Some of the loudest applause at our recent international gathering of child rights policy-makers in Zanzibar came after the representative from Indonesia took to the floor to list his key priorities for progress on child rights law: “implementation, implementation and implementation!" he boomed to a receptive audience. That this struck a chord with the assembled delegates is testament to the long history of good laws on paper and poor on-the-ground enactment that still plagues child rights policies around the world. It was to tackle this problem that over 100 participants from 15 countries were gathered by the World Future Council in Zanzibar last month, eager to learn and share best practice. We came to see for ourselves how this semi-autonomous island region of Tanzania had made some decisive moves to deliver real progress in how children experience justice and protection.
In 2009, Tanzania was one of the first countries in Africa to undertake a national study on violence against children which found that 6% of girls and 9% of boys experience sexual abuse and nearly three quarters of children experienced physical abuse prior to the age of 18. The report also flagged up worrying levels of child poverty and child labour. To try to tackle these challenges head on, and bring Zanzibar in line with international child rights standards, work was started on a new comprehensive child rights act that same year. Zanzibar’s Children’s Act was born in 2011 addressing all aspects of children’s rights with respect to family, parentage, custody, maintenance, adoption, and protection from violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. Efforts to bring this law to life in a way that can be felt by every child in Zanzibar have continued ever since with the creation of a new integrated child protection system and the adoption of National Plan of Action on Violence Against Women and Children. Crucially, the different elements of this new system support and complement each other in a strategic and coherent way.
This was well illustrated by a series of field trips our visiting international legislators made to Zanzibar’s new or improved child rights institutions. One of the striking things you immediately notice is the child-friendly atmosphere that has been created throughout the system. At the new Children’s Court murals adorn the walls, staff dress in civilian clothes and closed circuit video links mean young people can give evidence in a non-threatening environment. The new One Stop Centres, which comprise a 3-room unit of plain clothed police officers, medical personnel and counsellors who provide health, legal and psychosocial services to survivors of violence 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, reduce the trauma of victims of abuse to a minimum while streamlining the collection of evidence and the provision of care.
Another clear feature of the system is coordination. The National Child Protection Unit (NCPU), is the coordinating agency responsible for the implementation of the national strategy. A small team coordinates responses across governmental sectors (social welfare, health, education, justice, etc.), and involves civil society, international agencies, families and children to ensure that child justice and protection is being delivered effectively. Similarly a new Child Rights Centre serves as a hub for civil society organisations working in the field of child rights, identifying gaps in training and filling them. From here the ‘Baba Bora’ (“good father”) campaign is run to engage fathers, men and boys in changing attitudes and behaviours toward women and children, promote gender equality and transform traditional beliefs and norms in order to promote non-violence. The campaign has got the islanders talking with local exhibitions on children’s views on positive parenting, public debates and even a popular R&B song promoting the message.
Of course, there is much still to do in Zanzibar to fully operationalise its child rights laws and action plans and ensure that the rights of children are truly safeguarded. But for many of us who have seen the system first-hand, the innovations and progress made were impressive, particularly given Zanzibar’s limited resources. If anything, it is the system-wide approach that can serve as a model for others. So why has similar progress been so slow in some other parts of the region?
"Because children don't vote often the political class ignores them altogether"
Part of the answer is certainly the cost. Across the African continent, children represent close 50% of the population, but this does not translate into them becoming a priority in national planning and resourcing decisions. In fact as Dr. Nkatha Murungi from the African Child Policy Forum noted "Because children don't vote often the political class ignores them altogether". When there is funding and resourcing available, too much is dependent on external development partners. Child protection services in the context of Africa require long term and sustainable investment in the social welfare workforce and developing an effective system and this doesn’t come cheap. The Zanzibar national plan of action will cost $4m annually over the next four years. But it’s clear that adequate budgeting is a crucial instrument for advancing the survival, protection and development of children, particularly in the case in Africa where there are huge unmet needs for access to basic services.
It’s also clear that there can be no better way of spending resources, no matter how scarce, than on our youngest citizens. After all investing in children is investing in the success of our collective future. Whether nations and societies grow and prosper will depend to a large extent on the health, education, protection and the ideas and innovations of the coming generations. We have a huge opportunity to make progress on child rights through the global sustainable development goals (SDGs) whether on poverty (Goal 1), hunger (Goal 2), health (Goal 3), education (Goal 4), gender equality (Goal 5), climate change (Goal 13) or violence against children (Goal 16.2). There’s also no time to lose; 1 year is 6% of a childhood. Any delay in protecting their interests is a lost opportunity. Let’s get to it!