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/Lilongwe, 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.
In Malawi the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection is focusing on child marriage as the harmful traditional practice and cites the alarming figure that 24% of children in Malawi are married before their 18th birthday. It calls for stronger incentives to keep girls in school up to secondary level, and an end to violence against girls and women.
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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