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Cape Town - Child advocacy groups have made an urgent plea for the government to appoint a child protection ombudsman, to act as an independent and autonomous watchdog holding accountable those who violate the rights of South Africa’s children.
The call came out of a round-table this week, ahead of National Children’s Day today, traditionally marked in South Africa on the first Saturday of November every year.
The round-table was initiated by NGO Molo Songololo and other local children’s groups. Various government members were present, along with pupils, all pushing for an ombudsman, or child protector or commissioner.
Delegates from Mauritius and Zambia, who are among 70 countries that have already established a child protector’s office, presented their working models and spoke of the positive role the decision had played in protecting vulnerable children.
Initially, an earlier recommendation in the Draft Children’s Bill of 2002 for an independent body to promote and monitor children’s well-being, had been canned on the grounds of costs.
The proposal by the SA Law Commission, supported by child rights groups, failed to be included in the final draft of the bill.
Further attempts to have the provincial government institute a children’s commissioner also proved fruitless. Instead, a “Children’s Champion” was appointed in the Office of the Premier.
Molo Songololo director Patric Solomons said a number of children’s NGOs had rejected amendments to the 2010 version of the children’s bill last year, making submissions which included a petition listing more than 2 000 children’s signatures. Claims were that the changes merely “watered down” the government’s obligation to appoint a children’s commissioner.
Solomons hoped the roundtable would bolster their efforts to have an ombudsman appointed. Their call is also supported by Unicef South Africa.
“Children are very vulnerable, and young people here have now themselves said they are having a tough time, seeing children being raped, abused and bullied in their communities.”
He said the ombudsman’s role would be to hold the government accountable, identify children in need, raise awareness and find solutions to the scourge of child abuse and inequalities.
The Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund’s Vuyani Ntanjana said the current state systems designed to combat child abuse were not sufficiently effective. The recent spate of crimes against children was “a sad story”, and proof that the government was failing to curb the problem, he said.
“As the children’s fund, we support any initiative to bring about the progressive realisation of children’s rights to put children first,” he said, adding that South Africa was fast moving towards a “state of normlessness”, in which expected societal behaviour had been eroded.
“If you hear of an adult man raping a baby, you ask, can this really be normal behaviour? Absolutely not,” Ntanjana said.
Unicef representative Aida Girma said that, in a bid to ensure governments accelerated their obligation to prioritise children’s rights, they provided guiding principles to be adhered to when establishing an ombudsman.
She said the child protector had to be independent, autonomous, uphold human rights, be accessible to all children, as well as take children’s views into consideration.
“The ombudsman must have the children’s interest at heart.”
In 2003 Mauritius, with the help of Unicef, appointed a child protection ombudsman. Recently, its government was forced by its finance minister to ensure a certain proportion of the ombudsman’s recommendations were implemented, said Mauritius representative Ismail Bawamia.
The child protector’s office had already managed to secure free school uniforms, stationery and hot meals for poorer schools.
“These are tangible results. We host workshops, do studies, but also have close relationships with children and their parents in the community,” he added.
Atlantis teen, 16-year-old Thomas Aston, told the panel of his personal encounter with loved ones who had suffered abuse or been raped.
“Just on Tuesday I found out a friend of mine had been raped four years ago. We always teased him for being shy as he was very withdrawn… I never imagined he was a victim of rape,” Thomas said.
He believed it was a matter of urgency for children’s NGOs and the government to partner and appoint an ombudsman to provide a platform for children to find help.
“Some kids are too shy or scared nobody will believe them if they say they were raped or abused.
“At least if there’s an ombudsman, they will be able to go there and express themselves freely,” he said.
The Grade 10 pupil also worried that the escalating incidence of violation of children meant those with the potential to become future leaders could fall through the cracks, and get caught up in gangsterism and drugs.
“South African leaders of tomorrow should not be abused because we need them to uplift us and take the country forward,” he said.