Saturday, November 26, 2011

South Africa: Strengthening the Promotion and Protection of Child Rights in Southern Africa

Source: ISS

Irene Ndungu, Consultant Researcher and Sandra Adong Oder, Senior Researcher, Peace Missions Programme, ISS Pretoria Office

At a recent regional conference held between 14 and 16 November 2011 in Midrand, South Africa, a collaborative regional network on promoting the right of children was inaugurated with the main objective of strengthening the advocacy and protection of the rights of children in the region.

Its aim is to ensure a safe and secure future for children who suffer from abuse and human rights violations, and to have a positive and direct impact on their lives. The need for such a collaborative network is informed to some extent by the increased awareness that in spite of the impressive international legal frameworks on child protection, children’s rights have yet to be fully consolidated in the region.

Many practices still exist in the region that continue to violate the rights of children. Cases of sexual, physical and emotional abuse; the exploitation of children’s labour; and practices of harmful, cultural and traditional practices continue unabated. Over the last ten years numerous additions have been made to the body of international humanitarian and human rights law aimed at protecting the rights of children. Yet, practitioners, actors and governments are often unaware of the breadth of these new instruments and their methods of implementation. Usually, their focus is on raising awareness of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the tool most widely utilised by actors in the field.

The CRC and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC), which form the bedrock of child protection in Africa, call for states to mainstream the provisions of these instruments within their national legislations and to submit regular reports on how they are being implemented. The reports are supposed to be submitted to the Committee on the Convention on the Rights of the Child (every five years) and to the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (every three years).

Rarely, however, do countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region make regular submissions, and according to UNICEF, ‘many still lack the necessary laws, legal systems, and enforcement mechanisms to protect their children against violence and abuse’.

To launch a regional network in such circumstances, one must therefore have enormous confidence and a belief that a shared sense of purpose could best be achieved through strengthening rather than altering the existing governance and human rights framework in the region. Countries need to be encouraged not merely to satisfy reporting requirements, but rather to reinforce the understanding of the consequences of not protecting and promoting the rights of children.

Granted, most states in the SADC region have signed or ratified international child rights protection instruments, but some have yet to do so. Countries such as Zambia, for instance, have yet to ratify the ACRWC, even though it has ratified the CRC. Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe have also yet to sign or ratify the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Ponography in addition to the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, which South Africa has also yet to sign or ratify. The Democratic Republic of Congo has also yet to ratify the African Charter. Countries that have not signed these protocols should do so and as a whole, countries need to commit to making regular submissions regarding their progress on implementing provisions spelt out in these frameworks to the respective children’s rights committees.

It should be noted that advocacy and policy advice by themselves have limited utility. Governance issues, access to service delivery, shared growth through job creation and economic justice, marginalisation and youth under-employment in the region are concerns that have to be tackled, while a more balanced perspective on ‘who’ children and youth actually are, will help to create more effective and active engagement in addressing their needs. David Nosworthy, an expert on children and armed conflict, notes that casting children as helpless victims does not help in establishing a better understanding of how they are experiencing security and development, and the coping mechanisms that they themselves are deploying. He affirms that underestimating children undermines their own ability to contribute to their healthy development and ignores the fact that they are the holders of specific rights that recognise their dependency, development stage and protection needs.

In the SADC region, most issues affecting the child are cross-cutting and thus are scattered over the different thematic concerns of the regional body. Consequently, there is no one instrument on child protection for the region, as is the case, for instance, with the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development. The Gender Protocol, among other things, ‘encompasses commitments made in all regional, global and continental instruments for achieving gender equality and enhances these instruments by addressing gaps and setting specific measurable targets where these do not already exist’. A similar protocol on child protection (which is currently lacking) would be useful as it would streamline the various child protection obligations and make it easier to monitor compliance among SADC states.

SADC also needs to identify mechanisms for collaborating on trans-boundary challenges affecting children such as displacement as a consequence of the different migration typologies, child trafficking and security issues. The collaborative network on child protection will arguably be critical in this regard. It should also include monitoring of the attainment of civil rights and freedoms of children, health and welfare, education, cultural practices and special protection of children in conflict with the law or in situations of emergency, as provided for in international, regional and national legal instruments.

It is unfortunate that child protection issues often get placed on the back burner of the policy priorities of most governments in the SADC region, while budgetary allocations for children’s programmes are often inadequate. Thus, governments in the region need to ensure sufficient budgetary allocations for implementing child-related policies and adopt child-rights-based socio-political and economic programming approaches that would militate against child rights violations. This will also positively impact on the attainment of Millennium Development Goals. With the forthcoming Conference on Climate Change in Durban, it is important that countries also remain sensitive to the vulnerability of children to the effects of climate change and be mindful of these when setting goals.

Strengthening child rights protection remains an on-going challenge for the SADC region, but adopting both a regional and whole-systems approach in advocating for child rights protection will go a long way towards mitigating human rights violations as they affect Southern Africa’s children. One as such cannot imagine the response of the region to this network without a spectre of optimism and that is why the child rights protection and promotion discourse and the timing of the proposed regional network is a defining moment for the promoting the rights of children in southern Africa.