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Towards a Child-Centric Human Rights Culture

Sep 15, 2009, 6:55 AM | Article By: Almami Fanding Taal is Legal Practitioner with special interests in Human Rights, Media Laws, and Good Governance & Institutional Development

'The Child is father of the Man;
and I could wish my days to be
bound each to each by natural piety.'

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem      
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore; -      
Turn wheresoe'er I may,        
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more 
William Wordsworth

One of the greatest achievements of progressive democracies in the last century was to have recognised the rightful place of the child in the social fabric. Both in International law as well as domestic legislation and policies, positive actions for the child's welfare is evidenced by way of various United Nations Conventions, national legislations and judicial interpretations leaning towards the best interest of the child approach. The efforts towards preserving the environment and bringing about sustainable development are aimed at giving our children what is naturally theirs. Child-centric human rights jurisprudence has become a new dimension to the larger role of law in social engineering.

Starting with the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1924 by the League of Nations that "mankind owes to the child the best it has to give", there have been many endeavours at the level of the international community to protect the interests of the child. The Declaration of the Rights of the Child, 1959 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989 of the United Nations ratified by almost all African countries including the Gambia, contain legal standards necessary for granting social, economic and cultural rights to children. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Covenant of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, 1966 are the other instruments that convey the rights of the child.

At the domestic level, the Gambia as in much of sub-Saharan Africa States has made good strides in uplifting the status of the child. The 1997 Constitution made primary education free and a fundamental right for children. Many statutes and recently a comprehensive Children's Act 2004 are in place to make the life of the child easier and enjoyable.

The child of today cannot develop to be a responsible and productive member of tomorrow's society unless an environment which is conducive to his or her social and physical health is assured. Every nation, developed or developing, links its future with the status of the child. Neglecting children means a great loss to society as a whole. If children are deprived of their childhood - socially, economically, physically and mentally - the nation gets deprived of potentially great human resources for social progress, economic empowerment and peace and order, social stability and good citizenship. The 1997 Constitution and the Children's Act 2004, therefore, have emphasised the importance of the role of the child and the needs for the child's best development.

Children are not owned nor are they playthings for their parents. Absolute right of parents over the destinies and the lives of their children have, in the modern world, yielded to the considerations of their welfare as human beings so that they may grow up in a normal balanced manner to be useful members of the society.

Every child in the country has a legitimate claim and is entitled to his/her share in the finances of the republic for harmonious and comprehensive development of her/his personality. There is a need to enhance the share in the national Budget for the development and welfare of children in their interest as well as in the interest of the country. As a plant needs protection, nourishment and proper environment to grow into a big fruit-bearing tree, a child also needs protection, promotion, nourishment and proper environment to grow into a useful and responsible citizen to serve the nation.

Proper health, education and environment for children are the imperative needs of the hour. It is reported that a large number of children under the age of five die every year due to diarrhoea and other preventable and curable illnesses and several million suffer from other dangerous childhood diseases. FGM is still a harmful traditional practice in the Gambia. It is true that the Government is relentlessly working for the empowerment of the girl-child. But it should be clear that spending money on education of the child is not an expense on the public exchequer but an asset in the long run. It is the best infrastructure that could be laid for the prosperity of a nation.

However, there are still some children in the age group of 6-14 do not have access to basic education. Initiatives like community built schools and school feeding programmes, etc. have been taken so that school dropout rate is curtailed. But the government must also ensure that the policies and efforts to serve the purpose be consistent and continuous and not momentary promises. Education of the child is inextricably intertwined with the progress of a democracy. Democracy can succeed only with an informed citizenry. Children are the supreme asset of any nation, they being the greatest gift to humanity. Children are potential and useful human resources for the progress of the country. We should remember and remind ourselves that it is only strong, knowledgeable and virtuous children who can make the country strong and great. Children are innocent, vulnerable and dependent. Abandoning children and excluding good foundation of life for them is a crime against humanity.

In Africa millions of children live under especially difficult circumstances - as orphans, street children, refugees, displaced persons, as victims of war and other man-made disasters. Even though international law, regional human rights instruments and national laws indicate the State as the guardian of the health and strength of the tender-aged children to see that they are not abused or forced to enter vocations unsuitable to them compelled by economic necessities. We must remember that children cannot and should not be treated as chattels or saleable commodities or playthings.

They are in flesh and blood with life as much as we elders are and they are also capable of becoming as great, as good or as useful as we are and even more. Therefore, they are to be provided with all the necessary facilities and atmosphere to grow into responsible and useful citizens of the country. For the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, a child should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding. Adults cannot barter away the future of the children. There must be conscious and continuous effort by all concerned to take care of children to ensure wholesome development of their personality.

In my view, all globalisation, liberalisation, modernisation and privatisation must have an element of humanisation so that the human right violations including the violations of the rights of children can be eliminated. The United Nations in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has proclaimed that childhood is entitled to special care and assistance. The Convention on the Rights of the Child is dedicated to the welfare of the child principle and this orientation is in my view more useful than the penal sanction meted against child offenders. 

There is a need to make people aware about rights of children and the importance of their growing up as responsible and productive citizens. Educational institutions, governments, NGOs and the media can play a vital role in this regard. Social communication needs to be stimulated at different levels and through multiple channels across society. This requires sensitive and professional handling in a decentralised manner. Methods and mechanics are to be designed to inform children and parents through the educational system and other media to sensitise public functionaries and opinion-makers. Voluntary organisations in the Gambia like the Child Protection Alliance-CPA have become powerful means of social mediation and communication in promoting the rights of children and equally in preventing their exploitation and suffering. In addition, in a democratic set-up, the most important need is institutional support at the political and policy levels.

It appears that from the beginning of human society children have been exploited mercilessly and indiscriminately. Child labour has been the cheapest and disciplined. Children were made to work at home and outside, in factories and fields, in hazardous occupations, in hotels, restaurants and as domestic help. Children are innocent but defenceless. They are not burdened by prejudice, fears and hypocrisy. They need appropriate attention and proper support to grow well to engage themselves usefully to serve the country.

The Constitution of Gambia articulates great concern for children and the provisions in the Children's Act provide justiciable rights to the children against exploitation through the Children's Court, and free and compulsory education and make special provisions for them. Numerous laws have been enacted for the protection of children but what is really needed is their effective implementation with concern and commitment.

The Resolution on the Rights of the Child, unanimously adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1989 is a manifestation of the concern of the international community for the well-being of children of the world. This convention sets legal standards for the protection of children against neglect, abuse and exploitation as well as guaranteeing to them their basic human rights with assurance for their individual growth and well-being. Although there are numerous laws at the national and international level to protect the rights of children and ensuring their development but the ground realities are still not encouraging as there still exist neglected children of school going age. These children face exploitation and suffering in the society - mental and physical.

It is unfortunate that over the years our institutions have failed or refused to be children-friendly as a recent Report on the welfare of the African Child has highlighted and culture of 'Children should be seen and not heard', which is seriously affecting the governance and development of the country. It is imperative and urgent to make our institutions children-friendly and make the requisite investment our children. This can only be done by people of competence, character, compassion and concern in all walks of life, in particular, in the field of governance at all levels. Compassion and concern must be like that of a pious woman. Once a pious woman was asked by a lady to tell her, what cosmetics she used to look so beautiful; the pious one replied sweetly -I use, for the lips: truth, for the voice: prayers, for the eyes: pity, for the hands: charity, for the figure: righteousness and, for the heart: love.

These are not the cosmetics of the body. They are the cosmetics of the soul required for both men and women for the good of the nation and the entire humanity. These cosmetics are not available in any market of the world, however big it may be. They are to spring from within every human being. Children can be inspired to possess these qualities so that when they grow up, they would be able to build bridges between man and man irrespective of race, religion, community, language, etc. based on mutual love and trust and not the walls of hatred, violence and distrust. It is both expedient and convenient to infuse these qualities in children from the beginning so that the future of this country can be safe in their hands.

Children being the supreme asset of the country, they are to be looked after and groomed well, not merely on the basis of constitutional or statutory provisions but also with great human touch and concern. We all have obligations and duties towards them. By making positive, concrete and constructive suggestions for the wholesome development of all our children, is in a way a great service to the nation itself because in the ultimate analysis when children take over the reins of this country to govern, they will be in a good stead to do so. If children are of great concern to all those who are in a position to guide their destiny, it will produce great results. The deeds of people, in particular of those in power with commitment and concern for the welfare of children will speak more eloquently than words in the days to come. Growing old is mandatory but growing wiser is optional. Let us exercise our option right now in favour of the latter in dealing with children. Continuous and sincere efforts lead to success.