New Era’s Alvine Kapitako recently conducted a wide-ranging interview with Micaela Marques De Sousa, the new Country Representative of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to Namibia. She replaced Ian McLeod who completed his tenure.
De Sousa, 56, is the sixth UNICEF Country Representative to Namibia. She has been in the country for close to two months. She is responsible for managing the UNICEF country programme, which includes health and nutrition, HIV/AIDS, education, water and sanitation, child protection, social protection and policy.
NE: Since its inception, UNICEF’s mandate has been changing and/or adapting to the challenges facing the world’s children. Since you have been working for UNICEF for over 20 years. What in your opinion is the most compelling and significant strategic shift adopted by your organisation and partners in the past two decades and of late?
DS: “I think one of the most compelling stories that has happened in the last 20 years is just having the world dedicate an instrument, a legal instrument for children. (The year) 1989 was a great milestone – the Convention on the Rights of the Child was one of the greatest milestones. And soon after that, when heads of states and governments gathered for the first time ever in New York in 1971 (United States of America) to come up with the plan of action to implement the declaration and plan of action on the convention on the rights of the child, the National Plan of Action for Children (to which Namibia is a signatory).
“The convention has been one of the widest ratified conventions in the world. I think we probably only have two countries that have not ratified the convention and this for me was one of the most compelling things.
“On a more practical level, so what if the convention is there, what has happened? I think I have seen UNICEF and all the UN partners convene to rally behind the HIV/AIDS epidemic. You know that 20 years ago we were nowhere near even the open frank discussion, so looking at how the UN gathered in 2001 for the United Nations General Assembly on HIV was really compelling because HIV is one of the greatest challenges of our century, I would think.
“I also saw one of the most radical things that happened to child mortality, I could say that fifty years ago more than fifty percent of any children that were born would die before the age of five, but today we know that we have reduced those millions to much, much less and today we are renewing the call to say that by 2035, let’s work towards having 20 children only under the age of five per every 1000 live births. We have broken the silence on HIV, we have broken the silence on violence against children, sexual violence.
“I have also had the privilege to see great things happening at continental level, for example in the field of health. The 2007-2016 Africa health strategy which focuses simply on strengthening health services and promoting primary health care, it’s a case in point on how Africa collectively has learned about the problems that we have – we want to strengthen our health systems and this policy has been adopted by all ministers of health on this continent, endorsed by all heads of states on this continent.
“In the field of protection and violence against children, we have conducted real studies on this continent as well, where we ensured that we try to understand what are the drivers of violence against children. And recommendations that have come through that have helped us programme at a continental level and then at a sub-regional level, in other words in terms of SADC, or other regions. And of course, Namibia has led the way, many such discussions were driven by children of this soil.”
NE: You have been involved in HIV/AIDS programming for more than 12 years. Based on your experience in HIV/AIDS, what do you think Namibia should be doing now to accelerate and ultimately win the fight against the scourge of HIV/AIDS?
DS: I think Namibia is already making strides, very huge ones actually, in combating HIV/AIDS and one of the critical mechanisms is coordination to maximise resources and there are already platforms that are led by government itself to ensure that there is coordination in the fight of HIV/AIDS. Where there is no coordination clearly you will have such a disbursed sort of response to HIV that we will not be efficient or even effective in the use of those resources.
“The second thing which Namibia is doing very well is of course in the whole PMCT Prevention from Mother to Child Transmission, which we are now also discussing the (EMCT) Elimination of Mother to Child Transmission. You know that virtually the whole anti-retroviral therapy is taken care of by the government and there is a huge uptake, 50 percent of the 80 percent of women, it’s really government taking care of them. That’s in the response, but there is also the prevention component that as I said we need to do much, much more.
“We are preventing of course through mother to child transmission but we also need to prevent HIV among adolescents and young people and that cannot be done by the Ministry alone, it is really a multi-sectoral approach to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. It’s about knowing more and more and I think there are serious efforts around that to know your epidemic study which are directed at young people – what is it that is driving early sexual debut?
“We need to address issues of high level of alcohol and drug abuse, because those are serious drivers not only to the health of the children that we bear but also to high risk behaviour, because if you are not in control of your behaviour because of alcohol abuse or any sort of substance, then it becomes really critical. And obviously we need to ensure that we respect our children, our women.
Child abuse and neglect, violence against children all those are drivers to inhabiting self-esteem in people that will then drive them into practising unsafe behaviour. Involving men is another form of prevention – the male circumcision programme which needs to be accelerated harder and harder, we know that it reduces HIV by 60 percent. We know what needs to be done, the question is how do we accelerate what we are doing. How do we monitor and evaluate what we are doing?
Within HIV, the nutrition component, we need to address nutrition by also focusing on, for example, exclusive breastfeeding when moms are infected; it’s better to breastfeed still when you know you are HIV positive then mix ed feeding because it puts your baby at high risk.
“We need to document much more on what we are doing because we have a positive story in Namibia. We need to tell it out there, the media may be doing so and is doing so already but I think we need to do it more systematically for both the country and not focusing on the negatives. We need to tell the story of the positive things that are happening here, we need to balance.”
NE: Are there any goals that you would like to achieve during your tenure here (in Namibia)? What are they and how do you intend to achieve these goals?
DS: “In my stay here we will continue to work with government, work with partners and I would say that it is certainly building on the good work that has already been done by my predecessors. Over the years UNICEF has been a critical partner (of government). It is important to note that UNICEF alone cannot achieve – we are part of what we call the United Nations.
“I will be looking forward really to ensuring that we continue to work very strongly with government to ensure that maternal and child mortality rates are reduced. HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, care and support will continue to do that, particularly with prevention of transmission from mother to child of HIV.
“We will be working on the quality of education, working with the Ministry of Education to really revisit our efforts in quality education, education is very critical. I would not think that it’s only about primary but even secondary education. So we would continue to advocate to government for primary and compulsory secondary education.
“The whole area of protecting children from violence and abuse, focusing certainly on orphans and vulnerable children – those who are most vulnerable. But, in a nutshell, we would continue to ensure that children and women live in an environment free from any form of abuse and exploitation.
“One critical area would be, of course, supported by very strong policy advocacy, ensuring that we strengthen our monitoring and evaluation to ensure that we monitor and evaluate properly, and at the same time to promote participation of children in issues that affect their lives because children have to be at the centre of those programmes.
“In my term here, I would like to see more of what we are doing in Namibia not only among us in the country but also sharing with the region, with the international community.
“The final one is about strengthening our partnerships. As you know UNICEF is not a donor (agency), nor is the United Nations, so we work very strongly with our international development partners. This is very critical because there are many development partners here who are really providing serious support to Namibia and providing support to UNICEF as well.
“We also need to bring in other partners such as the private sector – this is one thing I want to see. What is the private sector doing in terms of helping us reduce child mortality, for example. To ensure that children do not die of malnutrition, how are we doing, how are the mothers and all those kind of policies?
“They may be there already but we want to engage more with the private sector to see the degree to which the private sector can partner with us to ensure that we all work together towards the realisation of the rights of children and women in Namibia.”
NE: What is the future role of the UN and UNICEF in particular in Namibia?
DS: “UNICEF will continue to be a critical partner to Namibia, a trusted partner. We are here at the invitation of the government. The UN does not come if the government does not invite so our future is certainly dependent (on the Namibian government) and we believe that for as long as there are children in Namibia we would be part and parcel of the journey of Namibia towards realising the rights of her children and that is our future.
“But most importantly taking into account that Namibia has been classified as an upper middle-income country. The role of UNICEF will continue to be quite strong at the policy level, evidence based advocacy, conducting studies and supporting government in facilitating the implementation of policies.
“But importantly, it would also be our role to say at the macro level – up here things are working very well but downstream, how can we collectively work to ensure that this critical mass, this movement of children and women and families, communities, traditional leaders and religious leaders, all together ensuring that there is demand for those quality services so that no woman dies while giving life, no child dies before the age of five, at least children do not become stunted and malnourished.
“So I think there is more to be done at that decentralised level, which I hope that with our government, through the leadership of and working with other partners and civil society, we can make a difference.”