Southern Africa Conference on Children’s Rights

December 13, 2011

From the 14 to 16 November 2011, Abeda Bhamjee, SALC’s prisoners’ rights lawyer attended the Southern Africa Conference on Children’s Rights held at the Pan African Parliament in Gallagher Estates, Midrand, South Africa. SALC has worked on ensuring the rights of juveniles in detention facilities in Malawi.

The specific objectives of this conference were to:
a) Increase awareness of regional and international instruments promoting children’s rights.
b) Review southern African countries’ progress towards meeting their obligations in realizing children and young people’s rights as outlined in the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC) and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
c) Mobilise child rights organisations within the region to formulate strategies and mechanisms to partner with governments to ensure continued implementation of UNCRC and ACRWC and fulfillment of children’s rights in the region.
d) Raise awareness for governments in the region to draft and submit State Party reports to the African Union (AU) and United Nations (UN) on the status of children and youth at national level.

Of particular interest were the presentations on: Children’s Rights Instruments by Professor Julia Sloth-Nielsen, a member of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) and the Dean of Law, University of the Western Cape; Children’s rights and customary/traditional law study findings  by Ms Buyi Mbambo; and the Universal Period Review reporting process by Ms Ulrika Soneson-Cilliers of Save the Children.

Professor Julia Sloth-Nielsen outlined the provisions of both the UNCRC and the ACRWC. She emphasized that reporting to the ACERWC should not be onerous. It was acceptable to receive reports prepared for other committees or bodies as long as they had been intelligently edited. This comment was made in light of the generally delayed initial and interim reports from States party to the ACRWC.

She went on to state that the committee of experts was particularly interested in receiving information that distinguished the provisions in the ACRWC, for example, on customary practices and the responsibilities of children.

Ms Buyi Mbambo presented preliminary study findings around the influence of socio-cultural environments on the realization of children’s rights. The study was undertaken in South Africa and Zambia. It was interesting to note that customary law can either foster or hinder the protection on children’s rights. The study identified practices that hinder children’s rights, such as: child labour, forced child marriage, forced circumcision, female genital mutilation, corporal punishment, virginity testing, general discrimination against girl children, patriarchy, and lack of educational opportunities for girl children. Practices identified in the study that that foster children’s rights are: naming practices, communal parenting, alternative forms of discipline, psycho-social support, customary adoptions, antenatal feeding and infant feeding practices.

Ms Ulrike Soneson-Cilliers, of Save the Children, introduced the use of the Universal Periodic Review to advance children’s rights thorough monitoring and documenting the situation of children at national level. The discussions focused around the fact that the universal periodic review is a) universal – each member state of the UN is obliged to report ; b) it is periodic – 4 yearly ; c) it is intergovernmental – the reports are reviewed by member states of the human rights council; d) it is action orientated.

The discussion focused on how civil societies can engage with government to formulate strategies and mechanisms to ensure that they report on children’s rights. as well as how coalitions can be formed within civil society to produce shadow reports.

Many delegates identified the procedure and structure of UN reporting requirements as a particular challenge to governments. They felt their governments were under-resourced to produce the reports, and even those governments that had engaged consultants specifically to prepare reports were still delayed. In the discussion, a representative from Save the Children stated that Save the Children has produced a manual on how to engage with the African Committee that may be helpful and perhaps delegates should be engaging directly with the UN to see if they have other manuals available. For example, delegates could go to the local UNICEF offices or find appropriate UN offices to assist with the procedure and structure of reports. It would be advisable though to approach the UN well in advance of the deadline to do this.

Conference wrap up: a regional committee was formulated to deal with the issues raised in the conference. It will be worth tracking the progress of this committee until the next meeting.

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