File picture: Khaya Ngwenya – These girls want the traditional practice of ukuthwala to be abolished. The Salvation Army says its call comes after a summit by the African Union to address the issue of child marriage on the continent.
By Wisani Baloyi
Our children live in a world that presents them with many challenges that they have to navigate. In South Africa, girls are impregnated by teachers and older men, get bullied, discriminated against in schools based on their religion and culture, navigate ukuthwala cultural practice (abducting a girl to force her family to endorse marriage negotiations), racism, violence, drug abuse, gangsterism and other societal ills which pry on their vulnerabilities.
South Africa, isn’t it time that we involve children in addressing challenges faced by them by seeking solutions from children themselves? Shouldn’t the role of the elders, teachers, and society at large be redefined to that of providing guidance and an enabling environment for children to thrive rather than to impose solutions based on a top-down approach? As children often say when being criticised of their “wayward” behaviour – “…the problem is that you older people don’t understand us…”
According to Safer Schools, more than 3.2 million learners are bullied yearly in South Africa. Data by the World Health Organization (WHO) reveal that nearly one in four girls falls pregnant before turning the age of 20. Statistics South Africa states that of almost 34 000 teenage pregnancies which occurred during 2020, 660 of those were girls under the age of 13 years.
A United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) U-Report (a platform managed by the organisation to encourage youth participation) released in November 2022 to celebrate World Children’s Day further painted a grim picture on the state of children’s rights in the country. The report states that 68% of the youth in South Africa who participated in a poll stated that discrimination is a regular part of their life.
Challenges listed above showcase the urgent need to address societal ills which continue to impact negatively on children enjoying their rights as envisioned in Section 28 of the Constitution. The drafters of the Constitution envisaged a country caring about its children and therefore not just included children’s’ rights in the Bill of Rights but made children’s rights a priority.
It is true that legislative strides have been made to protect children and punish those who continue to violate the rights of children. However, children continue to be at the receiving end of a society that is unkind to them.
As an institution established to support constitutional democracy in South Africa, the South African Human Rights Commission continuously embarks on a number of activities to protect children’s rights. The commission has further created a Children’s Rights Unit to expand its work of placing the best interests of the child first. The unit advocates for legislative and policy reform, create awareness and participates in advancing children’s rights both at the domestic, regional and international levels. The unit has created a child friendly webpage to empower children about their rights and enabling them to easily lodge complaints at the commission. It is now also working on plans to create formalised spaces for children to propose solutions to challenges faced by them.
When one thinks of the impactful role children can play, one is inclined to borrow from the disability phrase “Nothing About Us Without Us”. Children’s thinking abilities and problem-solving skills are displayed year-on-year during the National Schools Moot Court Programme. The Schools Moot Court is jointly held annually by the commission together with the Department of Basic Education and the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development to provide pupils with an opportunity to argue a child-centred problem statement in a moot court of law.
Since its inception in 2011, the Schools Moot Court continues to grow, its impact goes beyond Grade 10s and 11s who participate in it. Out of 36 teams that participated in the 2022 finals, 24 were from lower quintile schools. This is indicative that the Schools Moot Court is having a positive impact in previously disadvantaged communities and enabling learners the opportunity to not just learn about the Bill of Rights but to engage and interact with it. Last year 466 schools participated in the competition and 310 schools participated in 2021, and 135 schools participated in 2019. The benefits accruing to learners who participate in the Schools Moot Court is immense. They develop cognitive skills, reading, researching and application through rational sequencing of thought and use of language. Over and above this, society benefits from this competition by boasting young people who are more intimately acquainted with human rights and who will grow into leaders who can assist in giving expression to the idea of a country steeped in a culture of human rights. The ultimate grand prize for pupils who participate in the Schools Moot Court is to prepare a case in a moot court presided over by real judges and human rights lawyers at Constitutional Hill
As a great children’s rights champion, our founding leader the late president Nelson Mandela once said, “One of the ways we can build a better future for our children is by empowering them through allowing them to speak up for themselves…The rights of children must, importantly, include the right to be themselves and to talk for themselves.”
Schools Moot Court founding father, the late Professor Christof Heyns echoed the need to empower children by saying, the Schools Moot Court is a “gateway to conscientise successive generations of young thinkers by introducing them at school level to our Constitution and its underpinning human-centred values.”
The National Schools Moot Court Programme finals will be held between next week.
Wisani Baloyi is acting communications coordinator at the South African Human Rights Commission