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May 8-10, 2018 African Child Policy Forum (ACPF) and Defence for Children International (DCI) Co-organised a three-day Continental Conference on Access to Justice for Children in Africa: Spotlighting the invisible, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Can justice for children approach to ensure that all children are better served and protected by the justice system? What are the pathways, and what rigorous evidence exists? These and other questions were deliberated by more than 200 children’s rights campaigners and defenders, lawyers, academics, journalists, heads of state, policy-makers and lawmakers during the conference, organised from 8-10 May 2018 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia by ACPF and DCI.

The conference’s key background report – Spotlighting the Invisible: Justice for Children in Africa – produced to better understand the problem and inform policy actions for accelerating the realisation of children’s right to access to justice brought out issues that can guide interventions.

Key amongst are that despite some progress, hundreds of thousands of African children are still being denied access to justice. Equally, the use of “informal justice” – traditional, religious, ethnic or community-based customs – presents big challenges in protecting children. While positive elements of these systems must not be disregarded, they are also not regulated so they follow the same international children’s rights standards as their formal counterparts. Further, certain groups of children considered vulnerable have a disproportionately difficult time in accessing justice through both the formal and informal justice mechanisms.

The conference Call for Action which was unanimously adopted and endorsed by all participants (https://app.box.com/s/86wy0cy0mdz9jdllhniw9vtm9z0u5t8x) aimed to serve as clarion to governments and all other stakeholders involved in child justice in Africa to intensify their efforts, to reach out to the most vulnerable children, and to ensure the implementation of agreed universal standards for the rights and protection of our children. Download the conference materials including the report, call to action, programme, concept note, participant list and presentations here.

JUBA/NAIROBI, December 15, 2017 - South Sudan is in the throes of a tragedy for children that affects more than half the child population - victims of malnutrition, disease, forced recruitment, violence and the loss of schooling - UNICEF said in a report released today.

Years of insecurity and upheaval have had a “staggering impact on children”, threatening an entire generation, the report, Childhood under Attack, says.

The numbers tell a grim story:
  • Almost three million children are severely food insecure;
  • more than one million are acutely malnourished;
  • 2.4 million have been forced from their homes;
  • two million children out of school, and if the current situation persists, only one in 13 children are likely to finish primary school;
  • an estimated 900,000 children suffer from psychological distress;
  • more than 19,000 children have been recruited in the ranks of armed forces and armed groups;
  • and more than 2,300 children have been killed or injured since the conflict first erupted in December 2013, with hundreds of incidents of rape and sexual assault against children having been reported.

“No child should ever experience such horrors and deprivations,” said Leila Pakkala, UNICEF’s Regional Director in Eastern and Southern Africa, “and yet children in South Sudan are facing them on a daily basis. The children of South Sudan urgently require a peaceful and protective environment. Anything less places children and women at even greater risk of grave violations and abuse.”

Getting assistance to those most in need continues to be a challenge in many insecure areas of the country. Humanitarian organisations in South Sudan are looking for the full implementation of a recent Presidential order calling for unrestricted access to those in urgent need of aid.

UNICEF has been delivering lifesaving assistance to children across the country since the crisis started in December 2013, including: treatment of more than 600,000 for severe acute malnutrition, vaccination against measles for more than 3.3 million children, the provision of primary health care services to more than 3.6 million children, and supporting the access to safe water supply for 1.8 million people. This has been done despite the huge challenges faced in a country that ranks among the world’s most dangerous for aid workers. Since the conflict started in 2013, 95 aid workers have been killed, including 25 killed so far this year.

In releasing Childhood under Attack, UNICEF warned that new funding is essential in order to provide critical assistance to children and women. In 2018 UNICEF requires $183 million, and currently has a funding gap of 77 per cent (or $141 million).

December 12, 2017 - Raija-Leena Punamäki, PhD, is a psychologist and professor at the University of Tampere, Finland. Punamäki’s basic research question concerns how traumatic experiences—especially those related to family and maternal trauma—influence the parent-infant relationship, in addition to the infant’s emotional and cognitive development. In an interview with the Jacobs Foundation, she explains how maternal prenatal exposure to weapons-related heavy metals influences child development.

What fascinates you about your research?

I have been working for a very long time on how war and traumatic experiences are reflected in family relationships and children’s development. Our current work mainly examines the first year of a human being’s life and the mother’s wellbeing during the transition to parenthood in extremely traumatic situations, especially during a war. Intuitively, you may assume that when a baby is born in the midst of shelling or bombing or in a refugee camp, his or her future prospects must be terrible. However, what is fascinating is the amount of human resilience displayed in spite of these circumstances. The developmental psychologists often say that the human being creates his or her first early environment. Thus, the first environment is not bad or good, but the first interaction between the mother and infant is always adaptive. This is especially the case during wartime.

What are your most important findings?

The parents and children with whom we have been working are war-affected. We don’t call them traumatized because it’s not self-evident that people are traumatized even if the environment is very traumatic. We have performed research and psychosocial interventions with preschool and school-age children, and it was the war-affected parents bringing up the question of newborns’ health. It seems that all mothers in war-torn areas are highly aware of the dangerous impact of toxic elements in modern weapons. This was the motivation for us to find out how common the exposure, the load, and the level of toxic heavy metals are in newborns and expectant mothers. We also examined how much the exposure affects the infant’s development and wellbeing during the first year of life.

Thus far, the findings are not very encouraging. We found that the toxic load of most heavy metals was higher in the mother’s body compared to the standard levels found in mothers in countries during peacetime. The mother’s toxic metal levels were related to her newborn’s heavy metal levels, which was measured using hair samples. The family’s war experiences were measured by self-reports and by taking pictures of the destruction of the houses to ensure that the information is reliable. Furthermore, the trauma of toxic metal exposure was impossible to separate from maternal psychological war trauma. In other words, the maternal prenatal war exposure affects the unborn child in multiple ways.

It is necessary to increase awareness of the influence of metal accumulation on reproductive health and knowledge about the mechanisms for how metals are passaging into infants in utero. We must understand the potential future impacts of these factors on maternal and infant health. Women are highly vulnerable to the toxic byproducts from modern weapons when facing home destruction, shelling, and bombing because they come into frequent contact with shelling debris in war-torn areas.

We have read in your papers that you do research on lullabies in war-torn areas. What exactly do lullabies tell you about child development?

Lullabies are one example of the resources that a culture can bring to the early relationships between parents and children. Hearing the parent’s voice, singing, and verbal communication may be especially important in life-threatening situations. Lullabies are soothing. Furthermore, mothers also sing to engage the infant and use folk songs as a socialization tool. We studied the maternal voice quality and emotional tone of the lullabies and found that a positive tone is associated with favourable infant development outcomes. The voice quality of the singer is a good indicator of the mother-infant interaction.

Where do you see practical implications for your work?

The main aim is to apply the latest knowledge of infant psychology to maternity care in war-afflicted areas. During our data collection in Gaza, Palestine, both mothers and fieldworkers wished for more psychosocial elements in maternity care during wartime situations. Together with Kurdish cooperation, we are implementing treatments to support the mother-infant interaction among those who are suffering and as a preventative measure for war-affected families.

Raija-Leena Punamäki, PhD, is a psychologist and professor at the University of Tampere, Finland, and received her PhD from the University of Helsinki. Her research has focused on child development and mental health in conditions of war and military violence, psychosocial interventions for war-affected children as well as rehabilitation of survivors of torture and human right abuse. Her current research focuses developmental aspects of trauma impacts, including infancy and adolescence, as well as family dynamics. The special interest is in the role of maternal exposure to the toxic environment of war trauma in pre-, peri- and post-natal period in child development. The research and intervention work has been conducted in close cooperation with Palestinian, Kurdish and Nordic colleagues. She is a member of the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters, the Nordic Network for Research on Refugee Children, and Finnish Psychologist for Social Responsibility.

Source: Jacobs Foundation

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