In most cities in the world, children have to cross dangerous streets to get to school, sometimes even at a risk to their lives.
One of the great scandals of our time is that the biggest threat to school-age children and adolescents, one of the most vulnerable groups in our societies, has been neglected time and again. We have invested so much in making our cities bigger, taller and faster but children, who are among the least able to speak for themselves, have been left behind.
South Africa is one of the most urbanised countries in Africa, and our cities attract millions from the continent and beyond.
Globally, we know why 3 000 children will be killed or seriously injured every day on the roads and why 300-million children are having to breathe toxic air. Too often in fast-developing urban centres, basic protection for children on the roads is lacking and there’s little action to address the causes of pollution.
What is harder to understand is how the international community has been so complacent. The situation is intolerable but the response of global, national and regional leaders, for the most part, has been to pay it lip service.
The World Urban Forum, which draws representatives from all around the globe, has agreed to make safe and healthy journeys to school a priority of the New Urban Agenda, a commitment that should help to shape city development. The aim is simple — to make sure that every child can make their almost daily journey knowing the air they breathe is clean and the steps they take are safe.
The route to ensure this is through clear-cut policies and solutions. This means building urban environments that prioritise people, not cars, and encourage walking, cycling and outdoor play. It also means ensuring that crossings and sidewalks near schools are safe, and that traffic speeds are regulated.
The arguments for this are clear. But what the statistics don’t share is the profound pain of every child lost, a world of hopes and dreams shattered.
When my own daughter, Zenani, turned nine, my grandfather, Nelson Mandela, asked her what she wanted for her birthday. Her response was not a new phone, clothes or a party. Instead, she asked him to read to the children in her class. For her, the greatest gift was an education.
But Zenani did not live to see out her school years. She was killed on a Johannesburg road just after her 13th birthday. My precious daughter deserved a future, protection and so much more. Instead, she was a victim of the biggest killer of young people worldwide — road traffic.
My family and I know what it is to suffer because of this man-made epidemic. Every day, thousands of other families experience the pain and suffering we have.
It is senseless and needless but we continue to suffer because the policies and solutions needed to prevent these tragedies are ignored by our leaders.
Children are not being protected. Just when they’re beginning to learn to take their place in the world and seize life’s opportunities, they are being failed. We must ask hard questions. Are leaders serious about the health and welfare of our children? Will they take the steps needed to tackle the major health burdens that adolescents face? And are we, with the responsibilities we have as adults, going to push to uphold the rights of every child?
We don’t need more words, we need real commitment and real action from our leaders to take the health and rights of young people seriously. The solutions need concrete funding commitments and the political will to make a real change. The EveryLife campaign is calling for recognition of the fundamental rights of every child and young person worldwide. These rights, the rights of every child and adolescent to safe and healthy journeys to school, will protect not just this generation but every future generation.
I am calling for every leader to take the first tangible step. I am asking them to end the suffering of our young people, to give them the opportunities they deserve. Make our cities safe, healthy and equitable. For every parent, family and child, the global community must stand up and fight for every life.
Zoleka Mandela is the FIA Foundation’s Child Health Initiative ambassador. This is an edited version of her opening speech at the World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur