Children's socio-economic rights on global agenda

09 February 2006

UCT was well represented at a congress that called for children and their caregivers to be consulted in the laws that affect them.

"Children should be seen and not heard" became a grim reminder of how children's rights are not being realised, despite laws and conventions to protect them, this according to a sheath of papers presented at the 4th World Congress on Family Law and Children's Rights.

Held in Cape Town, the gathering marked the 15th anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. UCT was well-represented at the congress, with presentations by seven researchers from the university's multi-disciplinary Children's Institute (CI), and an opening address by Chancellor Graça Machel, a respected children's rights campaigner.

The consensus from delegates was clear: major challenges face South African children, and the CI researchers called for policies and laws to be drafted within a rights-based framework and after adequate consultation with those who will be most affected by these laws and policies: the children and their caregivers.

Consultation will ensure that the mechanisms created in these policies and laws will provide workable solutions to the problems facing children and their families, particularly in the face of HIV/AIDS and poverty.

The presentations by UCT researchers illustrated the need for rights and consultation to be taken more seriously. HIV/AIDS programme researcher Namhla Mniki discussed a CI project involving children in the formulation of the Children's Bill. Mniki said children faced many difficulties in "being heard" in a national law reform process. Children's submissions on the Bill to Parliament highlighted a dearth of social services in their communities and high levels of poverty and abuse.

Child rights programme researcher Mira Dutschke's paper examined children's rights to social services and protection from abuse and neglect, and asked whether the Children's Bill lives up to South Africa's international and constitutional obligations.

HIV/AIDS programme manager Sonja Giese reflected on the experiences of children and caregivers in heavily AIDS-affected communities, her paper highlighting key considerations for the drafters of the Children's Bill.

Child poverty programme manager Annie Leatt said major poverty alleviation programmes and policies like the Child Support Grant, the School Fee Exemption Policy, and the Free Basic Water and Sanitation Programme could be improved to ensure that poor children have access to grants, education and water.

"Children's rights and needs are not sufficiently considered when macro-policies are designed."

Dr Maylene Shung-King, the CI's deputy director, tackled the issue of children's rights to basic health-care services and whether South Africa's policies, laws and programmes give effect to these essential rights.

Child health services programme researcher Kashifa Lagerdien pinpointed the main underlying causes of another sobering reality: the growing death rate among the country's young.

Turning to the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child, child rights programme senior researcher Solange Rosa said the convention is being under-utilised by the South African courts and law-makers in comparison to other international human rights documents.

Putting South Africa's constitutional and international obligations to children under the spotlight, child rights programme manager Paula Proudlock's paper elaborated on how the Executive and Parliament can strengthen South Africa's policy and law-making processes to "ensure that new laws and policies provide rights-based and workable solutions to the challenges facing children in the face of HIV/AIDS, poverty and violence".

"Children's rights and needs must be actively considered by law and policy-makers before they make final decisions. Without this consideration, South Africa's fulfilment of the obligations in terms of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child will remain elusive."

Closing the congress, Professor Geraldine Van Beuren of UCT's law faculty questioned why the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child had led to improvements in civil and political rights but not in socio-economic rights.

"As long as socio-economic rights are considered discretionary, social welfare benefits rather than legal entitlements, we are in effect playing dice with many children's lives."

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