Opinionista Omphemetse S Sibanda 20 July 2020

A new social contract for Africa must put the rights and welfare of children at the forefront

The annual Nelson Mandela Lecture delivered by UN Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted the impact of Covid-19 on global inequality. There is much to be concerned about, particularly with regard to Africa’s children. Leaders need to take up Guterres’ call for a new social contract and ensure the AU’s targets for child rights are achieved. 

This year’s National Mandela Lecture highlighted the corrosive effects of inequality in the world, especially as it has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. In his thought-provoking address, Tackling the Inequality Pandemic: A New Social Contract for a New Era, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for a new social contract that would, among other benefits, give dignity to young people and women.

It is my view that inequality with regard to children’s rights requires particular attention – although born free with rights and freedoms, they are the most affected by the inequality pandemic that Guterres describes.

In his address at the Annual Children’s Celebrations, in Bloemfontein on 27 September 2003, Mandela shared his vision on children globally.

“My vision and dream… is for all the children of the world to be free from want, hunger, disease, ignorance, and the suffering of war and violence,” he said. Mandela called on us to enlist in the battle against the inhumane treatment of children. “We all dare not give up or succumb,” he said. Mandela would unequivocally have espoused the social contract Guterres refers to, particularly in order to protect our children, and ensure their inalienable rights.

A Save the Children Pan African Policy Paper titled How to Protect a Generation at Risk, released in June 2020, paints a grim picture for the continent’s children. The report notes that the children of Africa have been an “invisible” group “in the Covid-19 crisis planning and response, despite being one of the most vulnerable and affected populations”.

Human Rights Watch has echoed Guterres’ comments on children, pointing out that the pandemic has highlighted “huge fault lines in many countries’ protections for children, including the lack of emergency action plans for large-scale school shutdowns, the overuse of detention, and insufficient safety nets for low-income families”.

If a new social contract is to become a reality, there must be less talk and more doing. We should ensure that the 10 aspirations identified in the African Union’s  Africa’s Agenda for Children 2040 are achieved. Among others, these would be the creation of a continental framework for advancing children’s rights; the creation of child-friendly legislative, policy and institutional frameworks; the registration of every child’s birth information; the guarantee that every child will grow up nourished and with access to the basic necessities of life; quality education for all children; protection against violence, exploitation, neglect and abuse; a child-friendly criminal justice system; and protection against the impact of armed conflicts and other disasters or emergency situations.

Guterres highlighted basic education as one of the enablers for achieving equality. Yet, formal learning in our schools has been jeopardised by Covid-19, and the future of our children is becoming bleaker by the day. The Pan African report referred to earlier estimates that more than 262.5 million children from pre-primary and secondary schools are currently out of school because of Covid-19 closures, which translates to approximately 21.5% of the total population in Africa.

The AU’s Agenda 2040 for children lists education for all children as Aspiration 6. However, nothing prevents caring governments from making this “aspiration” a reality for children, particularly when country constitutions and other laws guarantee children’s rights to basic education.  The centrality of education in the development of a child – and its role in ensuring that our children will be able to navigate the unequal society they are growing up in – cannot be over-emphasised. The agenda notes that a lack of education is “a life sentence of poverty and exclusion”.

Article 11 of the African Children’s Charter recognises the right to education of all children. African countries must reset their education policies to ensure that children are not denied access to education by a pandemic, or our inability and carelessness to prepare for pandemics.   The notion that education is a public good, of which the quality has to be assured, deserves more championing by child rights activists.

States should curb the unregulated rise of private actors in education. A failure to effectively regulate this area may compromise the quality of education and lead to the exploitation of children.

Healthy childhood is addressed in Aspiration 4 of Africa’s Agenda for  Children. It notes that far too few of Africa’s children survive birth and the first year of their lives. It is disheartening that the major causes of infant mortality in Africa are preventable, yet there is such a slow uptake by governments to implement preventive measures.

In Africa, a powerful reference point is the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, read with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which requires a renewed commitment and effort to meet certain goals and targets. While the 2030 Agenda recognises the dignity of children and their right to live free from violence and from fear, practicalities on the ground suggest this is far from a reality. Africa’s children are still living in fear and exposed to rampant violence.

There are already commitments in place. In 2016, the ministers of Health, Finance, Education, Social Affairs and Local Government of Africa adopted the Declaration on Universal Access to Immunisation as a Cornerstone for Health and Development in Africa. In this, they committed to investing further on childhood immunisation programmes. Their commitment to this remains to be seen.

In his speech to the Live 8 concert in 2005, Mandela was clear about our duties in the face of poverty.

“Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity,” he said. “It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life. While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.”

Overcoming the poverty that has struck our children cannot be achieved through intermittent food parcels and opportunistic photographic displays of food parcel deliveries by our leaders. The policymaking and implementation machinery of our governments needs to be in place. Unicef has noted efforts by the South African government to scale social protection programmes including increases to the child support grant which currently reaches 12.8 million children.

Save the Children argues that the Covid-19 economic aftershocks will derail the progress towards poverty reduction and will put an additional 59 million people into the extreme poverty bracket in Africa, including 33 million children.

“The UN estimates that the reduction/loss of household income due to Covid-19 and subsequent cutback on essential health and food expenditure could erase the last 2 to 3 years of progress in reducing infant mortality,” says the report.

Aspiration 5 of the AU’s African Agenda on Children is relevant to note here. In terms of this aspiration, every child should grow up well-nourished and with access to the basic necessities of life. What has been exposed by Covid-19 is that children across Africa are growing up in conditions of abject poverty, hunger and malnutrition. They grow up in environments where access to safe drinking water, sanitation, adequate nutrition and adequate shelter or housing is a luxury.

A lack of sanitation infrastructure has been demonstrated with death in South Africa. The government was derelict in its duty to protect school children when 5-year-old Michael Komape died in January 2014 after he fell into a dilapidated pit toilet at his school in Chebeng village, in Limpopo. This case is one of the many that exposed the faultlines of the government with regard to equal treatment of children.

We are also failing our children with regard to Aspiration 4. The document notes that children with disabilities have largely been neglected, mistreated, socially excluded and made invisible in African societies.

Guterres’ lecture would not have been complete without mentioning gender-based violence (GBV) and the violence visited upon children.  Guterres describes himself as a proud feminist and he implored men to help end the scourge of violence against women and girls.

The narrative that this is a man’s world must be discarded. It is the world of everybody, including children. This is encapsulated in Aspiration 7, which provides that every child should be protected against violence, exploitation, neglect and abuse. We have seen an increase in violence against children. Under lockdown, many children are trapped in their homes with their tormentors. Girls are not even safe walking on the streets to go to school.

In Africa, a powerful reference point is the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, read with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which requires a renewed commitment and effort to meet certain goals and targets. While the 2030 Agenda recognises the dignity of children and their right to live free from violence and from fear, practicalities on the ground suggest this is far from a reality. Africa’s children are still living in fear and exposed to rampant violence.

State responses seem to be failing. Some form of violence against children has been legislatively imposed by some governments. In Mali, for example, the African Court on Human and People’s Rights held that the Persons and Family code of that country violated certain provisions of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of Children in respect of child marriage, consent to marriage, discriminatory inheritance and marriage practices. Mali is not alone. Other countries also have contentious laws in place. But on some there has been movement: In Tanzania, third-party consent to the marriage of girls under 18 was outlawed in 2016; and in South Africa, the Western Cape High Court held that customary marriage practices are not justification for abduction and rape of a girl of 14.

It is to be hoped that the new social contract championed by António Guterres is not another case of old wine in new bottles. African leaders must fashion new social contracts around the best interests of children. DM

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