UNICEF's youngest ever Ambassador Hayley Westenra has returned from a recent trip to Ghana, where she witnessed the needs of some of the poorest children in the world for safe water and education.

The New Zealand-born international singing sensation recorded a daily video blog of her trip, detailing her trip to some of the programs she supports.

One such program was a Guinea worm containment centre in Savelugu, northern Ghanasaw, where the 21-year-old saw firsthand the terrible impact drinking water contaminated with Guinea worm has on children. Once the water-borne worms get into children’s bodies, they can grow up to a meter in length and create painful swelling and blisters.

Among the 20 patients being treated for Guinea worm at the centre was Ruhaina, 7. She had been weeping ever since her father had brought her three days earlier from their village some 18 km away. He stayed with her for two days, but when he had to return to work she was left alone at the centre. Westenra comforted Ruhaina with a Maori lullaby from New Zealand.

“It’s too much for a girl of her age to be going through, particularly when it’s preventable,” said Westenra.

UNICEF has been providing safe drinking water and hygiene education as part of the effort to combat Guinea worm. The parasite has a disproportionate impact on children under age 16, as they are more likely to play in or drink from infected water sources. Significant progress has been made, however, in reducing the incidence of Guinea worm in Ghana. In 1989 there were almost 180,000 reported cases, but the annual total is now down to a small fraction of that figure.

“The incidence of Guinea worm is at the point where there is an end in sight,” said Westenra. “The goal of eradicating it completely from Ghana is perfectly achievable, and UNICEF’s work in providing safe water and hygiene education is making a huge difference in the lives of children.”

Westenra also visited a number of kindergartens, observing classes in action and interacting with children on education, water and hygiene issues.

UNICEF support has helped boost the quality of education with a country-wide project that trains kindergarten teachers and attendants. UNICEF also provides reading kits and teaching materials to schools. For Hayley, a particular highlight of the program was the opportunity to meet with some of the roughly 6,000 girls from deprived rural communities who have benefited from the Bikes for Ghana program. Hayley launched the UNICEF New Zealand sponsored program during her previous visit to Ghana in 2005.

“The bikes program has proved a great success for girls who have to commute long distances from home to school,” she said. “The bikes are a practical and cost effective way for girls to get to school quickly and safely, as well as boosting their school attendance rates and academic performance.”

Westenra says that she feels very privileged to be able to return to Ghana and meet with children who struggle everyday with difficulties that are almost unimaginable to people in Western countries.

“I see the trip as very much about raising awareness of the conditions for children in need and how people can support UNICEF’s work to improve children’s lives in Ghana,” she said.

A video highlighting the singer’s visit can be viewed here.


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