Children’s rights in Africa: Marking 30 years of African Children’s Charter
As we mark the Worlds Children’s Day this year, we also mark the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC). The ACRWC was adopted in 1990 by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) – which became the African Union in 2001. It entered into force in 1999. The African Children's Charter is a comprehensive instrument that sets out rights and defines universal principles and norms for the status of children. The ACRWC and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) are the only international and regional human rights treaties that cover the whole spectrum of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.
The African Children’s Charter encompasses a wide array of rights and obligations articulated in an innovative and progressive manner for a better advancement of children’s rights in Africa.
Ratification of the Charter
To date, 49 countries have ratified the African Children’s Charter, thereby demonstrating their commitment to respect, protect and promote the rights of children. Thirty years after its adoption, the Charter remains one of the most ratified regional treaties and performs a pivotal role in the improvement of the lives of children around the continent. The ACRWC was adopted to address the specific problems of African Children as clearly articulated under its Preamble:
NOTING WITH CONCERN that the situation of most African children, remains critical due to the unique factors of their socio-economic, cultural, traditional and developmental circumstances, natural disasters, armed conflicts, exploitation and hunger, and on account of the child's physical and mental immaturity he/she needs special safeguards and care, …
Progress made 30 years after adoption
The African Children’s Charter has indelibly changed the way Africa and the world see children: as rights holders. Africa has achieved considerable progress with gains in education, health and living standards. The mortality rates for children under 5 years of age have reduced by over 50 per cent and huge strides have been made in universal primary education.
Another important highlight of the Charter is that it defines a child as a person below the age of 18 without any exception. This is pertinent to a continent that is accustomed to treat children who have reached the age of puberty as adults and subject them to various practices that affect their developments. The impact of the Charter in introducing a definition of the child without any exception is bigger and brings more added value in other areas as well. For instance, child marriage or betrothal has no exception in the Charter as there is no exception for the definition of the child.
The Charter also brings an additional value in the area of children and armed conflict in the sense that it prohibits the recruitment or involvement of children in hostilities. Moreover, the Charter is noble to Africa as it recognized African problems as well as African values. It addresses issues in relation to harmful practices in addition to child marriage and requests states to eliminate harmful social and cultural practices.
The Charter also specifies that girls should be provided with affirmative action when it comes to education and the protection of girls who fall pregnant while in school. Also, the Charter extends the protection accorded to refugee and asylum-seeking children to internally displaced children whose situation is not covered in the UNCRC or other global treaties. Finally, African values such as the responsibilities of the child to the family, community and the nation are included in the Charter making it more region specific and easy to relate to.
In the past 30 years, Africa has made commendable progress to address challenges of children’s rights in various fronts, such as, in addressing infant and child mortality, reducing the number of preventable deaths, improving access to and quality of education, enacting child rights laws, combating violence against children, and providing for access to justice.
Monitoring implementation of the Charter
Implementation of the Charter is monitored by the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) which was established under Article 32 of the Charter. The mandate of the Committee is to protect the Charter rights, monitor the implementation of the Charter and interpret its provisions. The Committee examines reports submitted by States parties on the measures that they have adopted to give effect to the provisions of the Charter and in the progress made in the enjoyment of the rights contained in the Charter.
After considering the States party’ reports, the Committee makes suggestions and general recommendations to the State party in question. Further, the Committee may also issue general comments on provisions of the Charter to promote its implementation and to assist States parties in fulfilling their reporting requirements. The Committee may, furthermore, receive communications from any person, group or non-governmental organization recognized by the African Union, by a Member State or by the United Nations relating to any matter covered by the Charter. The Committee may resort to any form of investigation of any matter falling within the ambit of the Charter.
Despite the great milestones that have been achieved so far with 30 years of the implementation of the ACRWC, there are outstanding as well as emerging challenges affecting children in Africa. Stubborn challenges persist, for example, sub-Saharan Africa remains the region with the highest under-five mortality rate in the world and there are wide variations across regions, with Western and Central Africa having the highest rates of child deaths.
30 years after its adoption, 49 countries have ratified the Charter with 6 countries yet to ratify, namely Democratic Republic of Congo, Morocco, Saharawi Arab Republic, Somalia, South Sudan, and Tunisia. Given the extensive relationships that exist among countries on the Continent, and the nature of violations facing children, it is imperative that all African countries ratify the Charter. Beyond ratification of the Charter, States need to enhance the implementation of their obligations under the Charter. Implementation is monitored by the ACERWC, which brings to focus the aspect of reporting. Among the countries that have ratified the Charter, 8 Countries have never submitted a report to the Committee on the implementation of the Charter while their report has been due; these countries are: Botswana, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, The Gambia, Libya, and Mauritius. For the Charter to have an impact on children’s rights on the continent, States need to fulfil their reporting obligation.
Children are 24 times more likely to die during armed conflict due to illness and injury than in peacetime. Conflict interacts with already retrogressive provision of social services, thereby generating more conflict, violence and underdevelopment. In countries such as DRC, over half of armed groups are made up of children under 18 years of age. These children miss schooling and face mistreatment, violence, and stigma from their communities upon their release.
Africa’s children face emerging global threats and challenges to their survival and well-being, such as attacks on civilians, climate- and conflict-related migration, urbanization, and the negative impacts of technology. There is a resurgence of measles in certain areas, protracted conflicts and a lack of education due to the closure of schools in these locations, and climate-related disasters such as floods and cyclones. Weak social services and statutory systems as well as under-resourcing compound these situations, and allow social, cultural, political and economic barriers to become further entrenched.
There still exists a myriad of challenges affecting millions of children in the continent including but not limited to lack of access to basic services particularly in rural areas; harmful practices such as child marriage and Female Genital Mutilation; discrimination against children with disabilities; child labor; sexual exploitation of children; limited access and low-quality education; low level of birth registration; the specific challenges faced by children without parental care and children on street situation; and child trafficking.
Furthermore, recurrent and emerging challenges such as the situation of children on the move including internally displaced children, migrant children and those displaced by armed conflict and by climatic disasters, children being victims of radicalization and violent extremism, attack on schools by armed groups, and online sexual exploitation of children are becoming issues of concern in light of the ACRWC. Despite the encouraging achievements State Parties have marked in the implementation of the Charter, there is no room for complacency as the abovementioned challenges are increasing and affecting larger number of children.
Our Call for Renewed Commitments Towards an Africa Fit for Children
While much progress has been made, the child rights agenda for the African continent requires an urgent renewal. In addition to addressing critical emerging issues and in view of the grave risk of losing the gains made in the last 30 years, Save the Children is calling for:
- Universal ratification of the African Children’s Charter: we call upon African Union Member States that are yet to ratify the Charter (The Democratic Republic of Congo, The Kingdom of Morocco, The Saharawi Arab Republic, The Republic of Somalia, The Republic of South Sudan, and Tunisia) to ratify the same so that all African children have equal access to their rights enshrined in the Charter.
- Withdrawal of reservations entered in any provisions of the Charter: We urge Member States that have placed reservations on the application of particular provisions of the African Children’s Charter to withdraw their reservations.
- Submission of initial or periodic reports on status of implementation of the African Children Charter: We call upon States Parties that have not yet submitted their reports to submit their reports to the Committee of Experts as a way of committing to greater accountability for the promotion and protection of children’s right
- Increase reporting synergies between the UNCRC and African Children’s Charter: while the UNCRC and African Children’s Charter each have different specificities, there are opportunities to create efficiencies around reporting to the two treaty bodies for each State Party, with feedback consolidated into national and sub-national action plans for advocacy and implementation.
- Commitments to domesticate and implement the Charter including recommendations and decisions of the ACERWC: We call upon Member States to ensure adherence to their obligations under the Charter through domestication and implementation of the Charter’s provisions at national level. (should perhaps come before the one on reporting by States i.e. domesticate extensively then report)
- Response to emerging child rights challenges in Africa: We urge African Union Member States, the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and other child rights stakeholders to respond to the continent’s emerging challenges to child rights through issuance of General Comments, research and advocacy, and cross-ratification of other relevant instruments in support of child rights, to ensure clarity on legal obligations and opportunities.
- Creation of coordinated national and regional policy, financing and legal response to support child rights: We encourage Members States and regional accountability mechanisms on children’s rights to enact and review legislation for the protection, promotion and fulfillment of child rights; establish and sustain coordination mechanisms; build capacity of independent national human rights institutions (NHRIs) including for children, and to renew commitments to minimum public investment levels in the social sectors that are of most benefit to children.
- Safeguarding civil society space for children's rights: We call upon AU Member States to create a more enabling policy environment for civil society as they are important agents in holding states to account for realization of children’s rights and advocacy for positive change for children in policies, laws, programmes and budgets.