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Speakers discuss African children

Aaron Steiner | Wednesday, October 4, 2006

International leaders and experts in the fight for justice in Africa spoke to the Africa Faith and Justice Network (AFJN) and members of the Notre Dame community Tuesday, as part the Network’s annual two-day conference at the University.

Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu, Uganda was the keynote speaker Tuesday, along with three other distinguished guests who addressed this year’s conference theme: “Africa’s Children: Peril and Promise.”

Today, each of the four speakers with the AFJN conference will present various workshops along with other Network members.

AFJN is a national organization that was founded 25 years ago by Catholic missionaries who wished to advocate on the United States’ policy toward Africa, according to Father Robert Dowd, Chair of the AFJN board. Dowd is also an assistant professor of political science at Notre Dame.

Dowd said the focus of this year’s conference, African children, is becoming especially prevalent in the host of problems afflicting Africa.

“Sub-Saharan Africa is the youngest region in our world,” he said. “Forty to fifty percent of the population is below the age of 18, and a significant number are below the age of 10.”

Dowd also said there are a great number child-headed households in sub-Saharan Africa due to parental deaths from HIV/AIDS and other diseases.

“It’s really a generation of great risk,” Dowd said.

He said the Network’s annual conference is intended for education and advocacy.

“Not only do we hope to raise awareness, but also to think about how we might affect policy in a way that addresses their needs,” he said.

The panelists addressed both of these ideas yesterday, sharing their experiences and the methods they have used in facing these issues.

Sister Connie Gemme, a Missionary Sister of Our Lady of Africa, spoke specifically on the issue of human trafficking in Africa.

“The overall view of the situation is quite disturbing,” Gemme said, referring to annual human trafficking rates, including both sex and labor trafficking. “Four million men, women and children are held against their will.”

These victims are isolated and exposed to rape, violence, HIV/AIDS and other diseases while being forced into prostitution or involuntary servitude, she said.

“It’s like being in a bad dream, and hoping you’ll wake up,” Gemme said. “These women have to pay the price to wake up from it.”

Gemme said every year 50,000 people are moved to and from Africa and UNICEF estimates that 20,000 children are trafficked in western and central Africa alone, she continued.

Vicki Simon, a member of the Maryknoll Lay Ministers, focused on another problem afflicting African youth – Street living and homelessness.

According to Simon, there are over 250,000 street children in Kenya, where she has worked.

“Their stories were often heartbreaking, and very similar,” Simon said.

While working at the Ukweli Home of Hope in Nairobi, Simon said she was able to help many young men by helping them start their own businesses, and was consistently amazed at their outlooks on life.

“Amidst the dismal face of these problems … they can smile, sing and dance,” she said.

She concluded on a less positive note, however, saying there is much work to be done.

“Their health, education and development are in jeopardy,” she said.

Father Donald Dunson, another panelist and committed advocate and educator on children’s rights, praised leaders like Gemme, Odama and Simon for their work, saying they “risk everything daily” to promote justice.

Dunson also shared what he experienced while researching the conditions of African children, focusing on the problem of abduction of children.

Keynote speaker Odama further discussed the issue of abduction and involuntary servitude in warfare.

Northern Uganda, Odama said, has been the site of political unrest and warfare since 1986, with the start of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Odama said the constant fight for power between the groups has affected the entire region.

“When two elephants fight, the grass suffers,” Odama said, quoting an African proverb.

According to Odama, the LRA has committed acts of violence against the citizens of Uganda, including “cutting off the lips of those who reported their movements, and cutting off the ears of those who didn’t listen.” In addition, child abduction has increasingly become a part of the LRA’s tactics.

“In places of armed conflict, children have become pawns for selfish games,” Odama said. “It is estimated that 30 percent of the LRA is abducted children.”

Between 2002 and 2003, 10,000 child abductions took place during renewed efforts to exterminate the LRA, he said.

Still, Odama said there is reason for hope.

“God has done a miracle,” he said. “What was said impossible – that the LRA and Ugandan government could not speak – is taking place right now.”

AFJN has, as Odama said, “one less problem to worry about.” However, there is still much work to be done.

Some of that work may fall on groups like Notre Dame’s own AFJN chapter. Established in 2005 under Dowd’s guidance, the group was the first university chapter of its kind.

According to senior Michael Rossmann, the president of Notre Dame’s AFJN chapter, the group serves as both an awareness and advocacy group. Their primary project is Africa Week, which is held each spring and features discussions and other awareness events.

In addition, the group’s members practice advocacy in many ways, including traveling to Washington, D.C. and participating in events such as a recent rally for Darfur.