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RIGHTS-LIBERIA: War Threatens Survival of Children
Fri Apr 25,11:26 AM ET
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Abdullah Dukully,Inter Press Service

MONROVIA, Apr 25 (IPS) - Liberia's long-running war--coupled with the United Nations (news - web sites) sanction on diamonds' trade, and the high level of poverty and unemployment--seriously threatens the survival of the country's children.

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Health Minister Dr. Peter Coleman gave the assessment in his contribution to a U.N. forum for development dialogue in the capital, Monrovia, this week. During the parley, government officials, non-governmental organizations and civil society groups discussed "competitive investment" for child survival.

Coleman said Liberia's "infant mortality rate" has "worsened" in a country plagued with a "complex emergency" for 13 years.

The war "has made the children vulnerable to malnutrition, infectious diseases, deaths and other childhood preventable diseases - especially among internally displaced persons and refugees," he said.

According to Dr. Cyrille Niameogo, the head of the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF (news - web sites)) in Liberia, "80 percent of the 200,000 displaced persons in Liberia are children and women who have witnessed all sorts of war atrocities."

In armed conflicts around the world, Niameogo believes, "children have deliberately been targets of violence - leading to millions being killed, disabled, orphaned, sexually exploited and abused, abducted and recruited as soldiers, uprooted from their homes, separated from their families and exposed to the risk of disease and malnutrition."

Coleman said children marginally survive in Liberia whose per capita income--one of the highest in Africa in the 1980s--has declined with the country ranking 174 out of 175 countries in the U.N. Development index.

"Liberia is now a very impoverished nation with more than 80 percent of its population living below the poverty line (on less than U.S. $1 per day), while 15-20 percent are living in absolute poverty (on less than 50 U.S. cents) per day," he said.

"Ninety percent of the Liberian workforce," according to Coleman, "is unemployed and if this is not enough injury, the United Nations sanctions coupled with continued armed conflicts are additional insults."

Sanction, as one participant said "disrupts the distribution of food, pharmaceutical products, and sanitation supplies. It reduces the capacity of the public health system to maintain the quality of food, water, air and medicine."

Coleman said "while adults can withstand long periods of deprivation and hardship, children have less resistance and are less likely to survive persistent shortages."

Quoting statistics on disability from the Liberian Ministry of Health, he said that about 17 percent of the country's population is disabled with a very large proportion being children.

The situation has caused brain drain in Liberia where "430 doctors and 8,000 nurses, midwives, technicians, and paramedics, have now been reduced to only 80 doctors and less than 1,800 health workers."

With the country Balkanized by the relentless war, analysts say many children are unable to receive routine vaccination against preventable diseases due to the breakdown of the country's health system and social infrastructure.

Official records say 80 percent of the country's health facilities were looted or destroyed between 1989 and 1997. Over the last 3 to 4 years, 55 percent of health facilities in eight regions have been vandalized or abandoned by fighting between the government and rebels of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD).

Liberia's immunization coverage rate of 65 percent has dropped to about 27 percent. "Now without access to eight of the 15 regions engulfed in war," said Coleman, "the coverage is expected to decline drastically."

Paul P. Najue, the director of the Catholic-run Don Bosco Homes, a child welfare institution, has been involved in collecting wayward children, child soldiers, sex workers from the streets and children who fall foul of the law to mould their minds so as to become future leaders.

In Monrovia, he said "children are being used as breadwinners by their families. As young as eight years, some are engaged in crushing and selling rocks along with their parents. Others work with their parents in collecting and transporting latex at rubber plantations."

Genevieve Jackson, seven, is one of the minors engaged in child labor at Rock Field, in Monrovia's southern suburbs. She told IPS she is being "compelled by her parents to crush the rocks" to eke out a living. This is because, she says, her mother does not have money to send her to school. Genevieve's father was an industrial relations manager who was killed in an assault on Monrovia in Apr 1996.

Her mother, Beatrice Sundayguy, 46, also has five other children, including three girls. "Crushing rocks now is the only means available for our living. We can't help the situation but to endure the unfavorable economic conditions in this country. Everybody is forced to do all sorts of dehumanizing work to make a living," she told IPS this week.

At the displaced centers in Monrovia's western suburbs, a major humanitarian crisis looms over thousands of people--mainly women and children who fled fighting in their towns and villages and are living in abject conditions--determined not to return home until fighters disarm.

"The level of care being given us has dropped considerably over the past few months because of security concerns," a displaced person told IPS.

As a result, says Patrick Sando, a former schoolteacher, "many children have contracted ringworms. Their future is bleak, as there is no support coming for them. Their parents are unable to send them to school. Epidemic, malnutrition and despair are rampant among them."

But UNICEF's Niameogo says he has a plan to ensure the survival of Liberian children. According to him, "The United Nations--under the co-ordination of Liberia's Ministry of Health and Social Welfare--has embarked on several health interventions, including primary health care services, food aid, food security and nutrition, water and environmental sanitation and other cross-cutting issues such as HIV (news - web sites)/AIDS (news - web sites)."


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