Eight years ago today, the United Nations called for universal, free primary education for every child in Africa. Yet two thirds of children in South Sudan remain out of school, a higher percentage than anywhere else in the world, and (sadly not atypically) a disproportionate number of them are girls.
The International Day of the African Child originated in a mass student protest in the South African township of Soweto on this day in 1971. Nearly 50 years later, events of recent weeks that started as a response to the tragic death of George Floyd in police custody have brought into sharp relief that not nearly enough has changed. And a new report in the UK this week has shown how Covid-19 exposes and amplifies existing socio-economic and racial inequalities.
The report also points to other causal factors for Covid-19 fatalities, including malnutrition. This is one reason why the relative youth of South Sudan is unlikely to compensate for the scale of its impact. While 70% of the population is under 30 (and nearly half under 15), two in every five people are experiencing crisis and emergency levels of food insecurity, and severe acute malnutrition in the under-5s is three times higher than the developing country average.
These are not simply sad, cold statistics or something we can write off as part of the development process which each country around the world experiences in its own way and its own pace. They are the results of injustice, of power imbalances, of exploitation, of climate change, of structural violence.
I'm hyper-conscious that I write this from a position of white male privilege, even as someone who has long worked for equality and dignity and for every person’s fundamental freedoms and rights to be respected and upheld. I have seen injustice and poverty and prejudice and the impact of all this on people in many parts of the world, but I have not experienced it first-hand, and even having been able to meet these people and work in these contexts is itself an extension of privilege. It has shown me too that we cannot sit on the sidelines, hoping that in time the supposed inevitability of progress will trickle down to everyone and remove the prefixes from injustice and inequality.
We have not all been African children, but we can and must invest now in ensuring that the generation of children whom we celebrate today, and those who follow them, can not only improve their own life chances and choices but challenge and change the structures that have embedded the cycle of poverty and violence. Education – and especially education for girls – is the best way of doing so.
Mark Simmons, FIGS CEO, 16 June 2020