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Like many other countries, Ghana, has taken the necessary steps to protect children from abuse and exploitation by ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) on 5th February 1990, just three months after it was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. In spite of this, the reality of children’s lives remains in stark opposition to the picture the legislation sought to draw. Afua Twum-Danso argues that Ghana must go a step further and adopt measures to protect children from abuse through advocacy, community action and awareness of children’s rights.

Ghanaians are fond of joking that their government is always one of the first, if not the first, to ratify international conventions, protocols and agreements. Therefore, they merely raise an eyebrow at the fact that the Government of Ghana was the first State Party to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) on 5th February 1990, just three months after it was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. To comply with this, the government reviewed its policies and domestic legislation quite rapidly compared with many other African countries.

The Children’s Act: In Focus

The Children’s Act led many to hope that there would be a turning point in the progress of children’s rights and welfare in the country. Yet, the yawning gap between policy and actions on the ground continues to widen. The Act, in and of itself, is a good comprehensive piece of legislation – one that, ironically, some countries look to as a best practice. Its provisions cover the protection of all children below the age of 18 in all aspects of their life.

The first part of the Act outlines the basic rights of the child, which are all in accordance with the CRC principles. These include the right to grow up with parents (unless it is not in the best interests of the child), the duties and responsibilities of parents towards a child, the right to parental property, the right to education and well being, right to social activity, right to be able to express an opinion and participate in decisions affecting his/her well-being and the right to protection from exploitative labour and torture.

Any contravention of this part of the Children’s Act is liable to a fine of not more than 5 million cedis or a term of imprisonment not beyond one year or both. Included in the second part of this section is the definition of what is meant by a child ‘in need of care and protection’, which covers children who are orphans, neglected or ill-treated, destitute, under the care of parents or guardians who are unfit to take care of the child or who is wandering and has no home and no visible means of subsistence. The second part outlines measures for the establishment and operations of Child Panels and Family Tribunals. The third part focuses on issues relating to parentage, custody, access and maintenance. The fourth part deals with adoption, and interestingly, fosterage, which for the first time is regulated. The fifth part provides some guidelines concerning child labour and apprenticeships.

The Children’s Act Viz A Viz Children’s Lives: A Stark Contrast

Despite the comprehensive nature of the Act, the reality of children’s lives eight years after its passage remains in stark opposition to the picture the legislation sought to draw. Highlighted below are a few examples of the situation of children viz à viz certain provisions of the Act.

- Although the Act stipulates that the Department of Social Welfare (DSW) is to be responsible for children ‘in need of care and protection’, thousands of children who are neglected, ill-treated, abandoned, orphaned and resort to begging on the streets remain outside the reach of DSW, mainly because people – be it children or adults – are still not reporting cases sufficiently and DSW does not have the resources or capacity to go in search of cases. Although in some cases, people rely on the extended family support system to look after such children, many people do not know to whom they must report cases. As a social worker based in one of the local DSW offices in Accra told me, ‘many people go to WAJU to report cases and then have to be referred back to us’.

- The Act clearly states that every child has ‘the right to education and well-being’. The introduction of the FCUBE (Free Compulsory Universal Basic Education) in 2005 illustrates the efforts of the government to enforce this aspect of the Act. However, many parents and children still do not know about the FCUBE and those who do, complain because they still need to provide for textbooks, shoes, uniforms, exam and printing fees etc, which costs more than the 30,000-cedi school fees that the government has taken upon itself to pay. Although substantial numbers of parents appreciate that they cannot expect the government to provide everything, they still maintain that this new deal leaves them bearing the greater weight of the financial costs of schooling, something which many cannot afford. Thus, for the poorest of the poor, the provisions of the FCUBE are not enough, meaning that a large proportion of children remain out of school and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.

- The Children’s Act further stipulates that every parent has rights and responsibilities whether imposed by law or otherwise towards his child, which includes the duty to protect the child from neglect, discrimination, violence, abuse and exposure to physical and moral hazards and oppression. Although it is the belief of this writer that most Ghanaian parents want the best for their children and strive to obtain this – albeit sometimes in misguided ways – incidences of parental neglect are increasing. In interviews with over 200 children in Accra, one thing that they pointed to over and over again was the need for parents to show love to their children and pay them attention. In children’s minds, once a child has parental love and attention all else will follow, including food, shelter, medical attention, clothes and education.

The sexual abuse of children also seems to be increasing in our society – or maybe is the real increase is in reported cases of sexual abuse. In early February 2006 a 7-year-old girl in the Ashanti region of Ghana was raped? by her grandfather, a man in his late 60s, and later tested HIV positive. Approximately a week later the media reported that a 4-year-old girl had been raped? by an 81 year old man. These are just a couple of cases in a long series of abuses against children that have been reported to the police.

- The Act also stipulates that although children may be employed from the age of 15 and engage in light work from the age of 13 years (i.e. work that does not conflict with a child’s attendance at school and is not harmful to the health or development of the child), hazardous work should only be undertaken by those who are 18 years and over. This includes mining, porterage of heavy loads (i.e. kaya work), going to sea or fishing, mining and quarrying, working in manufacturing industries where chemicals are produced or used, places where machines are used, places such as bars, hotels and places of entertainment where a person may be exposed to immoral behaviour.

However, one does not need to go far to find evidence of children engaged in such work. Kayayes and kayahii (truck-pushers) can be identified at any urban market, sometimes carrying loads for those who are supposed to protect them: police officers. In the coastal areas of the Greater Accra and Central regions the use of children in fishing remains a big phenomenon. Here, people do not understand why their male children should not participate in a tradition that has been in their families for generations. This is particularly evident in Ga Mashie where fishermen are seen as warriors – a status that understandably all fathers want to pass on to their sons.

All the children that were interviewed by this writer were easily and very quickly able to identify places where children are engaged in mining and quarrying. Children could be found breaking stones at places such as Achimota and Kasoa. With regards to mining, they mentioned Boduase, Obuase and Prestea. That children are engaged in these hazardous occupations in their thousands is not hidden. In fact, you would have to be blind to miss it. Even then I wonder. Though any person who contravenes this section of the Children’s Act commits an offence and is liable to a fine of up to 10 million cedis or imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or both, these phenomena continue unabated.

Sensitisation of Communities

The reasons behind the limited implementation of the Children’s Act and hence the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) are a mixture of lack of political will, lack of awareness and public dissemination and lack of resources. Research has proven that lack of awareness and understanding of the concept of children’s rights and the CRC are directly linked to the lack of political will, which, in turn reinforces the lack of resources available to ensure the implementation of children’s rights.

Despite the centrality of public awareness of children’s rights to the implementation of the CRC and domestic legislation, most members of the public and even policy-making bodies do not know about these legal instruments. In cases where they do have knowledge of them, they do not know much about them and their contents. In fact, there are some MPs who do not even know what is in the Children’s Act, which was enacted in 1998 and which many of them voted into passage. One Assemblyman from a community within the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA) desperately crying out for children’s rights related interventions, confided in me that he had not read the Children’s Act and thus, did not know what it contained.

Not only do the majority of Ghanaians not know of or have very little knowledge of the Act, but also there seems to be a great deal of confusion surrounding the very concept of children’s rights. Many believe that it means children’s rights to empowerment only and thus they reject the idea sometimes quite angrily, as it attacks the very premise on which Ghanaian cultural values are based.

In one example, a senior community leader who is very well educated, possibly abroad, said to the writer, ‘Children’s rights? We have enough problems with children here without giving them their rights’. Instead, according to him, what the community needs is to focus on providing education, clothes and food for children - not rights. And this is where the problem lies.

Rights, in the eyes of many, are linked to the empowerment of children, whereas education, food and clothing are seen as basic needs that the community must provide for children. That these are also rights is not always clear. Thus, there needs to be clarification of what is meant by children’s rights and an explanation that it could range from basic needs such as food, clothes and education to more lofty ideas like asking children for their opinion and involving them in decision making.

Child Panels

The centrality of sensitising communities about the Children’s Act notwithstanding, it is important to consider another scenario where people know the provisions of the Act and still fail to report cases of abuse and exploitation. This could be because they fear the exorbitant financial fees that go along with the bureaucracy, long waiting periods and numerous adjournments that currently make up the Ghanaian judicial process. Added to this is the fear of being ostracised from the community in cases where the abuse was perpetrated by a fellow member of the community.

Therefore, an approach which takes into consideration the traditional arbitration process whereby all interested parties to a case are brought together to discuss the issue in informal surroundings with elders from that community as arbitrators, would be a vital asset to the modern legal framework. That the Children’s Act (Act 560) makes provisions for the establishment of Child Panels at the community level is an acknowledgement of the need for a more communal and traditional approach to complement the formal judicial system.

The Child Panel provision of the Children’s Act (Act 560) addresses the establishment of a quasi-judicial body that is charged with mediating minor civil and criminal matters at the community level. It is based on the belief that many families and communities would rather seek their own way to resolve problems than engage in a costly and lengthy judicial process. It is also the only legal structure at the community level charged with the socio-legal protection of children.

Therefore, it has the potential, when fully operationalised, to absorb not only the civil issues pertaining to non-maintenance of children, child labour, parental neglect or maltreatment, truancy/failure to send a child to school, but also minor crimes committed by children such as petty theft. Child Panels also have the capacity to engage in sensitization activities relating to children’s rights, facilitate counselling support for child victims of abuse where necessary, and facilitate reconciliation between a child offender and his/her victim. By dealing with minor offences committed by children, Child Panels can assure justice is meted out to the child without recourse to the main justice system which tends to be expensive and time consuming.

The benefits to the child and the wider society are evident. Firstly, it exposes children to non-violent ways of resolving conflicts. Secondly, as the deliberations of the Child Panel and its settings are informal, it is less intimidating for children and thus more child-friendly. Thirdly, the fact that Child Panels send out invitations to attend a session instead of issuing subpoenas or warrants and the fact that it makes proposals instead of judgments ensures that parties with a vested interest will be less apprehensive of attending a session of the panel.

Finally, its approach is participatory, not only because it allows children to participate effectively in matters that affect them, but also because it asks the interested parties if they have any proposal for the settlement of the matter.

Wider societal benefits include reducing the burden on the judicial system, which is already seriously overloaded. According to DOVISSU, between January and June 2005 it handled 7150 non-criminal cases in Accra alone, which the Child Panel system could have effectively managed if it was already in operation. This would allow DOVISSU and the judicial system to focus on more serious cases such as murder, armed robbery, rape, defilement, drug and people smuggling/trafficking, which appear to be on the increase. Moreover, as Child Panels undertake mediation and restitution functions at the family and community levels, the situation whereby children are put through the formal justice system can be avoided.

Therefore, they offer alternatives to prison for children who have committed minor crimes for which a prison sentence would be too harsh and only turn the child into a hardened criminal instead of a rehabilitated, responsible member of society. Finally, the nature of Child Panels will encourage more people to report crimes and civil matters and thereby allow the country to address some of the key problems facing children in Ghana today: parental neglect and non-maintenance, the exploitation of children’s labour and failure to send children, especially girl-children, to school.

• This article was written by Afua Twum-Danso, the Child Rights Programme Manager at the Centre for Community Development Initiatives (CCDI), an NGO based in the UK. For further information on CCDI and its work on children’s rights, please contact: [email][email protected]
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