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ChildFund Australia Global Programs Director Sarah Hunt shares how a recent trip to Zambia and Kenya was a stark reminder of how simple things like food, clean water, and health care can have a profound impact on children’s lives.

Sarah with a family in Kenya.

I’ve often seen the impact that both poverty and development can have on children and families, but during my recent trip to Kenya and Zambia there were a couple of things that stood out: flushing toilets in communities, which showed how far we’ve come; and children on the side of the road, desperate for water, which showed how much we still need to do.

“We encountered young children asking for water. These children, had been out all day in the hot sun, searching for water for what livestock they still had left.”

Together, with colleagues from the ChildFund Kenya team, we were several hours north of the capital, Nairobi, driving through pastoralist communities, when we encountered young children asking for water. These children, had been out all day in the hot sun, searching for water for what livestock they still had left.  

It was a stark reminder of what happens to children when the impacts of poverty are compounded by crises or disaster such as severe drought.

Health volunteers help to reduce maternal and child deaths in remote communities

I’ve been with ChildFund Australia for 15 years and held several different program roles during this period. The first time I travelled to Zambia and Kenya was between 2005 to 2008, as ChildFund’s Africa Program Coordinator. At the time, a key focus was supporting children – many of whom were orphans – impacted by HIV/AIDS.

Today, we work closely with local partners to implement a range of projects in both countries, from health and education to child protection. We also respond to emergencies such as the ongoing drought in the Horn of Africa.

Sarah with ChildFund Kenya and local partner staff.

Over the years I’ve noticed that level of investment in infrastructure has increased, but it’s only really obvious in urban areas and especially the capital cities. In remote communities, clean water and health care facilities are still inadequate, and far and few between.

In Zambia, I visited a health centre that the local partner – Chibombo Child Development Agency – began building in 2015 with support from ChildFund. The centre is about an hour and a half away from the capital, Lusaka, and services a remote community of about 8,000 people. It had new housing for staff, and a post-natal bay for mothers and their newborn babies.

The health centre provides community members with basic healthcare but if someone is seriously ill, or there are complications with a pregnancy, they need to be referred to a hospital 30kms away – the next closest health facility. To get there, most families need to find someone who has a motorbike who will take them all the way, or to the main road, where they will need to find alternative transport to the hospital.

It was inspiring to see the passion and ambition of the health centre staff. They showed me a 20-year roadmap of everything they wanted to build. It included dentistry and radiology rooms, and an operating theatre. The hope is to one day be able to provide patients with a full suite of health services at the centre.

The outreach work of the different community health volunteers was impressive. These volunteers are so important to the community and fill the service gaps of the health centre. They provide antenatal and postnatal support to mothers, and monitor the development and growth of young children. They are key to preventing child malnutrition and common childhood diseases.

The volunteers shared that the health outreach work they were doing was helping to reduce the number of maternal and child deaths in the community.

Girls need to be in school. Period.

I also visited a school supported by ChildFund Zambia. I’ve seen lots of water and sanitation facilities over the past 15 years, but it was at this school in Kafue District in Zambia that, for the first time I saw a school with flushing toilets. Previously I’d only ever seen pit latrines for students and teachers to use.

Girls received menstrual hygiene products with the support of ChildFund Zambia and the Kafue Child Development Association.

It is the school’s activities around menstrual hygiene, that are really making a difference to the lives of girls and young women.

Many families in the community cannot afford menstrual hygiene products, so girls often stay at home when they have their period. Some girls and young women engage in risky behaviour to afford them; they’re either doing cheap domestic labour to be able to save a bit of money on the weekends or after school to buy the products, or they’re engaging in relationships with older men, who will buy the products for them.

There’s also a lot of stigma and taboo associated with periods. Part of the issue is not being able to afford products, but there’s also a sense of embarrassment around menstruation. Together with their local partner, the Kafue Child Development Association, ChildFund Zambia is working with families and communities to change these harmful perceptions and attitudes.

The school I visited is also providing girls with sanitary pads and has built proper waste disposal facilities for these products. This has been critical to keeping girls in school.

Clean water, at last

Pastoral communities in Turkana and Marsabit counties in Kenya have faced the crippling impacts of the longest, and most severe and widespread drought in the country in a decade. More than 4 million people in Kenya have been affected by the drought, which is driving alarming levels of food scarcity, and malnutrition for children and women.

“Simple things like not having enough food or water at home can prevent children from accessing an education.”

When we encountered those children on the side of the road, desperate for water, we handed out bottles of drinking water where we could. But this was a short-term solution to a very big, complex problem.

Sarah helping in the kitchen at a school in Kenya.

At our destination in Marsarbit county, I saw how local partners and ChildFund, with generous support from the Australian public, had helped to rehabilitate a clean water system in a community severely impacted by the drought. The team was also helping to provide children in early childhood centres with supplementary food. During the drought, these activities enabled children – who would have otherwise had to search for food and water during the day – stay in school.

Simple things like not having enough food or water at home can prevent children from accessing an education.

World Health Day is held annually on 7 April and marks the founding of the World Health Organisation in 1948. This day has been used to increase public knowledge and awareness of important health issues.

From diabetes, vaccinations, and breast-feeding, to depression, road safety and physical activity, World Health Day generates global attention on the most significant health and well-being topics of our time.

The World Health Day 2023 theme is Health for All and celebrates the World Health Organization’s 75th anniversary.

A focus on health equality

The Constitution of the World Health Organization (WHO) states that the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being, regardless of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition. However, the reality is that an individual’s birthplace can determine how easily they can get quality health care.

World Health Day 2023 is an opportunity to reflect on public health interventions and innovations that have improved quality of life over the past seven decades. It is also an opportunity to highlight the need to continue to tackle current health challenges, particularly for children and their families living in poverty.

Challenges to accessing quality health care

For children and families in developing communities, there are three major challenges to accessing essential health care:

Location: In remote and rural areas, health clinics can be located far away from communities. For many families the only option is to walk to these health clinics because they cannot afford their own vehicles and because of a lack of public transport.

Resources: Even where clinics are established, government budgets may constrain the services they are available to provide. With a shortage of qualified staff, and an even greater shortage of medical equipment and pharmaceuticals, these clinics may only be able to offer the most basic of care.

Resources such as nutritious food and clean water are essential to good health. In developing communities, access to nutritious food and clean water can be challenging because of poverty, ongoing disasters such as droughts that impact farming and agricultural activities, a lack of nutrition knowledge, and long distances to get to water resources.

Cost: Children and adults with more complex conditions will generally require the services available at hospitals located in urban centres. While public health systems may offer care that is free of charge, funds are still needed to cover travel, accommodation, and food costs. As they are foregoing earnings during this time, the total sum needed to access quality health care can be out of reach for low-income families.

ChildFund is supporting communities around the world, including in Timor-Leste (pictured), to build and repair clean water systems to help keep children healthy and free from disease.

Supporting rural communities to access health care

ChildFund’s health programs are focused on increasing access to maternal and child health care.

In Timor-Leste, ChildFund is training Community Health Volunteers to address high levels of child malnutrition and maternal mortality.

Community health volunteers like Augusta regularly monitor the growth and health of children in her village, referring them to a health professional when required, and providing advice to parents and caregivers on hygiene and nutrition.

Augusta also supports pregnant and new mothers, recommending that they give birth in health facilities rather than at home, and the importance of breastfeeding.

In Papua New Guinea, where more than 80% of the population live in remote areas, ChildFund is supporting health professionals to deliver community health outreach services in villages. These outreach services include child vaccinations, antenatal care, tuberculosis/HIV/malaria screening, family planning, and growth monitoring for children.

In Zambia, ChildFund is focused on reducing preventable deaths from malaria. The world’s most deadly vector borne disease is particularly dangerous among children, with 57% of malaria mortalities occurring among children under the age of five.

ChildFund Zambia is responding by educating children and their families about how to recognise the symptoms of malaria, testing children and their families for malaria and providing referrals to treatment, and providing families with insecticide-treated mosquito nets.

5 gift ideas to celebrate World Health Day and promote good health for all

You can help provide better health and wellbeing for all this World Health Day by buying ChildFund Australia’s Gifts For Good. Gifts that can be donated to support children and families around the world to stay safe and healthy include:

1. Mosquito nets: Sleeping without a mosquito net in areas where malaria is prevalent can be deadly. Even mild cases can cause serious problems for families living in poverty. You can help a child sleep safely at night by providing them with an insecticide-treated mosquito net that helps prevent the contraction of malaria and other diseases such as Zika, dengue and yellow fever.

2. Birthing kits for mothers: Birthing kits with medical supplies help pregnant mothers living in remote communities give birth safely at home while hospitals and health clinics are closed or overwhelmed.

3. Vegetable seeds and fruit trees: Keep nutritious and delicious gardens growing. Your gift of fruit trees and vegetable seeds will help provide a lasting source of nutrition and income for families.

4. Hand pump well: This will provide clean water for children and their families for drinking, cleaning and bathing. Children may no longer have to make long, dangerous journeys on foot to collect water from unreliable, contaminated sources. This will also offer children the protection from the risk of deadly waterborne diseases.

5. Hand washing station: This is a simple gift with the power to help everyone in a community improve sanitation and hygiene, and stay healthy. 

You can help increase access to quality health care for all this World Health Day. Donate one of ChildFund Australia’s Gifts for Good, or create your own health-focused fundraising event in support.