Turning the tides on child drowning
Rebecca Wear Robinson
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Did the petition fail?

by Rebecca Wear Robinson on March 7, 2012

Three weeks ago I launched a petition to the United Nations to add drowning to Millennium Development Goal #4 – reduce childhood mortality. The exact wording of the petition is at the end of this blog.

As of today we have 474 signatures. Only 10 new signatures in the last week. Compare this to 58,408 people who support ‘don’t ask female boxers to wear skirts’ and 59,485 people who want boys to be allowed to donate their hair for charity. By sheer numbers the effort has been a dismal failure. However, people from 48 countries on 6 continents have signed the petition (listed at the end). That is an astonishingly wide reach for such a low turnout, so I’m going to count that as a stunning success. 8 people shared the link on Twitter (depressingly low) and 229 people ‘liked’ it on Facebook (decent). At least half of people who signed came from my personal contact list, all of whom I reached out to via e-mail, but few who then ‘shared’ the link. Many of the people who signed are not in the drowning prevention field, but they signed anyways because it’s to help children, and who doesn’t want to help children? A couple of wonderful organizations and individuals shared the link with their network and on their social media sites and I saw a surge from those countries – thank you!

So what do these less-than-stellar results tell us? The first answer is probably ‘that woman is insane and probably a loose cannon’. Perhaps, but it’s hard facts and I don’t stand to gain anything. Then we have suspicion, ‘What is the purpose of the petition? What will it accomplish?’ First and foremost, raise awareness among the general public and mobilize the drowning prevention community globally. Clearly the UN is not going to change policy based on one petition, but it could help move the issue a bit more front and center and maybe even get a task force or some resources assigned to improve the data collection efforts. There is a track record of petitions accomplishing just that. So, a reasonable purpose. How about ‘shouldn’t some group be doing a more organized and official effort?’ Awesome! I whole-heartedly support that initiative! How many of the many groups jockeying for scarce resources and recognition will allow one group to take a leadership role?

I think the bigger issue is not so pretty, or so easy. The fragmented nature of the drowning prevention field. We are dealing with one of the biggest social/public health issues on earth but we aren’t working together. We don’t leverage or utilize social media effectively. We have constant in-fighting, not to mention deep suspicion, over the ‘right’ way to end drowning. We aren’t all pulling in the same direction. Yet with such a complex and nuanced issue there is not only room for all of us, it needs all of us. There is no one way to end drowning any more than there is one type of water danger.

Because drowning is not recognized as a problem, each group is battling for the same small pool of scarce resources. I constantly hear, ‘do you know how we can get funding?’ YES! If the petition, or some other effort to raise global awareness worked, we’d have significant media coverage which would result in individual, foundation and country-level funding pipelines opening up to support programs. We need to go after the whole pie, not fight over the small crumbs.

If it’s not this petition, how are we going to raise global awareness in a way that people realize it’s an issue? How will we claim our share of scarce financial and manpower resources? People like to be involved in something bigger than themselves if it makes them feel positive. Earth Day anyone? I leave you with another global initiative, International Water Safety Day. I suggest we all support this initiative and if it doesn’t have the desired success we need to take yet another hard look at what we need to change to become more effective.

The petition will remain open until May 15, which is also International Water Safety Day. I’ll let you know the final results. As for my efforts to raise awareness, if at first you fail, try, try again. So, you’ll be hearing from me again.

The petition reads: One child drowns every minute.  In general, children under 5 years of age have the highest drowning mortality rates worldwide (Source:  WHO).  Drowning is the leading cause of of accidental death among children ages 1-4 (Source:  SafeKids).  Drowning disproportionately affects children in low-income countries, yet most people don’t even know drowning is an issue.  Estimates on drowning deaths range from 385k-600k annually, but everyone agrees the real numbers are higher. We need more awareness to gather better data and develop effective solutions.  Drowning needs to be publicly recognized as a serious threat to child mortality if we are going to end this epidemic.

Countries in order of signature:
South Africa
United Kingdom
New Zealand
Macedonia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of
Bosnia & Herzegovina
Sri Lanka
United Arab Emirates

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