Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

EL SALVADOR: New Child Protection Law Starved of Resources

Edgardo Ayala

SAN SALVADOR, Aug 4 2011 (IPS) - Lack of budget resources and political will, according to activists, is preventing fulfilment of the provisions of El Salvador’s long-awaited new law for the comprehensive protection of children and adolescents.

Delays in implementing the law, in spite of the fact that it is already in force, seem to be due to lack of foresight on the part of lawmakers who drafted it in March 2009 but omitted to secure the necessary state funds and infrastructure.

In April 2010, Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes asked Congress to postpone the entry into force of the child protection law until Jan. 1, 2011, but even since that date it has not been implemented for the want of essential funding, estimated at 432 million dollars.

The law is an improvement on previous child protection legislation, as it commits the state to ensuring comprehensive child protection and full enjoyment by children of universal human rights, such as health and education.

It also includes safeguards against all forms of slavery, trafficking in children, forced and bonded labour, and the use of children in drug trafficking.

An effort has been made to integrate child protection measures provided in other legislation, like the Family Code, and to construct a coherent legal system.

The slow rate of progress is attributed by children’s rights organisations to a real lapse of interest on the part of President Funes and Finance Minister Carlos Cáceres, whose responsibility it is to promote the necessary budget appropriations.

“We observe a lack of political will, a failure to establish priorities and to commit national budget resources so that the law can be enforced,” Georgina Villalta, special counsel for children at the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (PDDH), told IPS.

The budget allocation must be approved by the executive branch, but the country’s acute fiscal problems mean that this law, along with other bills, is languishing in limbo.

El Salvador has to juggle its finances in order to cut its fiscal deficit to no more than 3.5 percent of GDP by the end of the year, a measure agreed in March 2010 with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as the condition for 790 million dollars of sorely needed credit. The IMF demands continued reduction of the deficit, which was around five percent in 2009.

The new law has created the National Council for Childhood and Adolescence (CONNA), comprising the ministries of health, education and public security, among others involved in social affairs.

Only 57 percent of four- to six-year-olds in this Central American country attend preschools. One out of five children under five show signs of stunting (low height for age), while the prevalence of anaemia has risen by three percentage points in the last five years, according to a study titled “Niñez en El Salvador: Estado actual y perspectivas” (Children in El Salvador: Current status and future prospects).

Published in 2009 by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Save the Children and Plan International, the study found that 11,291 cases of domestic violence and sexual assault were reported in 2008, 23.7 percent more than in 2006.

Two child advocacy groups, Aldeas Infantiles SOS (SOS Children’s Villages) and the Medina Foundation, which works on behalf of street children, have been selected to participate in CONNA.

The goal of CONNA is to create a National System for the Comprehensive Protection of Children and Adolescents, in which other authorities will be included, like local councils for child protection that are to be opened in each of the country’s 262 municipalities, and the Red de Atención Compartida (Shared Care Network).

The national civil police and the Attorney-General’s Office will also participate in the national child protection system.

It is also a priority of CONNA’s to contribute to formulating national child protection policy.

President Funes appointed CONNA officials in May, for a temporary period which ends in December, after which new officials will be elected.

“The establishment of CONNA is a step forward, because the child protection field was immobilised by inertia. But there is a great deal of work to be done, and the process needs to move faster,” Ludín Caballero, head of Save the Children’s health and protection programme in El Salvador, told IPS.

The law calls for the creation of special courts to hear and prosecute cases involving child protection. So far three of these have been established, as well as one court of second instance, but they are not enough to cope with national demand, activists say.

“Hardly anyone is satisfied. The (courts) don’t have the capability to meet the demand, because cases will pour in from all over the country,” Villalta said.

The Attorney General’s Office said it needs at least eight million dollars of extra funding to meet the law’s stipulations, such as having more than two lawyers in attendance at each of the children’s courts.

The entire institutional base is still at the embryonic stage, and there are no signs of any change of attitude or direction, nor of the necessary state funding.

“Overall strategies need to be defined and implemented. The gaps in provision are structural and enormous,” Caballero said.

Other Central American countries, like Costa Rica, have successfully created national institutions that monitor state bodies, ensure observance of child protection laws, and coordinate collaboration on children’s rights between state agencies and civil society organisations.

The Costa Rican National Council on Children and Adolescents combines efforts on behalf of children in the National System for the Comprehensive Protection of the rights of children and adolescents. The country’s towns and villages have local committees whose function is to see that child protection laws are enforced.

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