South Sudanese Children Call for Action on the Day of the African Child
By Stephen Gray & Sid Shrestha
JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN, 16 June 2011 – Saad Rice, 12, takes to the podium with the confidence of a natural-born speaker. Dressed in a stylish white cap and dark sunglasses, he looks just as smart as the distinguished delegates who are gathered with him to celebrate the 21th anniversary of the Day of the African Child in Juba, South Sudan, organized by Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Welfare and UNICEF.
An Opportunity to Address their Leaders
150 young South Sudanese attended the day’s celebration, using the opportunity to question their leaders about the issues that concern them most leading up to Independence on July 9. The day would be a great opportunity “to learn from its newest citizens what the world’s newest country should be like,” said United Nations Deputy Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, Lise Grande in her opening remarks.
Eight members of the South Sudan Legislative Assembly (SSLA) were in attendance, including Speaker, Honourable Excellency James Wani Iga, and Honorable Minister for Gender, Child and Social Welfare, Agnes K. Lasuba, who is also Chairperson of the SSLA’s Gender, Child and Social Welfare Committee. Introducing the celebration, Honorable Minister Lasuba remarked that “There is an urgent need to create an environment that will allow children to have their rights, to grow and to thrive.” - Hon. Agnes K. Lasuba, Minister for Gender, Child and Social Welfare“There is an urgent need to create an environment that will allow children to have their rights, to grow and to thrive.”
The Children challenge the Legislative Assembly
The day’s key feature was a roundtable discussion between eight children and eight members of the SSLA. The legislators faced a range of tough questions from each of their young counterparts.
Mary David, 12, continued shyly, “What will you do to stop parents from forcing girls to marry when they are still young?”, drawing loud applause from the audience. Hon. Minister Lasuba remarked that it’s the government’s responsibility to enforce existing laws prohibiting underage marriage, while questioning the traditional practice of offering dowries as payments for brides.
Hon. Gatwech Lam Puoch echoed the sentiment. “A child is a child until 18 years of age,” he said. “We must no longer look at a girl as a commodity, she is a human being”. Hon. Gatwech Lam Puoch , Parliamentarian“We must no longer look at a girl as a commodity, she is a human being”.
Singing for their Rights
Despite the challenges faced by the children in attendance, most of whom live on the streets, affected by conflict, or are from poor families, their positive energy was infectious. The groups that performed during the day drew rapturous applause from the crowd, at one stage enticing Hon. Lasuba, Ms. Grande, UNICEF Director of Southern Sudan Area Programme, Dr. Yasmin Haque and some Parliamentarians to leave their seats to dance along.
The need for increased access to education would be echoed by many children during the celebration. UNICEF Director of Southern Sudan, Dr. Yasmin Ali Haque, summed up the issues to be canvassed during the day by asking “how do we make sure that children have access to free education, don’t go to a school on an empty stomach, have access to medical care, clean water and sanitation, and are free from abuse?”
Turning Words into Action
While their performance was inspiring, it was the children’s courageous questions that were most effective. Responding to questions about sexual violence, Dr. Malek agreed it was the government’s responsibility to protect children, stating that “there is a law being negotiated for abuse against children. We will put it before parliament.” It was encouraging to hear the children’s voices being heard.
Concluding the day’s celebration, H.E. James Wani Iga referred to the rights of children enshrined in the Child Act 2008 and the draft constitution for the new Republic of South Sudan. “The new Republic of South Sudan is going to put children first,” - H.E. Jamers Wani Iga, Speaker, South Sudan Legislative Assembly “The new Republic of South Sudan is going to put children first,” said Mr Iga. “It’s not just words, we will regret it if we don’t show it in actions.”
This is a commitment that UNICEF will continue to support.
Southern Sudan is due to become independent, July 9 following a historic referendum in which the Southerners overwhelmingly voted for secession. The referendum was part of a 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) to end the two decade long war between the North and the South.
When the CPA was signed in 2005 only 343,000 of Sudan’s estimated 4.5 million children were enrolled in school. By 2010, the total enrolment increased to over 1.6 million children. (Source: EMIS).
Children under the age of eighteen make up more than half of South Sudan’s population. Many thousands were separated from their parents during the civil war, have since lost them to drugs and alcohol, or are forced to live on the streets due to poverty and neglect.