Affording children their basic rights

African youth charter. (Supplied)

African youth charter. (Supplied)

The Organisation of Africa Unity (now the African Union) adopted the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (the Children’s Charter) in 1990.

It sets out rights and defines universal principles and norms for the status of children.

In the preamble to the Children’s Charter, the African Union (AU) states that the situation of most African children remains critical. This is a result of the unique factors of their socio-economic, cultural, traditional and developmental circumstances, natural disasters, armed conflicts, exploitation and hunger. 

On account of the child’s physical and mental immaturity, the child also requires special safeguards and care. As of May last year, the Children’s Charter has been ratified by 47 of the 54 states of the AU. It has not been without its critics and, despite the Charter being in place, it is quite another thing to ensure that it is implemented properly.

Ensuring implementation

Patric Solomons, director at child rights organisation Molo Songololo, says implementing the Children’s Charter is not only the responsibility of government, but of all South Africans.

“We have wonderful laws but are struggling to effectively implement them. Think beyond the Children’s Charter and consider the Children’s Act and all other legislation. We have a situation where we can all do a better job of protecting the rights of children,” he says.

According to Solomons, it is about political will and changing the mindset of people.

“How do we as a society deal with our children? After all, children are dependent on adults for survival. One has already started seeing a participation approach in the country where children are exercising their rights within the legal system. While this is still a new concept in our young democracy, one has to consider the best interests of the child.”

Another thing to consider is having a clear programme in place to engage with children. Solomons says this has to extend throughout government. For example, the Public Protector and the Gender Commission need to have policies in place on how to effectively work with children.

For Shanaaz Mathews, director of the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town, the concern is that government will only be reporting to the AU in November for the first time since the Children’s Charter was ratified on its progress.

“My sense is that the whole process has been delayed and I am not sure why this has happened. Children are still living in the poorest of households despite increases in the child support grant. This begs the question of how serious is government about implementing the Children’s Charter?”

Mathews says one of the main issues is that South Africa is fairly rich in comparison to other countries in Africa.

“Why then are we still struggling with malnutrition? Certainly, government is doing well in terms of access to social security, but many children still do not see the benefits. The country is not meeting the mark when it comes to implementation.”

No time for play

Regina Mandikonza, the regional co-ordinator for A Chance to Play Southern Africa, believes that civil society and government also do not value, understand, promote and legislate for play as a right and an essential developmental and recreational activity.

“Parks and jungle gym areas that were created for children have been overtaken by predators. Children no longer feel safe to engage with each other or to explore in open spaces, which hinders holistic development,” says Mandikonza. Jackie Schoeman, chief executive of Cotlands, agrees.

“If we are serious about ending the cycle of poverty and creating a world where children are able to access all the opportunities available to them, we need to start seeing play as an essential part of their development.” She says that through play, children learn and develop cognitive and social skills.

“Play is imperative to their physical and emotional wellbeing. However, by not prioritising safe places for children to play, governments in southern Africa are denying them a fundamental right.”

What happens next?

Given the current reality of inequality, joblessness and children who do not complete schooling, is there hope for the future?

“More work needs to be done in preventative areas and investing in creating a recreational and sports culture for children, especially those from poor communities. If we have a focused approach from the highest levels of government all the way through to a community level, then this can change for the better,” he says.

Despite the challenges, Solomons believes that the country has come a long way during the last 20 years.

“Children’s rights were never fully respected in the past, but that has changed with the legal framework that exists today. South Africa is a better country for all the children who now enjoy a better position and more rights than ever before.”

In addition, he says, a range of support services have been put in place that are preventing children from experiencing the worst levels of poverty. Mathews agrees that gains have been made, but cautions against losing sight of children’s rights when it comes to other competing interests, such as the National Development Plan.

“One can only really gauge the success of the programmes 20 years from now when children leave school and become productive members of society.”

The contents of this supplement were supplied and signed off by the Southern Africa Trust.