06/07/2013 04:52 pm ET Updated Aug 07, 2013

A Day for Africa's Children

Thirty-seven years ago, what began as a peaceful march among high school students in Soweto to protest the South African government's lack of commitment to black children's education descended into riots and chaos. When police began shooting indiscriminately into the crowd of students estimated to be as large as 20,000, the protests turned confrontational and ugly, and when it was over at least 23 students were dead. (Unofficial estimates claim the toll was almost 10 times as many.)

The anniversary of the Soweto uprisings is today a national holiday in South Africa, which annually commemorates June 16 as Youth Day. The day also is remembered throughout the continent. The 54 nations that make up the African Union have designated it as Day of the African Child. While the anniversary serves as a remembrance of the events of 1976, its meaning today is much broader. It is intended as a day to reflect on the lives of African children and the harsh realities and challenges they face on a daily basis. It also is an opportunity to renew commitments toward improving their lives.

Over the years, much of the attention of the international development community has been on vital foundational elements: healthcare and education, food and self-sufficiency. Disrupting the cycle of poverty means ensuring that mothers and their children are healthy and that the communities they live in have the capacity to help them stay that way. It means educating children so that they not only can read and write but can acquire the skills necessary to earn a living. This focus has yielded meaningful progress: childhood mortality rates have fallen, primary school attendance is up and the number of people living in extreme poverty is down. Even so, much more work needs to be done across the board.

There are other challenges that the Day of the African Child brings to mind, and they are perhaps even more complex and nuanced than the larger, overarching ones. I'm referring to the array of harmful social and cultural practices that countless African children, especially young girls, must endure. Female genital cutting is among the most widespread. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 100 million African girls have been subjected to this category of procedures that can involve a female version of circumcision to the complete non-medical removal of external genitalia. Other degrading and painful customs involve the extraction of canine teeth among young children. I have a vivid memory as a young Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya where I came upon a young child, not even 2 years old, who had just had his teeth removed. As he wailed in pain, blood pouring down his face, those around me explained that the boy's teeth had to come out as a way to accelerate his speech development, which they felt had been delayed.

Such practices may offend our own sensibilities, and yet, we must be sensitive to their cultural origins and long-held traditions, despite the danger, pain and risk inherent in them. The African Union is moving toward stronger legal protections and is encouraging member nations to adopt legislation that would prohibit many of these practices. But it is important to understand that among many African peoples, their sense of identity comes not from national boundaries but from their tribal lineage and social structures. In other words, their closely held customs are what define their belief system, and legislating changes in behavior from a federal or even a provincial level would be difficult.

At ChildFund, we are addressing this issue, as we do so many others, at the community level. We have been able to leverage our position of trust within community-based organizations to educate local people about the harmful consequences of some of these practices. Education is so important as many of these customs have their origins in a misunderstanding of biology, medical practices and human development. Working through community elders who have earned the respect of those around them has been especially effective in helping create a new mindset and an openness to change.

In Ethiopia, for example, ChildFund has launched a program in various rural districts, including in Siraro where we are building alliances among local government, tribal and community leaders, as well as women and children themselves, to address harmful traditional practices and gender-based violence. In Liberia, our Safeguarding the Future Effectively program in various regions is helping create greater awareness about the effects of harmful traditional practices. We have a sympathetic ally there in Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the continent's first female president.

The uprisings in Soweto almost four decades ago are today a lesson in the power to change generations of ingrained attitudes and misguided traditions. That is the same challenge that lies ahead with respect to ending a range of harmful practices that are subjecting millions of African children to undue pain and suffering. The Day of the African Child reminds of us of how much work we still have to do.

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