Day of the African Child: “The Young generation has new ideas and new perspectives on how to solve Africa’s problems”

By Hellen Malinga Apila, Regional Coordinator for Africa, Equal Measures 2030

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The Day of the African Child pays tribute to the Soweto Uprising, when ten thousand black school children marched to protest the poor quality of their education and demanded their right to be taught in their language.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, education has been interrupted for many African children. How is it affecting them, and particularly girls?

Since March 2020, incidence and infection reports indicating that children are currently accounting for approximately 10 percent of all COVID-19 infections [1]and anecdotal evidence shows that, until now, children who contract the virus appear to have less severe symptoms and lower mortality rates.

Although children do not represent a high-risk group for direct COVID-19 fatalities, the pandemic poses far-reaching secondary impacts that heighten risks to children’s rights and wellbeing. This will have a disproportionately larger and longer or even lifetime impact on children from Africa, specifically from poor and vulnerable households.

African children’s lives have never been the same, COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting and jeopardizing their formal learning, health and safety/protection, particularly for the girl child.

Before the COVID-19 crisis, sub-Saharan Africa already had the highest rates of education exclusion, with more than one-fifth of children aged 6–11 years out of school in normal times. COVID-19 has led to nationwide closure of schools across all countries in Africa, varying for periods between 3 weeks to indefinitely.

As at April 2020, it is estimated that over 262.5 million children from pre-primary and secondary school are currently out of school because of COVID-19 closures, which translates to approximately 21.5% of the total population in Africa.

For many poor and vulnerable children in Africa, schools are not only a place for learning but also a safe space away from violence and exploitation. It is also where they sometimes have a nutritious meal (sometimes the only meal for the day).

Prolonged school closure means many children who usually learn through pictorials and interaction have not been in a classroom for three months now. Rural areas do not have access to technology for online learning, this will result in millions more children being denied their basic right to learn.

The limited availability of alternative e-learning and distance-learning options across Africa is an impediment to the continuity of learning and wellbeing of children. The lack of alternative learning methods, requires strong political leadership to avoid further weakening of an already fragile education system.

If national response plans do not consider local contextual challenges such as limited access to technology for e-learning, then COVID-19 crisis will jeopardize the achievement of SDG 4 global community’s promise to realize the right to quality education for all children and adolescents by 2030.

This year’s theme for the Day of the African Child is ‘Access to a Child-Friendly Justice System in Africa’. According to you, what are the key issues affecting access to a child friendly justice system in Africa and what is the impact of COVID-19 on children, particularly girls’ access to justice?

It is imperative to recognize that crisis’ exacerbates inequalities, the pandemic affects girls and boys, women and men differently. In the context of COVID-19, children’s lives have quickly changed and inequalities manifest as women, girls, and other vulnerable populations are more at risk of gender-based violence.

Children’s routines and protective coping mechanisms were disrupted due to national lockdowns, quarantine measures, restrictions on movements and school closures. These containment measures have exposed girls to stigma and gender-based discrimination. The girl child has become more vulnerable to violence and psycho-social distress, domestic violence and sexual gender-based violence.

Child protection risks may include physical and emotional maltreatment, injuries and neglect due to lack of supervision, sexual exploitation including incest, rape and defilement, sex for assistance and child marriage.[2]

In Africa, children who are out of school for a prolonged time are at greater risk of being abused and exploited, and for girls, they are more likely to never return to school once classes recommence[3].

As pressures mount on low-income families, both children, parents and caregivers are under stress and are more likely to develop violent behaviors. Furthermore, economic constraints have forced girls and their families to adopt negative coping mechanisms such as sex for basic needs or child marriage.

Girls have been forced to work as domestic workers to bolster family incomes, some have become victims of child marriage, others are faced with early pregnancy, while some are shouldering the disproportionate burden of caring for family members who contract the virus or are taking care of younger siblings.

Child protection issues and ensuring safety and access to justice for girls who are at risk of sexual gender-based violence (SGBV) must be treated with the urgency it deserves.

The biggest challenge therefore for girls’ access to justice is lack of harmonization and standardization of national laws to regional and global human and child rights legal instruments. For instance, as the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC) turns 30 years in 2020, it is worth examining the extent to which member states have complied with it’s provisions, especially the issue of age limit and definitions of a child.

Analysis of various constitutions reveals that although the Constitutions of countries such as Kenya, Malawi and Tanzania–which are the Supreme laws of the land, are explicit on the definition of the child and provides for 18 years as the cut off age. Access to justice for teenage girls especially in the event of sexual and gender-based violence or child labour and child abuse cases is usually jeopardized by the differences in the penal code definitions of the age of criminal responsibility, minimum age of sexual consent and minimum age of admission to employment (which vary from 14 years, 16 years to 18 years)

This is also further exacerbated by subjective interpretations of these laws in relation to the predominant religious and cultural “real identity” of a child which is dependent on the minimum age for the cultural or religious rites of passage.

In most African countries, the girl child is considered to be mature at the onset of puberty (development of breasts, the onset of menses and sexual activity), which may start as early as 9 years, this has a significant influence on the outcomes of cases in courts of law as judges may dismiss cases or issue lower penalties to perpetrators.

In many defilement cases, judges acquitted defilement suspects on the argument that alleged victims, who are girls below 18 years old behaved like adults and “she enjoyed the relationship”. The Courts judgements are usually based on the opinion that the girls “engaged themselves in sexual endeavours and were enjoying the exploration until when they became pregnant”.

This must be addressed through a review of various laws to align with the regional and international human rights and child rights standards to maintain the gains on safeguarding and promoting the rights of Children.

In the context of COVID-19, the failures of the justice system to deliver justice for girls is exacerbated by lack of stringent measures to combat underage employment, many girls 8 years of age work as domestic servants in families to survive.

With the law courts closed and operating at minimum capacity during the lockdown, and hearing only cases of high criminal nature, moreover remotely, many girls under the age of 16 years will get married under different laws that permit underage marriages.

The health system is overwhelmed with COVID-19, thus for sexual violence cases, defiled and raped girls cannot access justice quickly due to delays in criminal investigations and lack of medical evidence to be provided by medical practitioners and police surgeons.

All of this is exacerbating existing vulnerabilities as the pandemic threatens to reverse the achievement of sustainable development and progress against SDG5 targets in Africa by 2030.

Through a review of FEMNET collected the stories of African teenage girls , how young activists voluntarily get involved and how do they actively call-out policymakers about the impact of the pandemic in their daily lives? What can the rest of the world learn from them?

Africa has one of the youngest populations in the world, 41% are under 15 years old and the median age is 20 years. The continent is exposed to many of the collateral impacts of COVID-19.

FEMNET has mobilized and provided a platform for teenage girls to document and share their lived experiences and recommendations with policymakers and key decision-makers.

While the governments have been responding quickly since the first confirmed case in Sub-Saharan Africa, the most difficult part of the journey is starting now.

One lesson to learn from the African teenage girls is their knowledge of their local context, their ability to initiate and implement locally-relevant solutions and initiatives in response to COVID-19. They bring authentic and strong voices to the national and regional policy dialogues. They have adapted quickly to the change, taken advantage of the positive elements and embraced the Internet and innovative use of technology to respond.

This crisis is offering a great opportunity to show the commitment of the African governments to deliver on the UN Convention Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the child and all other instruments developed to protect African children.

To do so, national governments with the support of the African Union and the international community will have to do their best to protect this generation of children from the impact of COVID19 across the continent. This could be achieved by:

I. Preserving children rights, during the COVID-19 pandemic, through guaranteeing access to quality health, education and protection services and other rights set out in the UNCRC and the ACRWC;

II. Ensuring that each national response plan will be driven by the “best interest of the child” and the “do no harm” principles, in line with the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child;

III. Recognizing and integrating in their response plans the specific needs of the most vulnerable, including girls as a central element of the continental and national responses;

IV. Responding to the long term needs of children through the development and the implementation of social protection mechanisms and policies to protect children and families from any future shocks.

V. Ensuring that children have real and safe opportunities to have their voices heard and influence COVID-19 decision-making.

As a woman who was once an African child and who is raising African children, what inspires you coming from younger generations?

The younger generations have untapped energy, the potential to innovate and use technology to address challenges such as COVID-19.

I have been impressed by the way my children aged 9 to 17 years have adapted to e-learning, for the last two and half months of school closure and the lockdown. They are very flexible and adaptive and have learnt quickly about COVID-19 and stay home without complaining about not going out.

The young generation has new ideas and perspectives on how to solve Africa’s problems and all they need is the space and platforms to share and innovate. My hope is that the education systems will also adapt to the new norms and provide the education that is relevant to all these changes.

[1] . 2 https://endingchildpoverty.org/en/news/world-news-on-poverty/554-commonquestions-and-answers-about-the-impact-of-covid-19-on-children

[2] 2 Technical Note: Protection of Children during the Coronavirus Pandemic — Alliance for CP in Humanitarian Action, 8pages, 2020

[3] 9 https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/school-forced-fight-children-pay-pricesahel-war-200415140942329.htm

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Putting data + evidence in the hands of girls’ & women’s movements, advocates & decision makers to reach the #GlobalGoals — www.equalmeasures2030.org

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