Africa, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-NAMIBIA: New Dangers, New Efforts to Protect Children

Servaas van den Bosch

WINDHOEK, Jul 24 2009 (IPS) - New channels like sms messages and social-networking application Facebook are just some of the tools government and civil rights groups will be using to encourage input on the Child Care and Protection Bill will soon be tabled in Namibia's parliament.

New laws guiding care of vulnerable children must account for a diverse society changing quickly under new pressures. Credit:  Servaas van den Bosch/IPS

New laws guiding care of vulnerable children must account for a diverse society changing quickly under new pressures. Credit: Servaas van den Bosch/IPS

"Like many laws in Africa, the old act is a remnant of colonial days," explains attorney Carina du Toit from the South African Centre for Child Law. "Child laws need to be updated and brought in line with the African Charter and UN Convention on children’s rights."

Du Toit is part of a group of international experts helping Namibia prepare the new bill for tabling in parliament before the end of the year, the first new legislation to protect children’s welfare since 1960.

Back then extended family might have been sufficient to absorb all orphans, now there are just too many. "The result is an extremely fluid environment that leaves children more vulnerable to being shifted around," remarks Du Toit.

"The traditional family structure is breaking down rapidly," says customary law expert Lea Mwambene from the University of the Western Cape in South Africa. "Because of the importance of the extended family in African culture, many orphans are still cared for in informal kinship settings, but these are not always recognised by law."

Problems accessing welfare grants, school fees or state medical care, or making decisions about the child's future are the result.

"There are 250,000 registered orphans and vulnerable children (OVCs) in Namibia out of a population of two million," says UNICEF OVC-expert Matthew Dalling. "But that’s just a small proportion of children in need."

"Child-headed households are going to be around for a long time," says Dianne Hubbard. "And some are doing a great job. We should find ways to assist the eldest children and give them legal rights over their siblings."

Hubbard heads the Gender Research and Advocacy project at the Legal Assistance Centre (LAC) in Windhoek that assists the government with drafting of the bill.

Casting a wide net for answers

To consult the public and build political momentum, workshops are being organised throughout the country's 13 regions and colourful flyers inserted in the three daily newspapers, asking readers to sms their opinions to the law-makers.

"In June we received 107 responses, up from ten in May, so there has been a rapid increase," says the LAC's Rachel Coomer, responsible for public consultation.

"Some people message us asking for airtime, but many offer a serious opinion, for instance on adoption or mediation in family disputes."

The LAC has even set up a group on social networking site Facebook.

"This is one of the widest consultations ever," asserts Hubbard "And with Facebook we easily reach a group of young people whose input is invaluable."

Asked about what problems the children in Namibia face, the group’s members – 250 in total – respond differently.

Petrina Mwadhina from Namibia thinks that "children need food and proper sanitation". While for Marianna Garofalo from Italy, HIV "is the root cause of many other problems touching children". Namibian James Corbett emphasises the lack of facilities in rural areas "where some children have to learn in tents".

Some come with a mission, such as "MC-Ray" who states: "i joind diz group coz i wana educate the youth bout their rightz thru my muziek, and also thru my poetry".

Others with a message: "Bottom line, sex education should form part of the school curriculum, because these days children are experimenting with sex at a very young age," signed Taimi Ndalulilwa.

Expert advice also sought

But drafting the new Act entails more than collecting the gathered wisdom of Facebook posts and sms responses from the public, say the experts.

"The bill deals with an enormous range of complex issues," says Hubbard. "In a large, sparsely populated country like Namibia, service delivery for instance is an obvious problem."

Namibia's two million people – spread over a vast country – are served by just 44 social workers.

"Instead of merely giving preference to relatives, laws need to actively cater for the problems in Southern Africa and provide systems between foster care and adoption," says Mwambene.

South Africa is trying to make provision for placement with extended family up till the eighteenth birthday of a child. But even then – and mainly because of the rampant HIV epidemic – the amount of orphans exceeds the number of available caregivers and social workers.

Lesotho experiments with clustered foster care, says professor Itumeleng Kimane from the University of Lesotho – and chair of that country's Child Law Reform Committee. "The foster parent doesn’t live with the children, but instead looks out for ten child-headed households in the neighbourhood."

But clustered foster care, whether in the community or in institutions, is still "a fuzzy concept, without a real definition," says Carina Du Toit. "It's not tested anywhere else."

And that's the case with many problems facing children in the sub-region.

Controversial questions as whether 12-year olds should have access to contraceptives, or be able to take an AIDS test without parental approval, take on a different dimension in countries that battle with the highest HIV-prevalence rates in the world.

"The great diversity of tribes and cultures also definitely makes it harder," says Hubbard. "Laws need to fit different contexts. Practices such as early marriage or scarification are accepted in one culture and controversial in the other. While I might think it's normal to pierce my daughter's ears, some will argue it is child abuse."

Rachel Coomer is positive that the innovative ways to involve citizens add value to the long drafting process that is nearing its completion.

"I am pretty certain that because of the text number and the site, we have drawn response from a sector of society that we would not otherwise heard of."

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