This article has been inspired by two recent events: the first is the celebration of the Day of the African Child, marked each year on June 16; and the second is the World Population Day, that was celebrated in Rwanda on July 31 at Gatsibo District, with the theme: “Investing in Teenage Girls”. It could be argued that together the two events cover the major issues concerning the full spectrum of age groups constituting children.
According to Wikipedia, biologically, a child is defined as a human being between the stages of birth and puberty. The legal definition of child generally refers to a minor, otherwise known as a person younger than the age of majority. But this is not precise enough for our purpose.
Thus, we will resort to the definition put out by the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, which defines the child as “a human being below the age of 18 years, unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier”.
Wikipedia continues to make a pertinent point that “the recognition of childhood as a state different from adulthood began to emerge in the 16th and 17th centuries. Society then began to relate to the child not as a miniature adult but as a person of a lower level of maturity needing adult protection, love and nurturing”. This is the important starting point for this article.
In this connection, in most societies, children are seen as precious “little beings” to be jealously protected and nurtured for full blossoming in life. Thus, virtually all modern societies have in place various legal and enabling frameworks for protecting, educating and nurturing children, particularly in their most formative ages, that conform to, or are derived from various international and regional conventions, norms and laws.
In principle, all this should be obvious, given that children constitute the future of communities and nations. But the commitment to, and level of, implementation of such child protection frameworks and laws differs from one country to another.
A significant number of children are still subjected to widespread abuses by the adults, which in most cases damage them psychologically and physically for life. Owing to deficiencies in educational and health facilities as well as lack of proper nutrition or care, many of them are not adequately nurtured to realise their full potentials in life.
The robustness of Rwanda’s child protection frameworks and degree of commitment to their effective implementation stand out among the comity of nations.
On June 17, 2016 Rwanda joined the international community to celebrate the Day of the African Child, which is commemorated every year on June 16 by the African Union (AU) and its partners in memory of the dozens of school children who were cruelly murdered by the apartheid South African regime during the 1976 Soweto uprising.
The pupils and students launched the uprising in Soweto starting from that fateful day against the highly discriminatory apartheid educational system. A high number of them were mercilessly cut down by bullets from the guns of the apartheid security forces.
What happened to the young pupils and students on that fateful day in Soweto contrasted sharply with how a society should protect, educate and nurture its children: instead of protecting them as vulnerable and priceless parts of the society, they were regularly subjected to oppression and gruesome murders; instead of providing them with world class education, they went to schools with inferior educational facilities and standards; instead of nurturing them into healthy, productive and confident citizens, they were systematically subjected to inferiority complex - inducing practices and attitudes.
The commemoration this year of the Day of the African Child in Rwanda took place at Nyagatare District in Tabagwe Sector, Eastern Province and was presided over by the First Lady of Rwanda, Jeannette Kagame. In attendance were many Ministers, notably the Minister of Gender and Family Promotion and the Minister of State for Labour and Public Service, Senior Government and National Security Officials, Members of Parliament as well several development partners, including the One UN Rwanda Team.
The First Lady’s attendance at the event was another clear attestation of not only her deep commitment to the welfare of Rwanda’s children and of all other children across the continent, but also the highly impactful programmes her foundation, the Imbuto Foundation, is implementing across several child protection, mentoring and nurturing areas.
Another notable feature of this year’s celebration of the Day of the African Child in Rwanda is that it was simultaneously marked with the World Day against Child Labour.
The International Day against Child Labour is celebrated on June 12 under the direct auspices of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to draw attention to the pernicious practices of child labour across the world.
The ILO defines child labour as “work that is prohibited for children of certain age groups. It is work performed by children who are under the minimum age legally specified for that kind of work, or work which, because of its detrimental nature or conditions, is considered unacceptable for children and is prohibited”.
Child labour is another prominent practice that deprives children of protection, education and nurturing during the stages of their lives when they most need them.
According to the ILO, “today, around 215 million children work, mainly on a full-time basis throughout the world. They do not go to school and have little or no time to play. Many do not receive proper nutrition or care. They are denied the chances to be children.
More than half of them are exposed to the worst forms of child labour such as work in hazardous environments, slavery, or other forms of forced labour, illicit activities, including drug trafficking and prostitution as well as involvement in armed conflict”.
It is notable that about 25 percent of the world’s enslaved is estimated to be accounted by children, which indeed is a terrible indictment of humanity.
From the foregoing, it is comforting that Rwanda has some of the best legal, policy and institutional frameworks for protecting and nurturing children in the continent. It was one of the first countries in the world to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).In 2011,the Government also established the National Commission for Children (NCC) to promote children’s rights and developed a plan of action to protect children from abuse, violence and exploitation.
Subsequently, the legal and institutional frameworks have been progressively strengthened to better protect the rights of children from violence, exploitation, neglect and abuse. They include:
· The Integrated Child Rights Policy (ICRP, 2011) that provides guidelines for other laws and policies related to children, and its operational plan;
· The Law 54/2011 related to the rights and protection of the child, which is fully aligned to the CRC and enshrines all the rights and protections of children in Rwanda (July 2012); and
· The Justice for Children Policy (October 2014) that protects the rights of children in conflict with the law.
The Government of President Kagame has also rightly identified education as a crucial plank in all the strategies aimed at protecting and nurturing children as an intergral element of their basic human rights but also for enabling them to become the future active and productive agents for the country’s continuous transformation. In this connection, it is pertinent to recall here a very relevant quote from a great man in American history: President John F. Kennedy, who famously stated that “A child miseducated is a child lost”. Children are the future of any nation and community and no country or society could afford to allow them to be lost, especially through lack of proper education.
Reflecting the commendable strong commitment of the Government to protecting and nurturing Rwanda’s children, the country has one of the best child wellbeing indicators in Africa. The strong emphasis on promoting education for all, especially starting with the children, has yielded notable progress in the education sector in Rwanda.
This is evidenced by Rwanda having the highest primary school enrollment rates in Africa and attainment of gender parity with girls’ net enrollment rate estimated at 98 percent, higher than that for boys of 95 percent. The country also has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world. Active steps are also being taken by the Rwanda National Police towards combatting all forms of child abuse and labour which pose very real threats to children’s welfare and their normal development.
However, despite all these noteworthy achievements by Rwanda, important challenges still remain and new ones are emerging. In particular, more attention needs to be paid to enhancing the quality of education at all levels. There are still cases of school dropouts, with high dropout rates observed even at the primary levels.
This phenomenon is due partly to high rates of early teenage pregnancies, especially in some districts such as Gatsibo, which hosted this year’s celebration of World Population Day, presided over by the Minister for Finance and Economic Planning. Furthermore, there is also the issue of the future of too many children being compromised by homelessness. Stunting among a significant proportion of children has also been broadly recognised, including by the Government, as a major development challenge, that needs to be decisively addressed.
Rwanda also has some challenges in the area of child labour, although to a lesser extent than in most parts of the world where child labour is widespread. According to the EICV4 carried out by the National Institute of Statistics (NISR), 13.4 percent of the children of the age group, 6-17 years, or 483,744, were economically working inside and outside their homes.
The EICV4 also indicated that 2.1 percent of children of the age group, 6-17 years or 71,708 were working under hazardous conditions
All stakeholders must therefore continue to work closely with the Government towards finding durable solutions to these problems. The One UN family in Rwanda is committed to supporting the Government through different programmes such as Early Childhood Development Programme, Integrated Care to Child Development, accelerated implementation of comprehensive sexuality education, promotion of early vaccinations against a broad range of diseases, reproductive health initiatives especially for adolescents, joint programmes for supporting Government’s efforts at addressing malnutrition and stunting as well as promoting family hygiene, the new learning curriculum re-designed to be more child - focused and the increasing emphasis on utilisation of ICT at all levels of the educational system.
We are also paying more attention to the issue of persisting child labour and working with the concerned Ministries, especially the Ministry of Labour and Public Service, and other partners, including NGOs working on this issue.
We, as One UN Rwanda Team, are committed to strengthening the partnership with the Government of Rwanda and the other development partners to ensure that all children continue to get the best start in life, as strongly desired by President Paul Kagame and his Government, because that is a fundamental right that every child deserves and because that will crucially strengthen the foundations for the country’s continuous progress and transformation.
The writer is One UN Rwanda Resident Coordinator