Every child is entitled to a meaningful childhood. But for many children, the reality of childhood is altogether different. Right through history, children have been abused and exploited. They suffer from hunger and homelessness; work in harmful conditions, high infant mortality, deficient health care and poor quality education. Child rights are fundamental freedoms and the inherent rights of all human beings below the age of 18.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989, obliges states to recognise that every child has the inherent right to life, not to be separated from their parents against their will, right to freedom of expression, right to benefit from social security, right to education, right to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, right to be protected from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, among others.
However, despite the long list of rights, children at various levels continue to suffer abuse, either because their handlers are unaware of their rights or because the children themselves are green about how they ought to be treated.
Cognizant of the fact that children spend more time at school that any other place, Education Times thought the views of the different stakeholders on how institutions of learning in Rwanda can spearhead the campaign to protect child rights.
Scope of challenge
Jacqueline Bukuru, a teacher at Saint Joseph Primary Schools in Kigali, says previously students in public schools used to go without food, which negatively impacted their learning.
“Despite the fact that government has intervened and sorted out the issue through the school feeding programme, there are still some schools that are less concerned as far as the rights of the children are concerned,” she says.
Anaclet Ndayisaba, the director of studies and discipline at Saint Patrick Kicukiro, says schools must play a lead role in the promotion and protection of children’s rights.
“Unfortunately, you find that some schools don’t bother even about the simple things where they can intervene. For instance, rather than expel children because they don’t have proper clothing or a uniform, schools administrators ought to investigate why a child is in that condition and actually offer support,” he says.
Ndayisaba says expelling or suspending a child is not a solution because it instead hurts their emotions and performance.
“Schools have a cardinal responsibility to protect children even when parents have failed to fulfill their role,” he says.
Ndayisaba urges teachers to be calm when dealing with cases of indiscipline.
“Corporal punishments of errant students are not the answer. Instead, the family background must be traced so that parents are guided on how to help their children.
“Children are prone to different allures which lead them to misbehave either from the school or at home. For instance, their peers can influence them into sex or drug abuse. Thus the best ways to handle these is not to cane the child, but rather to discuss with them and solve problems amicably,” he says.
For Euzebuis Rugasire, the head teacher of Kicukiro Secondary School, parents ought to collaborate with schools a little more in as far as protecting the rights of children is concerned.
Parents and teachers must work together to show children that their rights come with responsibilities, he says.
“For instance, some students come to school without bathing and when you call the parents over their children’s issues, they refuse to own up or even decline to meet school authorities to resolve such cases.
“As educationists, we are ready to see that the rights of the children are respected but parents must play a bigger role,” he emphasises.
Collete Akimana, a teacher at Christian Brookstead Academy in Kicukiro, says one way to promote children rights is to ensure that they are brought up with good religious virtues.
“Where parenting has failed, religious instruction like teaching children at early stages that stealing is an evil act can be used to direct and shape them into responsible persons in the society. Such simple lessons reinforce knowledge on a child’s responsibilities as they grow,” she says.
Juma Bagonza, the director of Saint Joseph Primary School testifies that during the time they attended school; spanking was the only way of correcting errant students.
“However, we no longer cane students at school. We actually have internal regulations that forbid a teacher or any other staff from caning children excessively, he says.
Bagonza says schools should also know that it’s their obligation to provide avenues through which children can enjoy their childhood, for instance, having in place various extra-curricular activities like sports, painting, music, dance and drama.
Stakeholders speak out
Denyse Amahirwe , the child protection specialist , Save the Children-Rwanda, says they have made tremendous efforts in as far as the protection of the rights of the children is concerned.
“Under the Friends of Families initiative, we have programmes that are designed to empower all members of the community so that they can eliminate corporal punishments from schools and at home, thus reducing the number of children on the streets,” she says.
Citing the recent Demographic Health survey statistics, Amahirwe says, corporal punishments have reduced to 28 per cent.
Julienne Mukayirege, in charge of social studies curriculum at Rwanda Education Board, says they have started teaching children and human rights as a subject at primary and secondary school levels.
“From this initiative, we expect students and children not only to know their rights but also their responsibilities towards others,” he says.
According to Faustin Nkusi, Rwanda’s prosecution spokesperson, defilement tops among the cases of children rights abuse.
He says, in 2014-2015, 1,879 cases of defilement were filed by the prosecution.
Gaspard Ndacyayisenga, a clinical psychologist at Centre Cyprien and Daphrose Rugamba, a local NGO promoting re-integration of street children in a family environment, says a roundtable discussion is needed between parents and teachers on the matters affecting their children as one way of addressing the abuse of child rights.
Children have their say
Jean de dieu Gatsinzi, a student at Groupe Scholaire de Kicukiro, says he is always kin on good behavior but some students with bad influence divert others into bad behaviour such as betting, smoking and gambling.
“Much as we as students want our rights respected, too much of everything is not good and therefore, too much liberty for children is not good and should not be confused with their rights. Therefore, guardians, teachers and parents should control the liberty given to children,” he says.
For Merci Amizero , a student at Mount Kenya University, girls should be given more priority since they are more prone to being stigmatised because of their biological nature.
“For instance, when they are in their menstruation periods, their rights to health should be respected and they should be given necessities like sanitary pads at school,” he says.
Universities embrace cause
Aware of the big role media plays in promoting such causes, the Media High Council (MHC) in partnership with UNICEF Rwanda has developed the “Child Rights Media Module” to build the capacities of graduating journalists on ethical reporting of children issues.
According to Peacemaker Mbungiramihigo, MHC’s executive secretary, this module will be integrated in the higher learning curricula for media, journalism and communication studies and will be used by other stakeholders to build capacities of working journalists.
During the validation of the Child Rights Media Module held in Kigali last month, Dr Margaret Jjuko, a lecturer at University of Rwanda’s School of Journalism and Communication, explained that the module will be incorporated in the human rights course already being offered to journalism and communication students.
“Media is at the forefront of championing protection of child rights. Therefore, engaging journalism students on proper reporting modalities will empower them with skills needed to highlight child rights-related issues in their publications,” she said.
For Jean Baptiste Hategekimana, a lecturer at Institut Catholique de Kabgayi (ICK), the module on child rights will be a handy tool on why and how graduating students should take interest in reporting children’s issues.
“We look forward to merging aspects of the module into what we are already offering under human rights. We hope with these new insights, our students will do a commendable job when it comes to reporting on child rights,” he said.
Addressing participants at the validation workshop of the child rights module, Ted Maly, the UNICEF Rwanda representative, pledged more support to initiatives aimed at addressing the plight of children in Rwanda and beyond.
Eddie Mwerekande, parent
Parents should take interest in children’s rights. Children have a right to education, good nutrition and other rights as stipulated in the law. Child marriages were rampant forms of child abuse in the past but have since been put to an end. Parents need teach their children to exercise their rights and responsibilities without hurting the rights of others.
Faustin Mutabazi, parent and education consultant
I think the best way of protecting children’s rights is to ensure that children know that they have responsibilities as well. In the Rwandan cultural context, girls were regarded as the home makers and were often denied access to certain public spaces and offices. This form of stereotyping based on gender continues to thrive in some families and it results in denying children some of their rights.
Fred Hirwa, parent and communication specialist
Parents should be aware of their responsibilities as well as those for their children. They should facilitate their children with knowledge of their rights so that they may know when they have been abused. Discussing with children does not only let parents know if their children’s rights are being abused but it also builds a warm relationship between parents and children.
Evans Mwenda, parent
The source of child rights abuse stems from parents being too busy with work to dedicate time to mentor their children. Some parents don’t even have time to monitor children’s school activities or their behaviour at home. That’s why some house helps violate children’s rights secretly as some parents never have time to interact with their children.