the way children communicate, learn and socialize. But for many children and young people, staying online comes with huge risks. 84% of respondents in a recent U-Report poll “think online sexual harassment and bullying is a problem for children and young people in The Gambia”. Yet, even beyond the digital platforms, children and young people are increasingly becoming anxious about the future. It is time to protect and care for children’s mental health and to integrate their mental health into primary health care. This must be accompanied by a strong policy framework that ensures all children live free of violence, abuse and exploitation.
In another U-Report poll, close to 50% of young people in The Gambia said rains and floods were the biggest climate change-related challenges their communities were facing, and 50% said that reduced food production was the biggest threat to their livelihoods. This is strong evidence that the climate crisis will be a permanent fixture in the lives of Gambian children if urgent action is not taken. It is time to address the climate crisis, scale up investments in climate adaptation and resilience, and strengthen children’s and young people’s participation in climate decisions.
So, on and beyond our 75th anniversary, our promise to every child is to never give up on you, continue listening to you and providing the platform to amplify your voices and demand the protection and fulfilment of your rights. In upholding our promise to you, we will never give up!