A Day to Ease the Plight of African Children

THIS is a day when the plight and special promise of the African child take center stage.

By declaring June 16 the Day of the African Child, the Organization of African Unity is marking the anniversary of the uprising and massacre of schoolchildren in the South African township of Soweto in 1976.

Yet the OAU primarily wants to focus attention on progress made since then and the challenges ahead.

Many of the statistics are grim. Almost one-third of the world's 15 million children who die every year are African, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). Almost three-fourths of the world's 42 least developed countries are in Africa. Life expectancy in Africa is 20 years behind that of the industrialized world.

Yet tremendous strides have been made over the last three decades, African and aid officials agree. The mortality rate of children under five in Africa is down 45 percent since the 1960s. Two-thirds of all African countries have immunized 75 percent of all children under age two. Primary school enrollment for African boys is now 90 percent (up from 65 percent in the 1970s); but that figure is still only 69 percent for girls.

Some of this progress was spurred by the goals set at the World Summit for Children in 1990 in New York. The majority of African nations have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. To follow up, the OAU has scheduled an International Donors' Conference on Assistance to African Children in Senegal to be held Nov. 25-27.

Africa has shown tremendous political will in improving health and education, says Djibril Diallo, special assistant to UNICEF executive director James Grant. He also notes the progress made by African nations in achieving democracy. "There have been more multiparty systems developing in Africa over the last 12 months than in the past 25 years put together," he adds. Yet Africa seems more and more "the forgotten continent."

There is concern among Africa specialists that the end of the cold war and the increasing need for aid to eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics is shifting focus away from Africa at a time when severe drought and famine are returning to many countries.

"The danger of retrogression is greater in Africa than in any other part of the world," Mr. Diallo says, noting that many African countries are no longer trying to move forward but just to "hold on tight enough" to keep from falling further behind.

"Africa is either going to take off or be in a worse situation in poverty terms than it was in the 1970s."

UNICEF, which has made African children its top priority for the 1990s, is joining the OAU in trying to help build a new constituency for Africa.

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