It goes without saying that every child has a right to all privileges including the right to survive and thrive in life. Children have a right to health, education, family life, play and recreation, an adequate standard of living, access to justice and to be protected from abuse and harm. Unfortunately this has not been the case, particularly in the continent of Africa. Physical and sexual violence, female genital mutilation, early child marriages, child pregnancies, child trafficking, lack of quality education are just some of the prevailing problems still affecting the African child in the 21st century.
Across the African continent, children are the most vulnerable – they have been exposed to online sexual exploitation, radicalization and even recruitment into violent extremist groups. Children as young as 7 years have been forced into armed conflict as child soldiers. According to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, more than 120,000 children under 18 years of age have participated in armed conflicts across Africa over the years. The United Nations estimates there are thousands of child soldiers in Africa. In the Democratic Republic of Congo alone, about 30,000 of them are forced to serve armed groups as soldiers, sexual slaves, and laborers.
Many surveys, researches and ethnographic studies conducted on groups like ISIS, al Shabab, Boko Haram, al Qaida, all point to the challenge of the innocence and vulnerability of children and youth as easy prey for such groups. According to the 2018 Global Terrorism Index, Africa accounted for 18 of the top 50 countries in the world that bore the brunt of terrorism in 2017. The Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes accounted for 7 of the 18 countries (Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Central African Republic), with Somalia experiencing the most increase in terrorism in Africa and globally.
Extremist groups such as Boko Haram and al Shabab have been know to recruit children as young as 8 years to serve in their sects.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the world has witnessed a spike in child abuse cases – recording some of the worst forms of abuse. These offences happen more often to the African child who is disadvantaged in many dimensions of human development.
The African child has a right to and must acquire justice and equity. The future however is promising. The ratification of the CRC has led to national implementation and positive social change in all regions of the world including Africa. Across Africa, governments are offering platforms to the African child in decision-making processes. Children are now widely viewed as ambassadors of peace, education, health care, climate change and sustainable development. Governments are increasingly creating awareness on child rights and child protection and how to handle children’s cases. They are also giving access to opportunities for the African child so as to empower him or her in development.
In spite of the positive development, a child-friendly justice environment for all African children must be prioritized. We need a coordinated and collaborative approach from different actors including religious leaders, child-rights advocates, governments, non-governmental organizations, children and youth, and parents and caregivers. This multifaceted approach ensures coordination from the community to the national and international levels in promoting the rights and dignity of the child. When child-related cases are reported they need to be attended to within a child-friendly judicial environment and a sensitive criminal system. Children’s cases ought to be given priority in the justice system and handled in a humane way, and as speedily as possible.
At the community level we need to encourage families to identify and report any child violation cases so as to enhance accountability. Child abuse offenders similarly need to be tried for their crimes. This gives hope to the child that the system is there to protect him or her.
A more sustainable model of child-friendly justice system is one that avoids formal justice and empowers community structures or processes, such as community policing, religious leadership and community leadership. Here, a child is placed in a program that can supervise, counsel, direct and monitor his or her development across the years.
The Global Network of Religions for Children (GNRC) recognizes the importance of the Day of the African Child (DAC) as an avenue to enhance the visibility of the African Child and promote their rights and welfare. During the 30th Anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), Arigatou International conducted a Multi-religious Global Study on the CRC, focusing particularly on the role of religious leaders and religious communities in promoting children’s rights and well-being and in preventing violence against children. The Study, which was carried out in collaboration with UNICEF and the office of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Violence Against Children, led then by Ms. Marta Santos Pais, advocates for spiritual development of a child by upholding values and actions that promote the wellbeing of a child. The study which was also supported by World Vision International and King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID), similarly calls upon faith leaders and faith communities to understand and assume their responsibility towards the children.
Across the African continent GNRC members have been working with different stakeholders to champion the agenda of the African child including: access to basic needs; healthcare; protection from violent extremism, gang violence and organized crime; spiritual and positive upbringing in early childhood; ending sexual exploitation and abuse; and ending child poverty.
It is important to work with local communities to educate and empower them towards promoting child justice. The African child similarly needs to be sensitized on his or her rights so as to be able protect him/herself. More importantly the African child needs to be given more safe spaces and opportunities – away from the abuses – to be able to thrive.
By: Abdulrahman Marjan,
Global Network of Religions for Children (GNRC).