Tuesday, December 23, 2008

In Defence Of The Rights Of The Child

Fifteen years after the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child by the General Assembly of the United Nations, the envisaged positive effect is yet to trickle down and manifest on the lives of billions of children round the world.

Even the unprecedented prosperity that the global economy is currently enjoying has not trickled down to benefit the staggering 40 per cent of all children in developing countries-over half a billion-who are still struggling to survive on less than $1 per day.

Other child indicators such as global under-five mortality, school attendance and child malnutrition-which are among the most accurate measures of development-clearly suggests that progress has not kept pace with the promises made at the World Summit for Children in 1990.

It is indeed a sorry distinction of today’s world that at the dawn of the ‘information age, one in three children in developing countries does not complete five years of education-a minimum required for achieving basic literacy. Millions more are being taught by untrained and underpaid teachers in overcrowded and poorly equipped classrooms, denying these children their social and economic rights.

Nigeria being the giant of Africa and the largest black nation in the world is not an exception. In fact it has been said that whenever negative records are being given about the developing world, Nigeria assumes the first position. Today, Nigeria has unenviable record of being among the first three in the world in the violation of the child’s right as manifested in the nation’s record of infant mortality, street children, child trafficking, child abuse, child poverty, juvenile HIV/AIDS, amongst others.

In a move meant as a response to these embarrassing situation and poor records, the new Minister of Women Affairs, Hajia Inna Maryam Ciroma commenced the nation wide tour of states to meet with stakeholders to dialogue and reach a middle ground on how to ensure quick acceptance and passage of the Child Rights Acts in the states especially in the northern states where it has met stiff oppositions due to misgivings in some quarters that it conflicts with Islamic faith and Sharia legal system.

While on the first leg of the tour that covered Borno, Yobe and Bauchi States, the Minister availed herself of the opportunity to meet the State Governors, members of the House of Assemblies, Women and Children Non-Governmental Organisations, Religious and Traditional leaders to clear the air on those misgivings, which have been obstructing the acceptance and quick passage of the Convention.

The Minister had earlier on assumption of office made it clear that the status of children in the country has reached a stage where concerned stakeholders must come together to fight not only injustices that has been meted out on children due to the non-passage of the Child Rights Acts in the states but also various infringements on their fundamental human rights.

Coming herself from the northern part of the country, the Minister during the tour kept on repeating to the stakeholders in clear terms that there is nothing either in the religion of the region or their culture that sanctions any form of violence, maltreatment or injustice being meted out against children in the country today.

It was basically because of this, the Minister noted she began the tour of the states with particular emphasis on the northern states of the federation. What the Minister however could not hide is that bulk of this infringement on the rights of children are mostly present in the northern part of the country where children have been subjected to various forms of ill-treatment that has not raised eyebrow from concerned citizens in the past. She buttressed her claim by frequent reference to ‘staggering’ number of street children (Almajiris) adorning numerous roads in the northern states.

“One of the main objectives of my advocacy visit is to enlist the support of various stakeholders for the passage of the Child Right’s Act in the States. I believe that as a nation we stand to benefit immensely because the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child as adapted to suit our circumstances will ensure the survival, well-being and development of children into well adjusted individuals and enable them contribute to the national development”, she told Ali Modu Sheriff, the Governor of Borno State.

She however could not hide her disappointment that two years after the domestication of the Convention by the National Assembly as the Child Rights Act, only two states have passed the convention. This is despite expert opinion that the Convention would if passed and properly implemented fasttrack the national development and ensure not only a brighter future for the children but also serve as a means towards ensuring the promotion and protection of the human rights of girls and achievement of gender balance in the polity.

These principles were affirmed at the United Nations-sponsored World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 and reaffirmed at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. The two conferences emphasised the need for the principles and provisions of the convention to be considered in the broader context of other human rights standards.

Countries that have ratified or acceded to the Convention are legally bound to put its provisions into practice. They are also committed to submit national reports, at least every four years, on measures they have taken to comply with their treaty obligations.

Ciroma while addressing the Emir of Bauchi, Dr. Sulaiman Adamu decried that despite the fact that Nigeria is a signatory to the convention, the list of abuses and violence against children in the nation continues to soar.

She particularly expressed her disappointment that the northern states have not lived up to expectation in the protection and upholding of the rights of the children. This situation she noted has led to multiplication of street children in the part of the country.

She attributed the situation to some misgivings in certain quarters that the content of the Convention is antithetical to Islamic faith and the Sharia legal system.

She told the Emir that such misgivings which has led to the non-passage of the Convention especially in the northern states should not be taken seriously since no aspect of the Convention runs contrary to the Islamic faith or the Sharia legal system.

She observed that states in the federation have also the right to study, review and adapt the Convention to suit their various needs, cultures and religions before passing them into law even as she said that states are free to allow Sharia legal system to take precedence where the provision of the Act conflicts with the Islamic legal system.

The Minister’s explanation is coming against the backdrop of the recent directive of some Council of Ulamas in some northern states asking their Governments to boycott the acceptance and passage of the Act into law citing some provisions that ran contrary to Islamic faith and the Sharia legal system as their reason. They were vocal in saying that their fear is because the Convention might at the end of the day give more rights to the children that their parents may not be left with any to discipline them.

For instance Article 32 of the Convention recognises the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or interfere with the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.

Contrary to these provisions, Nigerian children in most urban areas especially in the north are engaged in work that is exploitative and hazardous. It is estimated that 8 million Nigerian children are entrapped in child labour and child trafficking. This situation has worsened as poverty has continued to deepen.

But the Minister earlier while addressing Governor Bukar Abba Ibrahim of Yobe State observed strongly that no section of the Convention runs contrary to the Islamic faith, the Sharia legal system or limits the right of the parents to discipline their children even as she described the Convention as the most Sharia friendly legal instrument in the history of the United Nations.

“The Act seeks to protect the child against acts of transferred aggression which can result in physical harming of the child such as burning of fingers for minor misdemeanours or beating a child to death in the name of disciplining the child”, she said.

“The Child Rights Act is in fact the most Sharia friendly Act because it compliments the Islamic Law on Child Abuse, Child Trafficking and other vices. It protects the child against practices like burning the hands of any child for minor misdemeanours, administering pepper on a child who bed wets and severe slapping of a child to the extent of deafness. No religion advocates these barbaric actions that the Child Rights Act seeks to prevent”, she added.

One of the specific provisions in the convention which has generated negative reactions in recent times is that which prohibits marriage of girls below 18 years of age but the Minister while reacting on the issue noted that various erroneous colourations were introduced to portray the provision as anti-Islamic.

“It is erroneously believed that if a girl does not marry earlier than 18, she will not be able to have more than two or three children. Those who hold this belief also conjecture that it is a ploy to introduce western standards with the ultimate aim of reducing the Muslim population. Nothing could be farther from the truth in this statement, given that a woman is productive until she reaches menopause. Assuming a 2 year interval between pregnancies, the average woman who gets married between ages 18 and 20 is capable of having at least 10 children”, she said.

She therefore posited that the main essence of the inclusion of the provision in the Act was informed by a survey that linked the high rate of Vesico-vagina Fistulae and Recto-vagina Fistulae to early marriage and teenage pregnancy which she said is because of the poorly developed nature of the anatomy of a girl-child below 18 years thereby making her incapable of bearing the strains of pregnancies and childbirth.

She also noted that another reason the Convention discourages the marriage of a child below 18 is because of the tendency of such marriages to disrupt their education which she said is the leading factor contributing to the poor state of women and children in northern Nigerian.

“On a final note on this issue, I wish to reiterate that in the ten years between the drafting of the Child Right’s Act and its enactment in 2003, it was subjected to several reviews including reviews by Muslim Ulamas and Christian leaders. This was done to ensure that none of the provisions of the Act would violate any religious injunctions. In line with this, each state is free and in fact expected to study the Act with a view to adapting it to suit its peculiarities and circumstances”, she said.

The UN General Assembly unanimously adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child on 20 November 1989 and it entered into force-or became legally binding on States Parties-in September 1990. That same month, the world leaders at the World Summit for Children, held at the United Nations in New York, made a 'solemn commitment' to accord child rights a high priority.

The World Conference on Human Rights, held in Vienna in 1993, set the end of 1995 as a target for the universal ratification of the Convention. By the last day of that year, 185 States had ratified, making it the most widely and rapidly ratified human rights treaty in history. As of mid-2003, only two States, United States of America and Somalia had not yet ratified.

Before its adoption the Convention on the Rights of the Child was carefully drafted over the course of 10 years (1979-1989) with the input of representatives from all societies, all religions and all cultures. A working group made up of members of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, independent experts and observer delegations of non-member governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and UN agencies was charged with the drafting.

Like all human rights treaties, the Convention on the Rights of the Child had first to be approved, or adopted, by the United Nations General Assembly. On 20 November 1989, the governments represented at the General Assembly agreed to adopt the Convention into international law.

When a government signs the Convention, it had to widely consult within the country on the standards in the Convention and begin identifying the national laws and practices that needed to be brought into conformity with these standards. Ratification becomes the next step, which formally bound the government on behalf of all people in the country to meet the obligations and responsibilities outlined in the Convention.

States are also free to refer in national legislation to ages over 18 as the upper benchmark in defining the child. In such instances and others where national or international law sets child rights standards that are higher than those in the Convention on the Rights of the Child the higher standards always prevail. This ensures that situations do not arise where Convention standards undermine any national provisions that are more conducive to the realisation of the rights of the child.

The Convention was domesticated in Nigeria with its passage in 2003 by the National Assembly as the Child Rights Act. At the moment only two states Ogun and Edo have passed it into law. This they did after wide consultation of various groups and interests in the state.

Niger State has already submitted the reviewed and amended version of the Convention to the State Council of Ulamas for review and ratification before passage into law. The move is to make the Convention suit the needs of various groups and interests in the state as demanded by the Convention.

According to United Nations, the Convention on the Rights of the Child reflects a new vision of the child. Children are neither the property of their parents nor are they helpless objects of charity. They are human beings and are the subject of their own rights. The Convention offers a vision of the child as an individual and as a member of a family and community, with rights and responsibilities appropriate to his or her age and stage of development. By recognising children's rights in this way, the Convention firmly sets the focus on the whole child.

Prior to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, human rights standards applicable to all members of the human family had been expressed in legal instruments such as covenants, conventions and declarations, as did standards relating to the specific concerns of children. But it was only in 1989 that the standards concerning children were brought together in a single legal instrument, approved by the international community and spelling out in an unequivocal manner the rights to which every child is entitled, regardless of where born or to whom, regardless of sex, religion, or social origin. The body of rights enumerated in the Convention are the rights of all children everywhere.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child incorporates the full range of human rights-civil and political rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights-of all children. The underlying values-or 'guiding principles'-of the Convention guide the way each right is fulfilled and respected and serve as a constant reference for the implementation and monitoring of children's rights. The Convention's four guiding principles are as follows:

* Non-discrimination (article 2)
* Best interests of the child (article 3)
* Survival and development (article 6)
* Participation (article 12)

The Convention on the Rights of the Child outlines in 41 articles the human rights to be respected and protected for every child under the age of 18 years and requires that these rights be implemented in the light of the Convention's guiding principles.

Articles 42-45 covers the obligation of States Parties to disseminate the Convention's principles and provisions to adults and children; the implementation of the Convention and monitoring of progress towards the realisation of child rights through States Parties' obligations; and the reporting responsibilities of States Parties.

The final clauses (articles 46-54) cover the processes of accession and ratification by States Parties; the Convention's entry into force; and the depository function of the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

The Convention places equal emphasis on all of the rights for children. There is no such thing as a 'small' right and no hierarchy of human rights. All the rights enumerated in the Convention-the civil and political rights as well as the economic, social and cultural rights-are indivisible and interrelated, with a focus on the child as a whole.

For instance the Convention says that it is not sufficient to ensure that a child receives immunisation and health care, only for that child on reaching the age of 14 to be sold into bonded labour or conscripted into an army. It is not enough to guarantee the right to education, only to fail to ensure that all children are enrolled in school and can go to school equally, regardless of gender or economic class.

Considered the most powerful legal instrument for the recognition and protection of children's human rights, the Convention draws on the following unique combination of strengths.

Highlights and defends the family's role in children's lives. For instance in the preamble and in article 5, article 10 and article 18, the Convention specifically refers to the family as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of its members, particularly children. Under the Convention, States are obliged to respect parents' primary responsibility for providing care and guidance for their children and to support parents in this regard, providing material assistance and support programmes. States are also obliged to prevent children from being separated from their families unless the separation is judged necessary for the child's best interests.

The Convention seeks respect for children but not at the expense of the human rights or responsibilities of others. The Convention on the Rights of the Child confirms that children have a right to express their views and to have their views taken seriously and given due weight-but it does not state that children's views are the only ones to be considered.

The Convention also explicitly states that children have a responsibility to respect the rights of others, especially those of parents. The Convention emphasises the need to respect children's "evolving capacities," but does not give children the right to make decisions for themselves at too young an age. This is rooted in the common-sense concept that the child's path from total dependence to adulthood is gradual.

It also endorses the principle of non-discrimination, which is a principle included in all the basic human rights instruments and has been carefully defined by the bodies responsible for monitoring their implementation. The Convention on the Rights of the Child states frequently that States need to identify the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children within their borders and take affirmative action to ensure that the rights of these children are realised and protected.

1 comment:

  1. The original of this article was titled 'A case for children's rights' and was first published by the Guardian Newspapers of Nigeria on Wednesday September 7, 2005.