Abuse still reality for African children

Date: January 1, 1970
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Maputo, Mozambique; Judging by his height of more than 1.2 metres tall, one could think that 12-year old Joao Sebastiao is an adult, and that is what his father seems to think. However, when one enquires about his age, it is clear that he is still a child who needs time to play with his peers, rather than receiving assignments fit for an adult. Moreover, as a young boy, learning form mistakes is part of growing up.

However, on June 5 this year, Sebastiao’s father, a security guard in Mozambique’s capital Maputo, sent the boy to the market to buy fish and tomatoes with 200 Meticais (about 7 U.S. dollars). The boy met some friends along the way and decided to participate in a children’s game. In the process, he lost the money his father gave him.
Returning home empty handed and telling his father he had lost the money brought the most severe punishment the young boy had received in his life. The father, who is a former military officer, tied his eldest son and used a hosepipe to beat the hapless boy until he bled from the buttocks and his legs.
Even after the brutal act, the father never bothered to take his son to the hospital for treatment, leaving the neighbours to carry the boy to the nearest clinic, who later transferred him to the main hospital.
The boy’s mother, fearful of her husband, only followed to the hospital three hours later, after police arrested her husband. The likely repercussion for this severe abuse will be to either pay a fine or receive a caution.
This situation is not unique in Mozambique; neither is it unique to the country. Across Africa, child abuse, often in the guise of discipline, continues to be a widespread problem. In South Africa, over 70,000 crimes against children are reported annually, with common and aggravated assault the most common.
Although children worldwide should consider June as their month, in countries all over the work children who should be celebrating will be faced with abuse that will affect their entire lives. Along with physical assault, this will include rapes, forced labour, and being trafficked for underpaid wages or to work in brothels.
The most disturbing thing is that most of them will suffer at the hands of relatives or their parents. According to a United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) study, of 200 Tanzanian children living in the streets of Dar es Salaam, 62% gave parental fights, cruelty of stepparents, or abuse as their reason for leaving home.
Globally, at least 150 million girls and 73 million boys experienced forced sexual intercourse or other forms of sexual violence in 2002, the study said. Sexual and gender-based violence was common on the street, in schools, communities and work places. The survivors of at least 40% of the 55,000 rape cases reported in South Africa in 2004-2005 were younger than 18.
Not only is abuse a violation of human rights and illegal, but it can leave long lasting physical and emotional scars on young people, and even result in death. According to World Health Organsiation estimates, the highest rates of homicide in children under the age of five are in sub-Saharan Africa and Northern America. The most frequent causes of death are injuries to the head or to the internal organs. Other causes include intentional suffocation, shaking, and more rarely, choking or battering.
As with the rest of the continent, the large majority of Mozambican children who are ill-treated at the hands of their parents or their guardians, will suffer in silence, as their cases are never made public. Research shows that all domestic violence is vastly underreported, and for children’s lack of power in the home makes reporting even more difficult.
Despite the fact that Mozambique and most Southern Africa countries having signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1994 and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of Children in 1998, nothing has changed much on the landscape.
Officials from both government and private sectors grace events dedicated to children’s rights in the month of June, but it seem to forget the theme when they leave the arena. Many of these same “high profile” officials will also go home and beat their hapless children for having forgot to water the flowers, come back home late from play or even failing to carry out chores adults would not.
UNICEF also notes that widespread poverty and the HIV/AIDS epidemic is adding to the many Mozambican children disadvantaged and vulnerable to abuse. “Four million out of the almost 10 million children and adolescents under 18 years of age are considered vulnerable. Many of them find themselves working in exploitative situations,” said the report published on UNICEF’s website.
While the Mozambican government ratified convention on upholding rights of children it will take some time until the children can really enjoy their freedom. Just like Joao, at the time when the African Child Day is celebrated, many children will be given responsibilities greater than their maturity and many will be victims of abuse.
In many of these markets there will be crooks waiting to snatch money from these kids. Yet for children, often the biggest dangers are not those on the outside, but on the inside of their homes – their rights, freedom, and safety violated by the very people who are supposed to protect them.  
Fred Katerere is a foreign correspondent based in Maputo. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.

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