This week, UNICEF turned 70. In the last 25 years, globally, deaths of children under five years of age have reduced by 53 per cent, maternal mortality rate has reduced by 45 per cent and there is a 41 per cent reduction in stunting rate.
One hundred and twenty-two out of 125 polio endemic countries are now polio free and over 2.6 billion people have access to better drinking water resources. Millions of children gained access to schooling. Remarkable indeed.
But still not enough – in many countries societies are becoming more unequal and a cycle of disadvantage for children continues.
Tanzania has also seen significant progress for its children. For example, the under-five mortality rate halved between 2005 and 2015; new HIV infections in Tanzanian children have reduced by 72 per cent between 2009 and 2014. The net enrolment ratio in primary schools is at a strong 86 per cent with gender parity (MoEST, 2016). All this has happened through collaborative efforts and long standing partnerships with the Government of the United Republic of Tanzania, civil society, other UN agencies, private sector, academia, media and the innumerable change-makers who have brought about positive change for children. We applaud the achievements. We also stand humbled knowing that we have yet to see the day when every child can enjoy his/her rights to the fullest.
Over half of Tanzania’s 45 million citizens are children. Many are vibrant, living in safe environments with love and care. But there are still too many children who are being left behind – unattended and unprotected with little hope for the future. We cannot let that be.
The future of a country is its children. If children are unable to unleash their full potential and transition safely and confidently into adulthood, who will be the future generation in a country? One of the most compelling approaches to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, which Tanzania has signed up to, is a shift in the way we regard children. They are not to be seen as just a passive vulnerable group – children are agents of change. They are an opportunity for investment in our future workforce, innovators, inventors and leaders.
One in every five Tanzanian is a child below five years of age. The early years present a critical opportunity in a child’s life where investments give high returns to society. We know of the rapid physical growth and development babies go through in the first years of life. What many don’t know is this: between birth and 3 years age is also the time when brain development is at the fastest pace in relation to any other phase in life. At 3 years of age a child’s brain is twice as active as an adult’s brain (Brotherson, 2009). This is an unparalleled opportunity to shape a child’s life course. The quality of early experiences including good parenting, adequate nutrition, stimulation and protection from violence has a profound impact on healthy brain development, laying the foundation for a healthy and productive life and, in turn, a productive workforce.
A study by Grantham-Mcgregor et al. (2007) concludes that low investment in early childhood development leads to lost human potential and can lead to up to 20 per cent loss in adult income. World Bank reported (2011) that every $1 spent on early childhood programmes brings an estimated return on investment of between $7 and 16. Importantly, interventions made at a later stage to compensate for lost opportunities in early childhood are both less effective and less economical (Heckman, 2012).
What bearing does all this have on Tanzania? More than one third of the children under-five are stunted (TFNC, 2014) and not getting the nutrition and care they need. A mobile-based survey found that children still get minimal support for early learning, with only 30 per cent of the caregivers engaging in activities such as talking, singing and reading with their child (UNICEF, T Watoto, 2014). Forty-seven per cent of children access pre-school (MoEST, 2016). The 2011 Violence against Children study found that over 70 per cent of boys and girls experienced physical violence.
Behind each statistic is a child, a life and hope – a future adult. Tanzania has an ambitious growth and development agenda ahead. It has just embarked on a new five year development plan. This is the time to reconfirm that children – and investing in them – is critical for the nation’s progress. Discrete components of early childhood development programmes already exist - what is needed is a multi-sectoral approach where different complementary interventions reach the child at the right time and in the right way. Providing nutrition without stimulation is not enough. Providing nutrition without safe water and sanitation is not enough. Providing nutrition, safe water, proper sanitation and stimulation to a child who is suffers from violence defeats the purpose. There has to be a coming together – of different government ministries, new and old partners, national and sub-national levels, institutions, communities and families – to provide the nurture, care and services every child needs. Any delay in securing the needed investments and action means that more children, especially the poorer ones, will continue to suffer. And Tanzania may well miss out on the promise of its young population.
As we celebrate 70 years of UNICEF’s work for children, here in Tanzania we are calling on everyone to take positive action for children. Each one of us can contribute to the movement #changemaker4children to bring hope to every child Tanzania.
Maniza Zaman is UNICEF Representative in Tanzania