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Twenty-five years of children's rights

21 Nov 2014

The Convention on the Rights of the Child has been signed by 194 countries; it is the most ratified United Nations treaty in history

November 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). On November 20 1989 government representatives from across the world gathered at the UN General Assembly to formalise an international treaty that would hold nations to a set of rules ensuring that the rights of children are protected.

The CRC sets out the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of children and has three optional protocols dealing with: the involvement of children in armed conflict; the sale of children, child pornography and child prostitution; and a communications procedure for complaints. To date 194 countries have ratified the CRC, making it the most ratified UN treaty.

Dawn of a new era for child rights in SA

The commemoration of the 25th year of the CRC provides the opportunity to reflect on South Africa’s relationship with children’s rights as it coincides with its own commemoration of 20 years of constitutional democracy.

Throughout the struggle against apartheid, nongovernmental and community-based organisations recognised the exceptional vulnerability of children and fiercely advocated for their rights.

In 1987 the Children, Repression and the Law in Apartheid South Africa conference was held in Zimbabwe. In his address to the conference, the late Oliver Tambo said: “We cannot be true liberators unless the liberation we will achieve guarantees all children the rights to life, health, happiness and free development, respecting the individuality, inclinations and capabilities of each child. Our liberation would be untrue to itself if it did not, among its first tasks, attend to the welfare of the millions of children whose lives have been stunted and turned into a terrible misery by the violence of the apartheid system.”

Following this conference, the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) published the report Children on the Frontline: the Impact of Apartheid, Destabilisation and Warfare on Children in Southern and South Africa. It added impetus to the child rights movement, motivating organisations to advocate, lobby and campaign for a child rights protection system in South Africa. By 1990 the National Committee on the Rights of the Child (NCRC) was formed, comprising more than 200 organisations working in the field of children’s rights.

In 1992, the University of the Western Cape’s Community Law Centre hosted the International Conference on the Rights of Children in South Africa. As part of the conference, leading child rights organisation Molo Songololo facilitated the International Summit on the Rights of Children in South Africa. The summit brought together over 200 children from different backgrounds, races and ethnicities from across the country. The children spoke out about their concerns and the effects of apartheid on their rights. This conference resulted in the drafting of the Children’s Charter of South Africa, considered a turning point in the realisation of a culture of children’s rights, child participation and advocacy in South Africa.

The charter also played a crucial role in the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) negotiations, calling for political parties to give priority to the rights of children in shaping a new democratic, South Africa.

By 1993, the NCRC had established itself as a strong force, calling for the inclusion of children’s rights in the new Constitution for South Africa. In addition to all the other rights afforded in the Bill of Rights, Section 30 of the interim Constitution bore the fruits of the NCRC’s efforts and set out children’s civil and socio-economic rights. In the same year, the NCRC and Unicef launched the report Children and Women in South Africa: A Situation Analysis. It explored such themes as education, health, nutrition, violence and abuse, analysing how these relate to children and women and providing baseline data. The report noted that there were major data constraints in the official national statistics of the black population, particularly those residing in the “independent homelands”.

The release of this report provided the opportune time to call for the creation of a National Programme of Action for Children (NPAC). In the same year, the NCRC and Unicef hosted a two-day conference in Thembisa, The State of the African Child: An Agenda for Action to examine the situation analysis report and explore proposals for the formation of a national programme of action for children. The outcome of the conference was the adoption of the Thembisa Declaration, which identified nine main areas of action, including the establishment of a National Forum for Children and the development of a NPAC.

Putting children first in the new South Africa

In December 1993, then President FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela jointly signed the 1990 Declaration and Plan of Action of the World Summit for Children and, more notably, the CRC. Guided by the CRC, in February 1994 the NCRC hosted a conference to discuss the operational and technical aspects of a NPAC. The conference resulted in the establishment of a NPAC task team, with a mandate to prepare a NPAC outline for presentation to the new democratic government in post-April 1994.

Significantly, on June 16 1994, the task team presented its NPAC outline to South Africa’s first democratic president, Nelson Mandela. On this day, he confirmed the needs of children as paramount and pledged the government’s commitment to prioritise children’s rights at the highest level. A year later, on Youth Day in 1995, President Mandela announced that South Africa officially ratified the CRC — the first international instrument to be ratified by the new democratic government.

President Mandela also ensured the establishment of the Inter-ministerial Cabinet Committee on the Rights of the Child, whose steering committee included the then newly formed South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and Unicef, with the primary task to develop and implement the NPAC Framework.

In 1996, Cabinet approved the first National Programme of Action for Children. Adhering to its obligations under the CRC, in 1997, government submitted its initial national report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. The committee welcomed the establishment of the NPAC, recognised the establishment of the SAHRC and specifically asked the South African government to ensure that adequate resources were allocated for the effective functioning of the SAHRC to carry out its mandate to protect, promote and monitor children’s rights.

When the co-ordination of child rights was moved from the department of health (previously designated by Cabinet to lead the NPAC process) to the office of the Presidency in 1998 it reflected President Mandela’s promise afforded to children to place them at the highest level of government priority. The children’s desk (later known as the Office on Child Rights or ORC), co-ordinated the NPAC, liaised with stakeholders and provided advice to the presidency on the situation of children in South Africa.

In 2009 government established the department for women, children and people with disabilities (DWCPD), dissolving the ORC in the presidency. Subsequently, a call was made to review the NPAC in line with the mandate of the new department.

In 2013, Cabinet approved the revised NPAC 2012-2017, which seeks to “bring together existing international and national priorities for the survival, protection, development and participation of children in South Africa into one coherent framework”. It is directly aligned to the five government priorities: education; health; the fight against crime and corruption; economic growth, decent work and sustainable livelihoods; and rural development, food security and land reform.

A step backwards for child rights

Two decades after the dawn of democracy in South Africa and after taking several leaps forward in recognising and facilitating children’s rights in South Africa, government has seemingly taken a step backwards. After the 2014 general elections, the DWCPD was disbanded and the children’s portfolio shifted to the widely mandated department of social development.

The commission views this as a regression of the children’s portfolio that creates a potential vacuum for government, as it lacks a specific focal point and mandate on children’s rights. The dissolution of the DWCPD has resulted in the end of the parliamentary committees whose role included oversight and holding of government to account for measures taken to ensure the realisation of children’s rights.

In addition, government has neglected its obligations under the CRC. At the time of this article, it is noted the combined 2nd, 3rd, 4th Periodic Report was completed and approved by Cabinet, but has not, as yet, reached the Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva. The SAHRC is concerned that failure to submit timeous reports demonstrates to the international community government’s lack of political will in adhering to its child rights obligations under the CRC.

The SAHRC monitors child rights

Since its inception, and as an institution established to support constitutional democracy, the SAHRC has monitored the realisation of children’s rights in South Africa. In this regard, the commission has engaged at various levels, including investigating complaints alleging violation of children’s rights to embarking on numerous advocacy and research initiatives.

In addition, it also established an expert advisory committee on children’s rights under the Human Rights Commission Act, which allows the SAHRC to facilitate engagement and dialogue on key children’s rights issues with stakeholders from government, academia and civil society. The advisory committee addresses matters like violence against children, for example the prohibition of corporal punishment in the home, the establishment of a national protocol on corporal punishment in schools, education for children with disabilities, the impact of poverty, inequality and HIV and Aids on the rights of the child and other areas where there is an intersection of rights that affect children.

The SAHRC has published several reports relating to children’s rights in South Africa. Notably over the last five years the SAHRC has partnered with Unicef to publish South Africa’s Children: A Review of Equity and Child Rights (2011) which details the inequities within South African society in relation to children and addresses the gaps in policies and service delivery programmes. In 2012 the Charter of Children’s Basic Education Rights was published, which sets out the obligations and indicators for monitoring the fulfilment of the right to basic education.

Earlier this year, a report on Poverty Traps and Social Exclusion Among Children in South Africa was released by the commission, examining the extent of poverty, inequality, and exclusion among South African children, the characteristics of children most affected, and the efficacy of existing policies designed to reach those children.

Following the non-delivery of textbooks in the Limpopo province in 2012, the commission conducted an investigation into the matter and in 2014 released its Report on the Investigation into the Delivery of Primary Learning Materials to Schools. All these reports were widely disseminated to government and civil society and the commission has formally presented these reports to Parliament.

As South Africa’s national human rights institution, the SAHRC has also raised its concern over government’s lack of reporting and non-adherence to its obligations under the CRC with Parliament and, at an international level, with the UN Human Rights Council.

Put children first again

The SAHRC emphasises the fact that government bears the primary responsibility under international, regional and national commitments to pass laws, conduct education, raise awareness, monitor, evaluate and ensure that children, as active rights bearers, are provided with remedies when their rights are violated.

On this occasion of the 25th anniversary of the UNCRC, the SAHRC calls on the South African government to once again prioritise children’s rights as a key government agenda, commit to its obligations under the CRC, uphold the promise made to South Africa’s children by the late Nelson Mandela and heed his powerful words: “History will judge us by the differences we make in the everyday lives of children.”

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