12/11/2012 01:14 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2013

Another Urban Myth

In the shadows of the bright lights of Africa's cities live children like Pethias, a 15-year-old orphaned boy who dreams of becoming an engineer, but instead has dropped out of school to work in the fields to help earn money to put food on the table.

Pethias lives in Chibulma, Zambia, in a dilapidated two-room house with his eldest brother, who works in the scrap metal business. He is among the nearly 200 million children living in Africa's urban areas, many of whom are left vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and disease as families move from rural to urban areas with little or no access to basic services.

Whether it is the result of floods, drought, war or the search for a job, children and families are leaving their rural homes in droves to seek a better life in the city, making the pace of urbanization in Africa the fastest in the world. The urban infrastructure across the continent -- exacerbated by the influx and the highest birth rates in the world -- is bursting at the seams and is not set up to meet the needs of a growing population.

Over the past year, Save the Children gathered insight from children like Pethias and more than 1,000 other African stakeholders, including, parents, government and community leaders in some of the poorest and largest urban areas, on the challenges they face. Their voices are captured in a report Save the Children released last week, "Voices from Urban Africa: The Impact of Urban Growth on Children."

Their stories reveal that the "urban advantages" of better health care, education and opportunities to make a good living -- often associated with city life -- are in reality an urban myth. Currently, 60 percent of the African urban population lives in slums. As a result of dire poverty, children and families face many barriers to achieving the quality of life they so desperately seek.

Many children are lured to the city by their relatives with promises of attending school. Instead, they are forced to work as full-time domestic servants, run errands for adults, labor in the mines and fields, or perform transactional sex. For girls, it is worse. They are often abused and even raped by family members and are unable to escape their dismal situation.

We also heard from families who say they are too busy trying to make enough money to feed their families even one, at most two, meals a day. And while most Americans simply turn on their kitchen faucet for a glass of clean water, poor families in urban Africa tell us they spend hours waiting in long lines for that same privilege. If they fall ill, they have to scavenge or borrow money for transport to the health clinic. When they get there, they say they face discrimination and overcrowding only to receive services lacking in quality.

The good news is that, despite all of these challenges, there is still hope for the children and families in city-dwelling areas of Africa. With greater study and understanding of urban challenges -- and ultimately rethinking strategies and increasing investment -- the development community, including donors and policymakers, can help Africa respond more effectively to the needs of vulnerable children.

Already, progress is being made. Inspired by the urban research findings, Save the Children staff in Malawi quickly responded by designing the Ndirande Care and Savings pilot project, and then mobilized resources to address six of 12 key recommendations coming out of our discussions with the community. Over 2,000 households with children under 2 years old will benefit from improved livelihoods, health and nutrition.

Additionally, Save the Children's country office in Tanzania has used the research findings with the community in Shinyanga to get funding from a private donor to support a pilot project for economic strengthening activities to reach youth.

Whether addressing children's protection, health, education or future livelihoods, it is clear that programs must not stand alone. To truly help children survive and thrive, we must work in cross-sectoral partnerships and across program interventions to better support children. Strategic partnerships between NGOs, the private sector and institutions will be needed to transform city planning, water and sanitation and to build a stronger infrastructure for all city residents. In addition, civil society will need to support a transparent and accountable local government to adapt their interventions to advance urban poor communities.

Investing our resources and putting in place good policies in poor, urban African communities is not only the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do. It will help prevent needless abuse, death and disability and to ensure that children have the opportunity to realize their full potential. With the right partnerships, the right resources and the right information, we can achieve real results for children in Africa's cities. Urbanization in Africa will be a success story --and not a myth -- that's worth repeating.