The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) plays a key role in promoting the rights of children and interventions that focus on children in Malawi. Having served in Burundi, Johannes Wedenig is the new Unicef-Malawi country representative. In this interview with our reporter PRECIOUS KUMBANI, he discusses some of the key priorities being addressed by Unicef and concrete ways and innovations that are being used to positively impact the lives of all Malawian children. Excerpts:
Welcome to Malawi. First, share us your vision for the children of Malawi?
My vision as Representative of Unicef Malawi is that the rights of all children in Malawi are realised. To achieve this, I see my role as one that—in addition to leading a team that adds value and supports interventions that deliver results—Unicef builds alliances that are sustainable and leverages for children around key issues.
What challenges have been registered so far that you plan to address immediately?
The food insecurity situation in Malawi has meant that nutrition issues need to be urgently addressed. A SMART [Standardised Monitoring and Assessment of Relief and Transitions] Survey conducted in April and May this year, coordinated by the Department of Nutrition HIV and Aids (DNHA) and Unicef indicated that districts in the Southern Region are significantly affected and there is a deteriorating trend in 2016 as compared to 2015. Unicef is supporting the Government of Malawi to respond to the emergency nutrition situation in under-five children through early case identification, referral for treatment of severe acute malnutrition and in procurement of therapeutic food and lifesaving commodities. There are also challenges in protection issues such as violence against children, child marriage and harmful traditional practices that require immediate attention. It is important to remember, however, that while addressing those immediate challenges, we have to continue to address the issues of poor sanitation and hygiene, child and maternal health, HIV and overall ensure that the needs and rights of most vulnerable children are being addressed.
What will be your strategy to respond to these issues in Malawi?
Unicef has been present in Malawi for a long time and we are here for the long haul. Sustainable change for children requires ownership. In the short and medium term Unicef will focus on proven interventions with high impact and on issues that could pose a threat to what has already been achieved, such as the current food crisis and budget contractions. The longer-term strategy is to build alliances around social norms and to continue investment for children while promoting evidence-based policies such as expansion of social cash transfers.
What are your expectations from Malawi?
Unicef cannot achieve any results on its own and therefore our partnerships with the Government of Malawi and other stakeholders are key to ensuring the rights of Malawi’s children are realised. Children’s issues are our issues and should unite all sections of society. Investing in the futures of children is investing in Malawi’s future. I, along with the staff of Unicef Malawi, will continue the work of advocating for the protection of children’s rights, to help meet their basic needs and to expand their opportunities so they can reach their full potential.
How do you assess the welfare of children in Malawi?
Malawi is a ‘youthful’ nation given its high percentage of children and young people, presenting a very promising future for the country. There has been great progress achieved for children especially in the infant mortality rate, under 5 mortality rate and today fewer children are being born with HIV. It will be important for us to understand how this progress was achieved and how those gains can be consolidated. On the other hand, there are areas where progress has been slow, in particular with respect to issues that have to do with social norms (violence and abuse against children, role of the girl child, early marriages and pregnancies) and that requires us to review and analyse what has been done so far, make adjustments and step up our efforts.
Finally, how long will you be in Malawi and how does it feel to work in Malawi?
I will be in Malawi for the next three to four years. I am very excited to be in Malawi. Professionally, I feel that Unicef has made a contribution to further the rights of children and is well placed to strengthen its role. Personally, I love nature and Malawi is a beautiful country that I have started exploring and the warmth of its people is one in a kind. There is definitely a reason why it is referred to as “the Warm Heart of Africa.” n