As the Africa Climate Summit opens in Nairobi, there is an urgent need to prioritise the protection and well-being of children, especially girls and young women, in the face of escalating climate-related challenges.
Recent research in the journal Science, titled 'Intergenerational Inequities in Exposure to Climate Extremes,' reveals a distressing forecast: Children born from 2020 onwards face a two to sevenfold increase in extreme climate events compared to those born in the 1960s. From droughts and storms to floods, heatwaves, and wildfires, these vulnerable young lives are increasingly under threat.
These climate-related shocks are taking a severe toll on the health, education, food security, and overall development of children. With natural resources dwindling, children, adolescents, and women are disproportionately affected, despite being the least equipped to respond to these crises.
For instance, contaminated water and food resulting from floods often lead to outbreaks of diseases like diarrhoea. Rising temperatures exacerbate malaria and dengue outbreaks, disproportionately impacting children. These experiences have dire consequences on their mental health, causing trauma, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress, ultimately hindering their safe and healthy development.
In Kenya, where Plan International is actively engaged, the situation is stark. Protracted droughts have affected over 80 per cent of the country's landmass, primarily in the Arid and Semi-Arid Lands. Marsabit, Turkana, Wajir, Isiolo, and Mandera are facing the highest malnutrition levels.
Our Rapid Gender Assessment in Marsabit and Kwale counties reveals that girls and women are bearing the brunt of the worst drought in Kenya in the last four decades. Girls face threats of abuse, sexual exploitation, and violence, particularly as they take on parental responsibilities when their parents search for sustenance.
The current drought has forced communities into harmful coping mechanisms such as child early and forced marriages, especially for financial survival. School dropout rates, particularly among girls, are soaring. Reduced water availability has compromised girls' personal hygiene practices, with many lacking access to menstrual hygiene resources.
The neglect of sexual and reproductive health and rights for girls and young women has resulted in increased risks of gender-based violence, child marriage, female genital mutilation, sexual abuse, and exploitation. Women are often excluded from decision-making processes, preventing them from contributing to climate-resilience planning and policymaking.
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Addressing these pressing issues requires a multi-faceted effort involving both state and non-state actors. It is imperative to include children in designing innovative, gender-responsive, and sustainable development strategies and programmes, placing girls, women, and young people at the centre.
Beyond Africa Climate Summit, let us prioritise climate-led initiatives to comprehensively address the immediate needs of children, especially girls, young women, and vulnerable groups, to avert the risk of widespread starvation in Africa.
Mr Otim is the Country Director, Plan International Kenya