President Paul Kagame recently sternly castigated government officials for not doing enough to address the issue of children who live and work in the street and don’t go to school.
The President raised the issue twice last month: during the 13th National Leadership Retreat and then during one of his routine upcountry visits. Rwanda, like many countries in the world, has a child protection system and relevant institutions that are duty-bound to protect and promote the rights of children.
Children who live and work on the street are circumstantially disadvantaged from schooling, and it is a prevalent phenomenon that needs to be addressed through a holistic approach at all levels. Ordinarily, children are entitled to live in safe environments at school and at home, but not in the streets, or live in vagrancy.
Today, some children whose parents have fallen on hard times have become helpless and destitute. Therefore, the President’s wake-up call for action needs a synergized undertaking by all stakeholders, namely local authorities, NGOs, schools, and parents. The more society delays to take concrete action, the more it is susceptible to juvenile delinquency and criminality in general. In this regard, I like two inspiring quotes: one from former South African President Nelson Mandela, thus: “Safety and security don’t happen, they are the result of collective consensus and public investment. We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life free of violence and fear”; and another from former US President Herbert Hoover, thus: “Children are our most valuable resources”.
An orderly, peaceful and stable society stems from preventing challenges that may hamper the realization of the child’s rights. That can only be achieved when protection and promotion of the rights of children working and/or living in the streets, or not schooling is made a golden rule. Relevant authorities should take a leading role, but this doesn’t mean relieving parents of their primary responsibility.
In fact, the onus for children’s caretaking is incumbent upon parents to begin with. Parents must acknowledge that they have an inherently legal and moral obligation to ensure that their children enjoy basic rights, such as access to education, health care, food and adequate living conditions. Equally so, they have to ensure that children are not exposed to sexual abuse, violence, neglect and exploitation of any kind.
Many children undoubtedly live in destitute situations, including working for other people, being taken out of school or being abandoned by parents owing to poverty. They live off begging or immoral earnings, or stealing, or working in the streets or in marketplaces. Indeed, it is an obligation of the State and of parents to send children to school; older children need support in order to get training and education to earn a living. The State has created professional training centres and schools, especially in rural areas, to better protect children, as a strategy to promote and protect their rights. Additionally, government introduced the 9-Year Basic Education Programme in 2007 to help eradicate illiteracy in the country. This scheme has since been so beneficial to children, especially from poverty-stricken families that can hardly afford school fees. Addressing destitute situations of children could not be effective without a deep understanding of the root causes of this alarming phenomenon, while understanding of the phenomenon alone would remain moot in the absence of a commitment to address and mitigate the situation without collaboration with all stakeholders.
Though government has set up professional training centres and schools to equip children with knowledge and skills, there is a need to raise awareness about the situation faced by children living and begging in the street, and not schooling.
Law enforcers have a duty to ensure that children are at school, rather than in the streets. At a minimum, they should ensure that children are not exposed to such survival behaviours, as begging, vagrancy, truancy and running away from home. If such measures are proactively taken, certainly, children would grow up with full potential to contribute to society and as agents of change. At this time, given the fact that relevant authorities haven’t lived up to their obligations as far as protection and promotion of the rights of children is concerned, law enforcement ought to take the matter into their own hands.
In view of the above, I just wish, however, to opine a few things that would probably contribute to address this issue. Parents, as a matter of principle, must be active participants in the realisation of their children’s rights.
They must try their best in the best interest of their children. This doesn’t necessarily require parents to have academic knowledge of their responsibility towards children. A simple fine can be imposed to parents who ignore to send their children to school – as a gateway to a bright future.
Likewise, administrative measures should be taken and be applied to relevant authorities who do not assert their authority to deal with difficult situations children face. Alternatively, the issue can be handled in a typical approach State authorities use in sensitising people to subscribe to the Mutual Health Insurance (Mutuelle de Santé).
The writer is an international law expert and lecturer.