With the current unfavorable environment for children across the country, it is unclear what the future holds. This opens windows for both criticism and praises.
To start with, June 7 marks nine years since the Government, through the House of Parliament, ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the child (UNCRC) that our government signed in 1990, and nine years since the enactment of the Child Rights Act in 2007.
This is thanks to the efforts of the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs and its development partners, who worked relentlessly on these key milestones.
The recent progressive move by the government will ensure every child lives his or her full potential. In addition, it makes provisions for every child to enjoy their fundamental human rights, irrespective of his or her tribe, religion or political affiliation.
As one of the child rights activists, I will like to commend the government and all the key stakeholders who played major roles in making that possible for the children of Sierra Leone. These bold actions by the government, with support from UNICEF and other child protection organizations across the country, have led to the successful establishment of the National Commission for Children, two years back.
The Commission, though still in its beginning stage, is charged with the responsibility to monitor and coordinate the convention on the rights of the child (CRC) and part three of the Child Right Act (CRA), improving the condition or welfare of the children of Sierra Leone as well as advising government on policies that are compatible to the CRC etc.
With this came the establishment of the Family Support Units in every police station in the country. As a key step in the right direction, the Unit is mandated to investigate alleged juvenile offenders and also perpetrators of child abuse cases.
The Act also makes provision for Child Welfare Committees, Child Panels, Village Welfare Committees, Chiefdom Welfare Committees, with few already established in key communities across the country.
On the Other Hand
With all these recent progresses and achievements made by the government and the key stakeholders in the child protection arena, there remain major challenges in implementing them.
Among many things, Sierra Leone is still one of the few countries across the sub-region where there is a high rate of child rights violations or abuses. Every day thousands of children are being sexually exploited for commercial purposes in major towns and villages across the country, thousands of children are also living on the street, children are still locked up in cells with adult criminals; child labor, early marriage, rape, etc., are rife.
The million dollar question majority of Sierra Leoneans are asking is: who is to blame: Parents, Government, Children themselves, the Community, Judiciary, School authorities, or NGOs?
The Child Rights Act outlines the rights and responsibilities of the child and also responsibilities of government and parents, as well as the community. I believe the blame must be shared.
It is a clear fact that the government has passed legislation, and it has also established some structures. But are those structures really effective or capacitated enough to fulfill their mandates? The answer is a big NO. Also, let’s take a look at the Family Support Unit; many of its officers are not well trained on how to handle children in conflict with the law. This has led to them either knowingly or unknowingly abusing children while they investigate them. I have come across a case where an FSU officer was shouting at a child and insulting the child in order for the child to talk faster whilst taking statement, rather than encouraging and persuading the child in a friendly manner to get what she wanted.
Most children get panicked when talking to adult, especially police officers, and shouting at them in that manner will only prevent them from saying exactly what happened. The Government should conduct capacity building training for a minimum of six month for every FSU officer before taking up duty; they should also allocate to them monthly stipend, apart from their salaries, to enable them pay for transport to conduct proper investigation, rather than FSU officers requesting for transport from the child or complainants. Many children whose rights have been abused or facing neglect from families hardly have money to take care of themselves, let alone to give some FSU officer to pay for transport to invite their accused persons. This is why a lot of child abuse cases end without proper investigation. The Government is really working hard by setting up those structures, but there is more to be done in terms of capacity building for the Act to be well implemented. These structures are there because of the burning issues affecting the welfare and development of children and it is meaningless for us to spend millions of dollars to establish them without having them serve their purposes.
A friend of mine in Ghana once told me that Sierra Leone is very good in paper but bad in reality. In other words, we are good as a nation in developing policies, creating new offices, but we are very poor in implementing what is in the policies or fulfilling the mandate of those institutions.
The issue of providing legal aid for children who have been abused or are facing neglect is another big problem. It a shame for the government not to have a single legal firm that will provide legal aid to victims of Child abuse cases.
Most victims will rather drop their case against the accused because they don’t have money to pay lawyers to represent them in court.
Parents too have to be blamed because they are the ones that should protect their children directly. The government is there to establish and capacitate institutions to implement the Act that protects children, but parents are the ones who should provide direct care and supervision for their children. Also, most parents violate the rights of their children, especially foster parents. Most parents who are fortunate to have a girl child do lead their children to sexual abuse by sending their children to engage in commercial sexual work so they could take care of the family.
Some are even exposing their children to rape. I have also come across a case were an 8-year old girl in the east end of Freetown was raped by a 33-year old guy because she could not account for Le4, 000. According to the girl, her aunt had sent her out to sell banana. She could not account for the money with threats of flogging she went out wandering about, crying. The guy promised to give her the money, but he ask her to come along with him to his resident where he allegedly forcefully had sex with her before giving her the money. The issue was reported at the Harbor police station but later the aunty forced the girl to withdraw the case, allegedly after collecting money from the accused. According to the girl, her aunt took her from her parents in Port Loko District in order for her to continue her education in Freetown. But when they arrived in Freetown the aunt decided to give her food stuff to sell in the street instead of sending her to school.
Some child abuse cases are perpetrated by parents living in the house together with their children, like the case which was recently reported at the Central police station; a dad allegedly deflowered his daughter by forcefully having sex with her six times. When the girl reported the case to the mom, the mom said the girl wanted to bring shame to the family. She warned her against ever bringing up such an issue again, threatening that the dad would stop taking care of her if she did.
A lot of cases like this are just swept under the carpet by family members of these children. The Child Rights Act also gave parents right to control and guide their children’s upbringing, It is a fact that most of these parents do not have confidence in the future of their children due to the poverty rate in the country, but if you are really a good parent, you should not compromise anything that will hinder your child’s growth and development. You should report any one that want to destroy the future of your child and you should not allow any out of police or out of court settlement because such perpetrators must be brought to book.
School authorities must be blamed for the fact that many child abuse cases are perpetrated by teachers who are supposed to be role models to children, especially girls.
I also know of a case where a secondary school teacher invited school going children for special classes; after the class he sent one of the girls to take his books for him to his house, pretending that he was headed somewhere urgently. But later he followed the girl and forcefully had sex with her. The girl wanted to report the teacher to the FSU but the school authorities begged the girl not to do so, arguing that it would stain the name of the school and also destroy the reputation of the teacher.
I also have come across a case where a primary school teacher in Kambia district, sending her pupils, both boys and girls, to fetch water for her private use, whilst classes were ongoing. Teachers like this that should be seen promoting the rights to quality education are depriving children from enjoying it; such teachers should also be brought to book because they are not only violating the Child Rights Act, but also the Teachers Code of Conduct.
Such teachers must be eliminated from the school system; school authorities should not be involved in any out of police settlement. Teachers are like parents to children, they should instill positive values and knowledge in them; they should also protect their pupils like how they protect their biological children.
Community members also have a share of the blame. Most of these community members are aware of the child abuse cases in their communities, yet they fail to report them to the child welfare committee, the Village welfare Committee, or the FSU, etc. They tend to have it in their minds that the child facing abuse is not their child. Such thinking must stop. The Child Rights Act mandated everybody to report any child abuse case, including community members; everyone has a role to play. We should be our brother’s keeper or our neighbor’s watch. We should not tolerate any child abuse in our community because if that child grows up and become responsible citizen, all of us will benefit, and if that child grows up to be a criminal, all of us will suffer.
Child Protection Organizations and NGOs
What I still don’t understand is why, with the high number of child protection organizations, government agencies, and NGOs we have in the country, still we are unable to make Sierra Leone a better place for children?
Even the twelve rights given to children in the Child Rights Act we still cannot achieve them. Most of these NGOs are focusing on organizing long meetings, workshops, conferences, etc., rather than going to the ground and working with vulnerable children in deprived communities.
Even with those workshops that they organize to transform the lives of children, how many deprived children are benefiting from them? According to a recent survey conducted by EPACT International, the ratio is 1 out 50. Some are collecting millions of dollars in the name of helping the children of Sierra Leone but that money is going into their pockets.
Most of these NGOs and CPOs don’t have passion for what they are doing; some are doing it for money, whilst others are doing it to get fame.
If they have passion for what they are doing they will focus on working on the ground by monitoring cases at the FSU, visiting deprived communities in search of vulnerable children and seeing how best they can help them, etc. Let’s stop the talking and move to action. Let’s pay less attention to engaging the media and pay more attention in making changes.
One thing that pisses me off always is the fact that some NGOs want to get involved with everything: early marriage, street children, right to education, right to health, child labor, teenage pregnancy, etc.,. How can that institution accomplish all of that in a year or two? If we all focus on one, two or three thematic areas, then we can tackle the issues and make Sierra Leone a better place for children.
The Laws Enforcers
The law enforcers have a lot of blame because they are the ones mandated to ensure whatever is in the Act is well implemented by brining all those child rights abusers to book. But they are also abusing children, the child rights Act states that in any judicial proceeding in Sierra Leone, a child shall not be held criminally responsible for his or her actions if he or she is below the age of 14. But a lot of children below that age are in police detention with adult criminals for minor offences that can be easily tackled in the community. The judiciary also fails to protect victims of child abuse cases. Most of the victims of child abuse cases are afraid to report their cases at the police station because the police cannot protect them, especially when the cases are perpetrated by their relatives.
And also delay of court proceedings is another issue. Most children who have been abused prefer to drop their cases because they have limited time to follow up on the matter or even attend court proceedings. I also know of a case where a rape victim decide to drop her case because she had limited time to attend court proceedings because the court started at 10am and by that time she should be in school. She would rather attend school than attend court sittings. I believe if such proceedings are conducted at most in a month, rather than three to six months, most perpetrators would be brought to book.
The court and police also should stop tolerating out of court or out of police settlement in any child abuse case, even if the child or the child’s parents want to withdraw the matter.
The Child Rights Act outlines the rights of Children and also their responsibilities. Rights go with responsibilities. For example, the right to quality education is the responsibility of government to train teachers and social workers and also establish learning institutions.
It is the responsibility of parents to register their children in those institutions and it is the responsibility of children to attend school regularly and study hard.
Admittedly, many other children are the causes of their abuses. I know of a case where a school-going pupil who comes from a very good family always put casual dresses in her bag when going to school. After school she and her colleagues would go to watch games and visit boyfriends. One day she accompanied her friend to her fiancée. The two left her in the sitting room and went to the room. Then someone came in the sitting room and met her alone and then the guy raped her. As a child when your parent sent you to school, you need to be in school and avoid anything that would hinder your education and development. You should be self-confident and stay away from colleagues who don’t have focus.
I believe that everyone in society somehow shares part of the blame for the increase in child abuse cases in Sierra Leone, and we should collectively work in making Sierra Leone a better place for children. If we invest positively in children then we are investing positively in the future of the country. Let’s act now or else our children will never forgive us.
The writer, Edmond Alim B. Fornah, has displayed dedication towards community peace and passion for selfless service in ensuring the wellbeing of Young People in Sierra Leone. Through a mixture of skills in public speaking, social mobilization and consensus building, Edmond has been able to achieve greater progress on behalf of young people in Sierra Leone. For instance, as the founder and leader of the Kids Advocacy Network, he has made bold presentations at various policy forums; got parliament to pass the Child Rights Acts (CRA) in June 2007. He also initiated the “Neibah Watch” (Neighborhood Watch) program, a networking activity by young people for monitoring and reporting violations and abuses against children in various communities across the country.
In May 2008, as a child rights activists, Edmond represented Sierra Leone at the 6th African Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he was elected as chairperson for the children sessions of the conference.
Mr. Fornah boldly presented a Declaration statement on behalf of the Children of Africa, reminding parents, governments and NGOs of their responsibilities to children. He also re-echoed the responsibilities of every child to the “rights” enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. He has attended similar meetings in other countries like Guinea, Kenya, Ghana, Egypt, Germany, Senegal, Brazil etc.