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How drought is changing childhoods in East Africa

Hunger, disease and exploitation threaten thousands of childhoods in the region

They rarely make the headlines. But a slow burning, quiet crisis can be just as life threatening and catastrophic as a sudden, dramatic one – and the consequences for children’s lives just as devastating.

Right now, East Africa is in the grip of the most severe drought in two generations. More than 20 million children are facing severe hunger, thirst and disease in the region – a number that doubled in the six months from July 2022 as a result of climate change, conflict, global inflation and grain shortages.

The world is familiar with images of dry plains in Africa. But the circumstances surrounding this drought are exceptional – the rainy season has failed for four years in a row and the current drought is the most severe in 70 years of record keeping.

At the same time, other crises like the conflict in Ukraine and the earthquake in Syria and Türkiye have diverted attention and humanitarian aid from the region, while global food and fuel prices have been pushed up.

Here are five ways that drought is profoundly changing childhood in East Africa – and what child sponsors are doing about it.

1. Children’s health is threatened and it can last for life

While one in five people in Africa today are facing hunger, almost two million children in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are experiencing severe acute malnutrition, and that’s the deadliest form of hunger. When a child is malnourished they don’t receive the nutrients their bodies need to function properly and if it happens longer, it changes a person’s wellbeing for life.

Malnutrition isn’t just a stomach thing. It stunts growth and weakens the immune system, leaving a child vulnerable to disease and infection. It also hampers a child’s brain development, impacting their learning and future potential.

In Kakorio, Kenya, Margaret cares for her two children, her mother-in-law and her aunt alone, because her husband has left to look for work. She doesn’t know if he will return. Her son Daniel is one and he is suffering from malnutrition.

"This crisis is worse [than the last drought]," says Martha, the local World Vision nutrition officer.

"We find higher rates of malnutrition now. Most people depend on animals, but they have nothing to feed on. When the grass is not there, they die, or they can't produce milk."

"It makes survival difficult."

But World Vision and child sponsors mean mothers like Margaret have support. Daniel is one of dozens of children under five and pregnant and breastfeeding mothers who are now receiving nutrition supplements.

And together, we’re saving lives – nine out of 10 children World Vision treats for severe malnutrition makes a full recovery

2. Families are driven from their homes

The drought has forced an estimated two million people from their homes in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia to look for food and water, with almost 24 million people now facing severe water shortages.

The United Nations says the total number of displaced people in East Africa has tripled over the past decade to almost five million people, and the worsening climate crisis is a major driver.

Displacement from a stable home and community can have huge social, emotional, psychological impacts on a child, as well as making them more vulnerable to violence, exploitation, lost education and poverty.

In Stella’s community in Kilifi Country, Kenya, people now have to walk up to 15km to collect water – double the distance that they used to walk, or more, as rivers, water pans and dams dry up. 4.2 million people in the area are facing food insecurity.

Across the country, people are leaving their homes in the search for food and water as their crops and livestock die.

“My mother would tell me stories [about her childhood]. When she was my age, it used to rain often and she had enough food to eat,” says Stella.

“My mother used to plant maize in her garden."

"I would be looking forward to a lot of food but when it stopped raining, the plants would all die.”

Child sponsors and other donors are helping families like Stella’s to adapt to the changing conditions and produce food right in their communities again, through climate smart agriculture training and a drip irrigation kit.

“It made me realise that I had to depart from conventional way of doing farming," says Stella’s mother Grace.

“The environment has changed and we have to change too, using skills that I was taught.”

“I always dreamt of growing up in a garden with plenty of food just like my mother. My dream came true when World Vision brought us a drip irrigation kit,” says Stella.

“The plants look beautiful. I don’t worry about lunch anymore because there is enough food at home.”

3. Kids drop out of school

Hunger is pushing kids out of school in search of work to help their families buy food, or simply because it’s too hard to learn on an empty stomach.

An estimated 3.6 million children in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia alone are in danger of leaving school as a result of the pressure the drought is putting on their households – a number that tripled in just six months.

The knock-on effects are devastating. An education improves a person’s future job prospects – some research suggests each year of school translates to a 10% wage increase in lower income countries.

But it also improves their health, develops critical thinking and life skills, and fights gender inequality. Losing those benefits stifles the potential of whole communities.

“I cried because I was hungry. I had not eaten dinner and breakfast."

"The previous day, I had only eaten one meal,” says 8-year-old Moses.

But his local school has become an oasis from the crisis. It’s one of 11 schools in Kilifi County, Kenya to join a school meal programme made possible by child sponsors and other donors.

“We now have 100% attendance – unlike before, when most children would stay at home because of hunger,” says Gift, a teacher at the school. 

3. Children are forced into labour

Drought and other climate-related shocks are a significant driver of child labour. When families who rely on agriculture for their livelihoods lose their source of food and income to weather events like drought, flooding or storms, they need more hands to rebuild the damage, or to go to work to bring in alternative sources of income, and school-aged children are the closest available resource.

Price shocks driven by local crop failures can have the same effect, causing families under pressure to turn to their children to help fill their income gaps.

For many children, this short term solution to the effects of a disaster become a long term requirement, and they never return to school. As well as damaging their future work prospects, research suggests climate disasters are pushing a growing number of children worldwide into dangerous working conditions, like working in mines or brick kilns, that put their health and lives at threat.

Mwaka, who lives in Kwale, Kenya is 15 years old and living proof of the research. She was forced to drop out of school to help her family earn money to buy food after the drought caused crop after crop to fail.

“I always dreamed of breaking the illiteracy bondage in my family by ensuring that my children go to school."

"I wanted them to have a better life than mine, but the droughts have made me poor, with nothing to survive on,” says Mwaka’s mother Sidi.

“I live with so much guilt.”

Child Sponsorship, combined with World Vision’s East Africa Hunger Response, is working to help family’s like Mwaka’s to cope with the immediate effects of this drought with emergency food supplies and cash vouchers.

We’re also helping to build disaster resilience through climate smart training, farming equipment like water pumps and skills training and support to diversify income sources so parents can support their families and kids can stay in school and out of work.

5. Girls are vulnerable to child marriage and exploitation

A disaster like drought affects everyone in the community, but it doesn’t affect everyone the same way. A growing body of research shows that the hunger crisis is putting girls and women at greater risk of gender-based violence, exploitation and child marriage.

A 2021 World Vision report found that a child that went to bed hungry in the past four weeks is 60% more likely to be married than one who did not experience hunger, and a child not at school is 3.4 times more likely to be married than one at school.

2020 saw the largest increase in child marriage rates in 25 years – with severe impact on girls’ wellbeing and futures.

Child sponsors are standing with girls and their communities in the worst affected areas to change these statistics, educating children and community members about children’s rights and how to protect them.

Together, we’re also working with mothers to set up savings groups where they can build financial literacy, access start up capital for small businesses to generate new income streams, and, step-by-step, tackle damaging gender norms.

More than 1,000 children under the age of five in Kochere, Ethiopia are malnourished, since the drought killed the coffee trade that was the community’s main source of income.

But Workalem’s daughter is not one of those children – because Workalem is part of the local savings group and has started her own vegetable selling business.

“Before, I didn’t have any means of income,” says Workalem.

“I am now independent. For my daughter, I don’t want her to get married early."

"I am telling her to study well. She’s now in preschool. I want a different future for us.”

The road ahead for children in East Africa caught in the crosshairs of drought is long, but thanks to sponsors, they won’t walk it alone. For every child sponsored, four more benefit.

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