THE PROTECTION OF CHILDREN RIGHTS IN AFRICA: CASE STUDY OF CAMEROON
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- Background to the Study
The notion that children are right bearers rather than passive recipients of their parents and state’s paternalistic favour and largesse, is of relatively recent origin. The existence of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 and the AU’s African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child in 1990 strengthens children’s rights. In the intervening period, several post-1990 Constitutions of African states started incorporating children’s rights.
Children have a unique and privileged place in society since they are a vulnerable group of human beings. The age limit as set by the African Charter of the Rights and Welfare of the Child is below the age of 18 years. African children need special care and protection. In this regard, all humans below the age of 18 are so considered children and as such entitled to the enjoyment of the rights to freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly, thought, religion and conscience.
Many of the basic ideas that animated the children’s rights movement developed in the aftermath of the Second World War, and the atrocities of The Holocaust, that culminated in the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Paris by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. The true forerunner of human rights and children’s rights discourse was the concept of natural rights which appeared as part of the medieval natural law tradition. It became prominent during the age of enlightenment with philosophers such as John Locke, Francis Hutcheson, and Jean- Jacques Rousseau and featured prominently in the political discourse of the American Revolution and the French Revolution. From this foundation, the modern human rights and children’s rights arguments emerged. This was a reaction to slavery, torture, genocide, and war crimes, was due to inherent human vulnerability, and as being a precondition for the possibility of a just society.
Children are often victims of bad treatment, negative social and cultural practices, sexual abuse, and all forms of economic hazardous exploitation including commercial sexual exploitation. They are brought to urban areas by their guardians to take care of them and provide for their wellbeing. But this, they are turned into slaves and even work beyond their strength. Some of them work with no pay which results in child maltreatment and injustice. They are exposed to hazardous working conditions which are extremely dangerous to their health and wellbeing as a child. Some are kidnapped and trafficked for man’s selfish interests. Others are forced to beg on the streets and get involved in the illegal use of drugs. These activities violate children’s rights and welfare and destroy their dreams of becoming future African leaders of tomorrow.
It is true to say that International Law has always been considered as one of its fundamental purposes for the maintenance of peace. Situations of human rights violations are inevitable and no matter their nature, their occurrence is a problem and has to be addressed. The prosecution for human rights violation cases, especially as concerns children’s rights is embodied in various international legal instruments.
In November 1989, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (hereafter referred to as CRC) and this treaty went into force less than a year in September 1990.
African leaders decided to adopt their own version of the CRC; the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (hereafter referred to as the African Children’s Charter), which was adopted in July 1990 went into force in November 1999. These are two internationally recognized treaties protecting children’s rights and welfare in Africa. There are others such as the Declaration on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
Also, some courts protect children’s rights and welfare in Africa such as the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights. This is a continental court established by African countries to ensure the protection of human and peoples’ rights in Africa. It complements and reinforces the functions of the African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights.
In Cameroon, the CRC and the African Children’s Charter (hereafter referred to as ACRWC) were recognized, accepted, and ratified as part of its laws ensuring the protection of children’s rights and welfare. As per article 45 of the Constitution of Cameroon, ratified treaties and international agreements take precedence over national laws. Cameroon is seen to be a monist state in terms of the status of international instruments duly ratified by the government. However, with regards to the application of ratified treaties, Cameroon is dualist as such treaties only take effect through domestication by national law.
Cameroon also has various legislative acts and decrees protecting children’s rights and welfare such as (Section 1) of Law No. 2005/015 of 29 December 2005. Children should not be victims of torture. That is why Law No. 97/009 of 10 January 1997 States that the practice of torture in Cameroon has to be stopped at all costs and sanctions meted out. Section 7 of Law No. 98/004 of 14 April 1998 stipulates that everyone is entitled to an education regardless of sex, religion, age, political opinion, and social origin. Orphans can be adopted and guided by foster parents, foster homes, or orphanages with good intention to take care of the children as per Law No. 84/04 of July 1983. However, the government has created several ministerial departments responsible for the rights of children concerning Decree No. 2004/320 of 8 December 2004.
There is concern over the types of tasks on which children are employed. Children below the age of 14 years are vendors in various streets of Buea, being used by their parents or foster parents to make a living out of their labor. The notorious areas in which they are found selling are Mile 17 car park, Check Point market, and the streets of Molyko. Activities such as hawking expose children to the dangers of the streets. Children work as household helpers, and some are involved in prostitution. Some are labored harshly in farms so as to cultivate food and sell for their parents’ gain.
Children are involved in agricultural activities such as pesticide application and clearing of banana and tea plantations with machetes. These two tasks are classified as potentially hazardous forms of work for young children. Such is being carried out because those violating children’s rights are ignorant of the law protecting their rights. It has however been rightly pointed out that ‘any work done by a child below working and remuneration standards as established by law should be considered as economic exploitation of the child.’
1.3 Statement of the Problem
There is a good enforcement mechanism of children’s rights at the international and national levels. This is evident in various international Conventions and Declarations such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 (CRC), and the African Charter of the Rights and Welfare of the Child 1990 (The African Children’s Charter). Cameroon to this effect has ratified the CRC and the African Children’s Charter. Cameroon has a good legal framework such as the Labour Code, Penal Code, and Criminal Procedure Code. This notwithstanding, there is the continuous practice of child labour. Children are taken from rural areas to urban areas by foster parents with promises of care and education, whereas, they are turned into labourers and victims of domestic violence. Some are converted into public vendors in streets aged 5 to 14 years.
The ineffectiveness in the protection of children is manifested in the various forms of child labour such as child trafficking and sexual exploitation especially child prostitution. The practice of child trafficking affects the protection of children’s rights in Cameroon. Children are trafficked from rural areas to urban areas to be used as labourers, hawkers, prostitutes, thieves, and street beggars. Cameroonian legislation is silent on harmful practices on female children such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), breast ironing, and forced marriages. Female Genital Mutilation involves the partial or the total removal of the female genital organs for cultural reasons. It is commonly carried out in the rural areas of Cameroon like Manyu and the Far North. This practice has consequences on female children such as severe pain and bleeding, shock, urine retention, ulceration of the genital regions, injury to the adjacent tissue, and death. It contributes to the violation of children’s rights. It is against the Penal Code as it is assault.
With regard to breast ironing, it is commonly done to female children who are developing breasts. It involves the pounding and massaging of the developing breast of young girls from about 8 years with hot objects to try to make them disappear. It is initially done by women with the thought of improving a mother’s breast milk. This thought has gradually changed and it is now inflicted on female children as young as the age of 9. In urban areas, this practice is believed to protect a girl from sexual harassment or rape, and to prevent early pregnancy that will tarnish the family name. It is commonly done in the Littoral region of Cameroon. It leads to harmful effects such as an abscess in the breast, breast pimples on and around the breast nipples, chest pain, deformities, and complete disappearance of the breasts. This practice is done against their will, therefore violates their human rights.
Female children are forced to get married without their will or consent. This is because most of their parents are in financial difficulties which makes them take the decision of early marriages. Some are forced due to the fact that it is a traditional practice. They get affected emotionally and psychologically. This mostly occurs in the rural areas, thus, violating children’s rights.
The protection of children’s rights especially the right to health requires the provision of health facilities that can be only be achieved when there is adequate finance. Free vaccines are given to children but it is not sufficient to accord protection to them. Parents have difficulties affording hospital bills for their sick children. As a result, many suffer. Also, there are very few regional hospitals that cannot attend to all children or infants who are sick. This has led to a gradual increase in infant mortality rates.
The right of children to education is not fully protected in Cameroon. Cameroon has a good primary and secondary education system which has provided significant improvements in educational opportunities for children such as the opportunity to be learned. However, the Cameroonian education system still faces challenges in providing quality education to all children. Regional, wealth, and gender disparities take a toll on children and put vulnerable groups at risk for not attending school, and being further disadvantaged in life opportunities. Living in rural areas doubles the risk of not attending school and poor children are five times more likely to be out of school than children from rich households. This is because some parents are having financial difficulties in affording school materials for their children and prefer to labour them to hawk or sell for their educational wellbeing. These education challenges pose a threat to the economic future and viability of Cameroon and deprive children of their right to quality education.
The Cameroon National Commission for Human Rights and Freedoms which is the main enforcement mechanism of violations of children’s rights is impeded in its duty in this respect. This is due to two reasons. Firstly, the National Commission for Human rights and Freedoms is not independent of the government. This is evident for the fact that the government appoints its key personnel and funds the commission. With this scenario, it becomes difficult for the commission to write ill about the government. Serious violations of children’s rights are therefore not reported. Secondly, decisions of the commission relating to human rights violations are not binding. As such, it does not deter violation of children’s rights.
1.4 Objectives of the study
- General objective
The purpose of this work is to identify the rights of children and to elaborate or investigate the level of protection they benefit
- Specific objectives
The specific objectives are:
- To examine the extent of the protection of the rights of the child in Cameroon,
- To explore the international conventions on the protection of the right of a child
- critically examine the weaknesses of the Cameroonian law in the protection of children’s rights
- To make policy recommendations.
1.5 Research questions
The questions which this research seeks to answer are:
- What is the legal institutional regime of children’s rights in Cameroon?
- Is the protection of children’s rights in Cameroon effective?
- What are the international instruments in the protection of children’s rights?
- What policy recommendations can be made to help Cameroon protect children’s rights?