WEST AFRICA: Gender equality and child survival linked

Saturday, December 16, 2006
Improving the rights of women can boost child survival, especially in West and Central Africa, which have the highest rates of child mortality in the world, the United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF) said on Monday.

“Gender equality and the well-being of children go hand in hand,” Esther Guluma, UNICEF’s regional director for West Africa, told reporters as the agency released it’s State of the World’s Children 2007 report. “Healthy, educated and empowered women have healthy, educated and confident daughters and sons.”

The report recommends maximising gender equality by boosting education, financing, legislation, legislative quotas, women’s organisations, research and data, and engaging men and boys in dialogue.

Improving the status of women can especially have an impact in West and Central Africa, Guluma said. Out of every 1,000 live births in the region, 190 children will die, compared to the average rate for developing countries of 83 deaths per 1,000 live births, she said.

Child mortality has improved in some West African countries, such as Benin and Ghana, and declined in others, such as Niger.

Healthy empowerment
Malnutrition is an underlying cause in half of all cases of child mortality in West and Central Africa, the report said. About one quarter of all deaths in the region are due to neo-natal causes, closely followed by malaria, respiratory infections and diarrhoeal diseases.

By establishing gender equality, the incidence of underweight children under three years old would fall in sub-Saharan Africa by three percent and an additional 1.7 million children would be adequately nourished, Guluma said, citing a study by the International Food Policy Research Institute.

“Evidence, principally from West and Central Africa, suggests that when resources are scarce, women prioritise nutrition of their children above other household and personal issues,” the report said. “In Cameroon, for example, women typically spend 74 percent of their funds on food while men spend an estimated 22 percent to supplement the family food supply.”

Sexual discrimination remains rife in the region, the report said. It found that in Mali, Nigeria and Burkina Faso men are the sole decision makers regarding all health issues in almost 75 percent of all families. That figure is comparable to the percentage of men who are the sole decision makers on daily household expenditure in many countries in the region, the report said.

Building on success
Guluma said, however, that in some countries women are empowered at the community level.

“In countries like Ghana, women take decisions at the family level in terms of how income will be spent,” she said. “Our success in Ghana with child mortality may be connected with that.”

Child mortality rates have declined in Ghana, Benin, Mali and Senegal, which are the four countries where UNICEF piloted an approach of integrated, community-based maternal and child health interventions. Under the programme, UNICEF provides mosquito nets, immunisations, water and sanitation and nutritional supplements.

“This combined intervention at a very low cost has effectively reduced infant mortality,” Guluma told IRIN. “In certain regions in Ghana infant mortality went down by 20 percent. In Benin over the past five years infant mortality went down by 15 percent.”

She said UNICEF and its partners met recently in Dakar and decided to apply the same approach to other countries in the region.

“We are working now in very close collaboration with the World Bank and [World Health Organisation] on the same approach to expand it so we hope that this collaboration will bear fruit in terms of application of the strategy in as many countries as possible,” Guluma said.

UNICEF has also been talking with the African Union about a plan to reduce child mortality rates, which the agency hopes the AU will adopt in 2007.
Source: IRIN
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