Remarks for the Regional Child Forum on the State of the Uganda Child

USAID Deputy Mission Director Mark Meassick

Acholi Inn Gulu, Uganda

  • Representatives of the Government of Uganda
  • Representatives of the United States Government
  • Civil Society Representatives
  • Distinguished Guests;
  • Ladies and Gentlemen;
  • All Protocols Observed.

Welcome to the first Regional Forum on the State of the Ugandan Child here in the beautiful Gulu!  If you are like me, you have attended many meetings like this – whether in the Boma or the Acholi Inn or the Churchill– for a project launch or closing, or conference.  And, when you arrived this morning, I suspect you thought that this would be just another Wednesday at a meeting with the usual suspects in order to talk to each about another development challenge.  But, I expect you to know by now:  this is not meant to be just another conference!  And, at the end of this afternoon, we expect you to have joined a movement in response to an urgent Call to Action!

What we will review together are startling statistics and stories.  You may be moved to tears, may feel moral outrage or shock.  If you don’t feel one of those things, then I dare say that you haven’t been paying attention, you are not listening.  There are, as you will see, glimmers of hope and moments of inspiration.  When we met in Kampala for the National Forum, Dr. Hilda Tadria called out the remarkable strength and resilience of Ugandan school children: “You have to be strong to survive school in Uganda!”  And we were equally impressed by young Daniel Omara when he asked his very insightful question about why boys are losing interest in school and leaving? He is an extraordinary young man. We also were encouraged to learn from Dr. Michael Samson that a business case CAN be made for investing in children – especially in those first 1000 days of their lives – and that UNICEF and MOFPED are working on it together.  That said there is no doubt that the State of the Ugandan child today in 2015 is of grave concern.  Statistics show that under 5 mortality rate in northern Uganda is 105 per 1000 live births and this is higher than the national average. For every ten children in this region, three are stunted. HIV prevalence among 14-24 year-old females in northern Uganda is at 6.7percent, one of the highest rates in the country. More disturbing is that three in every ten girls in northern Uganda become pregnant before their eighteenth birthday! Further, four out of every ten girls are married off before the age of eighteen! These are a few highlights, about the region but today you will hear more about the state of the Ugandan child in the entire country.   But suffice it to say that while each of us may have heard one part of the story or another at a similar conference in the past, it is only when you put all the statistics together across the various sectors we all work in – health, education, and child protection, – that you are forced to confront the magnitude of the challenge before us.

In 2012, the U.S. Government launched its Action Plan for Children in Adversity… the first-ever strategic guidance for U.S. government assistance to children overseas. Why? Because children around the world constitute the largest block of those living in poverty.  The U.S. whole-of-government response includes nine U.S. departments and agencies working together, and provides an evidence-based, action-oriented, measurable framework with the goal of achieving a world in which all children grow up within protective family care and free from deprivation, exploitation, and danger. To accomplish this, we are helping the efforts of national governments and partners to prevent, respond to, and protect children from violence, exploitation, abuse, and neglect. And, we are determined to find new ways to support efforts so that children can thrive, not just survive.  We have committed to using national level surveillance to monitor the results of efforts in six priority countries; and Uganda is one of the six priority countries that the United States will be partnering with over the coming years. Why? Because we believe a child, born anywhere on this big planet, has a right to health, education, safety and a right to achieve success. If you do, too, then I encourage you to look over the draft National Action Plan for Child Well-Being, and find your role.

Many peoplehave already been involved in developing the draft Nation Action Plan. And perhaps you or your colleagues have participated in one or more public consultations that were held over the last several months in Kampala. We noticed that the Uganda newspapers characterized the draft as a U.S. Mission plan.  That is not true. That is not accurate.  The U.S. Mission was proud to play a supportive role.  But, the Action Plan Development Committee was formed by volunteers from thirty-five local organizations and international NGOs working in Uganda.  Their work has resulted in a holistic, consolidated draft plan that contains goals, objectives, measureable actions and national targets for three sectors: education, health and child protection, with the girl child identified as a special objective. Over the course of several months, the committee engaged in discussions with a particular focus on ensuring that this draft plan was truly inclusive of the key elements needed to improve the situation for children throughout the country.  The drafting committee and peer reviewers agreed that the structure of this plan should align with the four areas of Child Rights, the Government of Uganda’s National Development Plan 2, and the new Sustainable Development Goals, but importantly, that the draft plan should focus on core areas essential to the Ugandan context.

As participants in this regional conference, you are here to play a role in the transformational shift that is necessary for Uganda’s children to thrive and ensure that no child is left behind. With Uganda’s population growing so rapidly – most women have on average six point two children – each child requires support from systems that are already stretched. Even the most developed nation would have trouble preparing for a population growing at such a rate. USAID, in partnership with the Ugandan Government and civil society, and in partnership with you, wants to help change the lives of all the twenty million children in the country starting today. So, while we know we need more time in consultations, the time now is for action as well.

Like many of you here today, I am a parent. I have ideas of what I would like to see the future look like for children.  It always includes them growing up safe, healthy, educated and happy. I know you want the same for your children….. and that takes commitment and finances not just from the government, but from communities and from families.

We, in this room, have been working steadily and with dedication to help move Uganda toward achieving its Vision 2040.  We have celebrated successful projects and the dramatic successes in conference rooms across the country.  And, I don’t want to suggest that they weren’t worthy of celebration.  They absolutely were. HOWEVER, the fact is that if we don’t change the way we are engaging in our work, if we don’t engage in a more concerted effort toward a common goal, this Vision is grand, but unattainable by 2040.  We all know that Uganda’s population is mostly children.  The State of the Ugandan Child is the State of the Nation.  It is incumbent upon us – I believe it is our moral duty – to take up this Call to Action.  The children of Uganda are counting on us, the mothers and fathers, the teachers, nurses and doctors, the politicians and religious leaders, the businessmen and artists, to do the right thing.  To offer them and their children and their children’s children a future that is safe, prosperous, healthy; where they can realize their own dreams and ambitions; where girls and boys are equally likely to thrive; where democracy reigns and all Ugandans, irrespective of age and gender, are met by their fellow citizens with dignity and respect.

As a father, and as a citizen of the world, I play many roles. I am a husband, a father, a deputy mission director, a life-long student, a leader and an American. But I have room for one more role…. champion.  I want to be a champion for children in Uganda. And I would like you to be one, too. Become a champion with me, and take this opportunity to learn how you can go back into your communities, to your job, your organizations and your families and create change. Create awareness in your communities about nutrition and its benefits on a child’s development … promote positive parenting practices among your peers…. Do what YOU can do to make a difference.

Because we KNOW that when people work together, when people join together and form a movement, extraordinary change can happen!  Over the course of history, we’ve seen that in independence movements in East Africa, including here in Uganda.  We’ve seen that in democracy movements in places from South Africa to Ukraine.  And, in the United States the civil rights movement changed social, cultural and economic norms in ways and at a pace that many believed was simply impossible. But, like-minded people banded together and insisted upon change.  Because it was the right thing to do.  But, more than that – they didn’t just stand back and demand that justice be delivered to them – they worked hard, bridged political, religious and cultural differences, and took significant risks to MAKE IT HAPPEN. As Nelson Mandela said “there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
We know that Uganda has a history of remarkable success in meeting apparently insurmountable challenges. We have only to look back a few years to see the huge strides that have been made in poverty reduction, and the dramatic successes achieved in Preventing Mother to Child Transmission of HIV, to understand what Uganda is capable of.

Let’s each do our part to help Uganda once again make history! The Call to Action for a National Movement for Uganda’s Children is upon us. And, it starts right here in Gulu, with you.  Our Children! Our Future!

Thank you.