Jessica Cannizzaro is interning with the U.S. Fund for UNICEF’s Editorial and Creative Services Department.
Thirty-five years ago today, the world watched as thousands of school children in Soweto, South Africa took to the streets to march, protest, and make their voices heard. Their exclamations were clear, and their message was striking: they deserved a quality education, and the right to be taught in their own language. More than 100 were killed for protesting that day, and more than 1,000 were injured. But 35 years later, their unforgettable voices for justice and equality echo as we celebrate the Day of the African Child.
|© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-2475/Michael Kamber|
A baby girl and her older sister sift through garbage in search of edible peppers on the streets of Cote d’Ivoire. Neither child is in school.
The Day of the African Child was founded in 1991 by the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union)ÃƒÂ¢Å½Â¯and is celebrated every year on June 16ÃƒÂ¢Å½Â¯to honor the memory of those killed, as well as the hopes and needs of African children today.
For this year’s celebration, UNICEF and all participating organizations and governments are focusing to the estimated 30 million street children across the African continentÃƒÂ¢Å½Â¯the children who are forced by circumstances to turn to the streets for home, family, and livelihood. They are subjected to exploitation and constant dangerÃƒÂ¢Å½Â¯and some end up conscripted as child soldiers.
Child soldier: the phrase evokes horrifying images of children killed or injured during combat and subjected to countless beatings, children forced to live in harsh conditions with little to no food. Though the problem is most critical in Africa, all around the world you can find children as young as 9 who have been forced to put down a school book and pick up a gun.
As a young person myself, it is almost impossible to imagine the constant struggles and horrors that these children faceÃƒÂ¢Å½Â¯their childhoods taken away, their voices left unheard.
|© UNICEF/NYHQ2006-2611/Michael Kamber|
A boy, approximately 15, carries a gun in Nigeria. He is a member of a militia group, MEND.
In a recent interview with The Christian Science Monitor, UNICEF Protection Specialist Pernille Ironside (an incredible woman working in conflict zones worldwide to protect these children) commented on the crisis, saying, “We need to understand that [to join] is a choice of survival. These children literally don’t have enough to eat or opportunities to go to school… There are so many driving factors, and there’s not [just] a single solution to responding to those different motivations.”
Thirty-five years ago, we watched as young people fought for their right to an education, to limitless opportunity. Today, as we celebrate the Day of the African Child, let us honor their memory by fighting for those children whose voices today continue to go unheard. Let us honor their memory by helping those children who feel they have nowhere to turn except to the life of a soldier. Let us honor their memory by combating the unjust violence inflicted on children by providing more educational opportunities and outreach programs. By honoring their memory today, in time we can help abolish child conscription and build a bright future together.