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UNICEF: El Niño Affects Thousands of Children in Zimbabwe

FILE: Villagers queue to collect their monthly food aid ration of cereals at a school in drought-hit Masvingo, Zimbabwe, June 2, 2016.
FILE: Villagers queue to collect their monthly food aid ration of cereals at a school in drought-hit Masvingo, Zimbabwe, June 2, 2016.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says the 2015-2016 El Niño, which devastated crops and decimated livestock in Zimbabwe, affected thousands of children in the southern African nation.

In a statement released Thursday, UNICEF said the impact of the El Niño is beginning to be felt among children.

“In a sign of increasing stress among children, data from the UNICEF supported Child Protection Fund, which tracks welfare and protection needs among poor and vulnerable children, is showing a sharp rise in children needing welfare assistance in 2016 compared to 2015. Welfare assistance includes children reporting health problems, requiring educational or school assistance, or being in need of emotional and social support.”

Among the main findings, UNICEF said 20,000 children needed welfare assistance between January and July 2016 compared to 11,000 in the whole of 2015 and slightly more than 2,000 children reported health problems in the first six months of 2016 compared to 400 in the whole of 2015.

“This number includes children who have defaulted on their anti-retroviral therapy for HIV due to an inability to take medication due to hunger.”

It noted that about 6,000 children needed emotional and social support in the first six months of 2016, compared to 8,000 in the whole of 2015.

“The upsurge started in October 2015 with the onset of the drought and indicates an increase in drought-related psychosocial stress.”

According to UNICEF, the greatest rise was in the education category, “where 12,000 children reported needing school-related assistance in the first six months of 2016 compared to 2,000 in the whole of 2015.”

UNICEF deputy representative in Zimbabwe, Dr. Jane Muita, said, “With the failure of crops, families face the grim choice of spending their little money on food or buying books and paying school fees.

“They will always choose food. But these are hard choices no family should have to make and we worry about the long-term developmental effects the drought will have on affected children.”

UNICEF said many of the 20,000 children owe schools thousands of US dollars in unpaid fees. “Although official government policy is not to chase the children away, some children have dropped out of school entirely, or have had their school reports withheld.

“While this upsurge in numbers can be partially attributed to a better identification and reporting system, the ongoing drought has left increasing numbers of children in desperate need of help. UNICEF’s NGO partners are reporting an increase in young girls dropping out of school to engage in sex for money and teenage boys engaging in illegal mining.”

In some areas in the south of the country, UNICEF said parents are migrating to neighbouring countries in search of livelihoods, leaving their children in the care of the oldest sibling or their grandparents.

It stressed that the case management system is showing an increase in sexual abuse and exploitation, neglect, physical and emotional abuse, and child labour, with 7,000 cases reported in the first half of 2016 alone, compared to 3,000 in 2015.

Zimbabwe, along with other countries in southern Africa, is in the throes of a drought that has devastated crops and livestock, dried up sources of livelihoods, including water, and left an estimated 4 million people, including 1.9 million children, in need of assistance. An estimated 90,000 children will require treatment for malnutrition.

Together with the government and NGO partners, UNICEF is treating children for malnutrition, providing safe water, supplying health facilities with medications for the treatment of diarrhoea, providing social cash transfers to poor households, and ensuring that vulnerable children receive protection support. These efforts are complementing the government’s drought relief assistance programme which is providing grain to affected households.

So far, out of UNICEF’s current funding appeal of USD$21.8 million for Zimbabwe, USD$3.1 million has been mobilized.