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Communities are key to ending customs that harm children, says UNICEF

Theme of the Day of the African Child 2013: “Eliminating Harmful Social and Cultural Practices Affecting Children: Our Collective Responsibility”

NEW YORK/ADDIS ABABA, 16 June 2013 – On the Day of the African Child, UNICEF joined the African Union to mark the efforts by African communities to promote social change and end practices that endanger the lives and health of hundreds of thousands of children each year. 

Harmful social and cultural customs such as Female Genital Mutilation and Cutting (FGM/C) and the branding of children as witches have deep roots, but persist because they are often not questioned.

“Nothing is as powerful as a community itself seeing the harm being done to its own children, and deciding – collectively – to end that practice,” said Nicholas Alipui, UNICEF’s Director of Programmes. “Communities are key to the health and well-being of African children subjected to harsh practices.”

At the root of these abuses is inequity. Some traditions, such as child marriage, so-called ‘honour killings’, breast ironing and female infanticide are still seen as acceptable, though they are among the most harmful. Others, such as ‘child witchcraft’ are often about children being pushed out of a family by a new marriage partner. 

Evidence shows that engaging entire communities around human rights on FGM/C leads to greater understanding and abandonment of the harmful practice. As a result of this approach, fewer girls are subjected to the life-threatening practice of FGM/C. Data released in  February 2013 shows that FGM/C is becoming less prevalent overall and the younger generation is less vulnerable to the practice.

In the 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East, where the practice of FGM/C is concentrated, on average, 36 per cent of girls aged 15-19 have been cut compared to an estimated 53 per cent of women aged 45-49. The decline is particularly sharp in some countries: in Kenya, for example, women aged 45-49 are three times more likely to have been cut than girls aged 15-19.
UNICEF works to help prevent harmful practices by, for example, putting in place legal frameworks and codes of conduct to address and punish perpetrators, and by harnessing the leadership of faith-based and other communities to change norms or stresses that perpetuate violence and cause parents, teachers or care givers to violently discipline children.  UNICEF also supports training of those working in institutions to give proper care to children with disabilities and children caught up in violence. 

Wherever traditional, customary, social and / or religious practices hurt or harm children in any way, communities should work to abandon them for the sake of children’s physical, psychological and social wellbeing, and for their health, education and general development.

Many declarations, handbooks, policies, studies, research and reports, including the 2012 UN General Assembly Resolution on Intensifying Global Efforts for the elimination of FGM, have been written and adopted. However African States and partners need to demonstrate greater political will to eliminate harmful social and cultural practices.

“Once individuals, and subsequently a whole or significant part of a community, realize that they are better off collectively eliminating a harmful practice, the effort towards complete elimination appears to be within reach,” said Benyam Mezmur Dawit, Chairperson of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.

“African families love their children and want the best for them and, coupled with awareness raising and law reform, the elimination of harmful practices is becoming an ever-growing reality, “ he added. “However, we need to develop laws, policies and programmes that encourage the rapid, mass, and permanent elimination of harmful practices across a wide range of communities in Africa.”

National legislative and policy reforms need to be brought in line with African regional legal instruments such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights – particularly its Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa – and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.

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Note to editors:
The Day of the African Child commemorates the 1976 march in Soweto South Africa, when thousands of African school children took to the streets to protest the inferior quality of their education and to demand their right to be taught in their own language. Hundreds of young boys and girls were shot down and in the two weeks of protest that followed, more than a hundred people were killed and more than a thousand injured. To honour the memory of those killed and the courage of all those who marched, the Day of the African Child has been celebrated on 16 June every year since 1991, when it was first initiated by the Organization of African Unity. The Day also draws attention to the lives of African children today.

About UNICEF
UNICEF works in more than 190 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence. The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS. UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments. For more information about UNICEF and its work visit: www.unicef.org.

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