First graders sit on the floor at Bethel Primary School in Katete district, southern Zambia.

UNICEF in Zambia

Children in Zambia are facing multiple challenges to their health and well-being. UNICEF is there. Learn more, including how to help.

Humanitarian needs of children in Zambia

Zambia’s population is fast-growing and young — nearly half of its citizens are under the age of 15.

The country has one of the world’s highest levels of income inequality, and children are disproportionately affected. Three out of every five Zambian children live in households with income below the poverty line — four out of five in rural areas. 

Zambia is also prone to climatic shocks that are impeding the country's progress toward development goals. Severe drought, fueled by a particularly strong El Niño 2023-2024 seasonal weather pattern, has increased food insecurity in the country, leaving millions of vulnerable children at risk of malnutrition.

Drought conditions have also complicated efforts to contain a major cholera outbreak that began in October 2023, with children under age 15 accounting for many of the cases and deaths. In late February 2024, with drought conditions severely affecting food production and safe water access and an already precarious situation growing worse, Zambia declared a state of emergency.

The difficulties are part of a larger pattern affecting several countries across Eastern and Southern Africa, where an estimated 45 million children are living through multiple and often overlapping crises intensified by climate change. "Children are the most impacted by climate shocks, and the impacts of El Niño in the region have been devastating," said Eva Kadilli, UNICEF's Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa. 

How UNICEF is helping children in Zambia

UNICEF works closely with the government of Zambia and local partners to provide emergency relief to children and families with immediate needs while strengthening critical systems to help children survive and thrive long term. 

UNICEF supports a range of programs and initiatives in Zambia related to health, nutrition, education, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), child protection and social policy. 

In health, UNICEF is focused on expanding the capacity of Zambia’s health care system and its resilience to shocks and crises to ensure that quality care services, including routine immunizations for children, can continue without interruption. 

UNICEF is also committed to supporting adolescent health; with adolescents making up a quarter of the country's population, recognizing the specific needs and vulnerabilities of this age group — including HIV prevention and treatment, substance abuse and mental health — is key.

Strengthening cholera prevention and treatment services is another major focus of UNICEF's ongoing program work in Zambia.

How UNICEF is helping Zambia fight cholera

UNICEF's swift and comprehensive support to the government's response to the 2023 cholera outbreak is ongoing, and involves working alongside government agencies and local partners to implement containment measures, conducting oral cholera vaccine campaigns in high-burden areas and otherwise assisting affected communities. 

Through targeted education campaigns and outreach efforts, UNICEF arms individuals with the knowledge and tools needed to protect themselves and their families. UNICEF also provides critical support to health care facilities, from dispensing medical supplies and equipment to training health care workers. 

A UNICEF staff member administers the oral cholera vaccine to a young child in Zambia.
A UNICEF staff member administers a dose of the oral cholera vaccine to a child in Zambia. Supporting national vaccination campaigns was only part of UNICEF's response to Zambia's 2023 cholera outbreak; UNICEF also equipped health facilities with critical supplies and helped train and deploy hundreds of community-based volunteers to spread messages about cholera prevention and access to rehydration and other treatment services. © UNICEF/UNI514017/Mwenya

Core to the cholera response was — and continues to be — the promotion of clean water, sanitation and hygiene practices. UNICEF supports initiatives to improve access to safe drinking water and proper sanitation facilities in health facilities, schools and homes, crucial steps in breaking the cholera transmission cycle.

UNICEF WASH programs, climate action are closely linked

Other WASH programs are integral to Zambia's drought response — planning emergency water supply, providing water treatment chemicals for alternative water sources, repairing damaged water systems and drilling for new sources — while building overall resilience to climate impacts.

Related activities include working with communities and leaders to avoid conflicts over the use of limited water resources, and enabling communities to design, build, operate and maintain WASH services in ways that are sustainable and inclusive.

Actively engaging young people as change agents in climate action is a key part of this strategy. UNICEF Zambia is building on existing support for climate ambassadors in schools and communities to increase attention around climate issues and to catalyze behavior change to mitigate climate impacts.

Sandra, 20, one of 16 youths who participated in a UNICEF training workshop for young Water and Environment Champions in Zambia.
Sandra, 20, with other Water and Environment Champions who participated in a UNICEF Zambia workshop focused on enhancing advocacy through digital means, including social media. "I did not know that millions of people lack access to safe water," Sandra said. "Having learned this, I plan to strongly advocate for every child's right to safe water, starting with my family and community." © UNICEF/UN0820182/Muchipa

In the area of nutrition, UNICEF is helping to build capacity within existing community health structures — including mother support groups — and of health workers to enhance malnutrition prevention and to ensure timely identification and treatment of children suffering from wasting. To help prevent all forms of malnutrition, UNICEF works with partners to improve access to nutritious, safe, affordable and sustainable diets and to promote optimal feeding and hygiene practices.

In child protection, UNICEF Zambia works closely with Zambia's Ministry of Community Development and Social services and other partners to assist with case management to prevent and respond to violence, neglect, exploitation and abuse of children, including sexual and gender-based violence, and to provide community-based psychosocial support.

In education, UNICEF focuses on:

  • improving the quality and inclusiveness of education, beginning with early childhood development 
  • facilitating free access to the Learning Passport, a national digital teaching and learning platform which supports learners through audio lessons in seven local languages and provides teaching guides and materials to teachers
  • supporting increased access to assistive technologies for adolescents and children with disabilities

UNICEF also supports a catch-up remedial learning program spearheaded by the government. Dyness, a grade 5 learner at Lubunda primary school in Mwense district, Luapula province, is one of more than 75,000 students in 485 primary schools who have benefited since the program launched in 2020. 

Dyness, a 5th grade student in Luapula province, northern Zambia, has made great strides in literacy and numeracy thanks to a UNICEF and partner-supported catch-up learning program.
Dyness, like many other Zambian students who have participated in a UNICEF-supported Catch-Up education program, demonstrated tremendous progress in literacy and numeracy in the course of single school year. © UNICEF/Zambia/2023/KalungaUNICEF/Zambia/2023/Kalunga

“During catch-up lessons, teachers give us a lot of playful activities that help me and my friends read, write and count," Dyness says. "We listen to and read stories, we write, and we rearrange or make sentences on the floor using the mind map. In grade 4, I was only able to read words, but I can now read stories and even help my friends to read.”

The catch-up lessons have also helped Dyness improve her number recognition and her division skills.

Her leaps in learning are not a one-off. Thanks to the catch-up program, by the end of the 2023 school year, 62 percent of learners were able to read more than a paragraph compared to 34 percent at the beginning of the year. Similar positive results abounded in math, with the number of students able to add and subtract jumping from 23 percent to 54 percent.

Dyness credits the program's hands-on, prop-based approach for her math skills improvement. “Using bundles, sticks and play money has assisted me to read numbers correctly and solve problems in math using addition, subtraction and multiplication,” she says.

UNICEF supports programs geared to older children and young people as well. Commitments include fostering the participation and leadership of women and girls in decision-making processes through skills development and empowerment, as well as through poverty reduction measures that provide income stability through a gender-responsive social protection system.

Learn more about UNICEF's program work in Zambia.

UNICEF works in over 190 countries and territories to create a more equitable world where every child can be healthy, educated, protected and respected.

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TOP PHOTO: First grade students assemble for a literacy lesson at UNICEF-supported Bethel Primary School in Katete district, southern Zambia. © UNICEF/UNI405665/Schermbrucker
TOP PHOTO: First grade students assemble for a literacy lesson at UNICEF-supported Bethel Primary School in Katete district, southern Zambia. © UNICEF/UNI405665/Schermbrucker