Children and adults must raise voices against abuse

Date: January 1, 1970
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“I sleep in a room by myself at night; the male owner of the house knocks at my room, now I am in dire straits because I am afraid to report this. I am also afraid that I will lose my job. This is because I have lost both my parents, and I would not like to lose this job.À – 12-year-old female domestic worker in Lesotho.

Violence against children is a pervasive problem in Lesotho, as in many countries in the world. What is most troubling is that a vast majority of children experience violence on a regular basis from adults they know, and in places where they should be safe. Girls are particularly vulnerable.
South African deputy president Phumzile Mlabo-Ngcuka in her address at the Launch of 365 National Action Plan against gender violence in March noted, “many women and children who are victims of violence are abused by people they know, love, admire and trust. This phenomenon makes it very difficult to police such crimes.”
According to the 2006 United Nations Secretary-General’s Study on Violence Against Children, much violence against children remains hidden. Human Rights Watch argues that the global scandal of violence against children is a horror story too often untold. Silence and inaction allow violence against children to continue.
Children, particularly those most vulnerable to abuse, have few mechanisms for reporting violence. They may be reluctant to speak out for fear of reprisals. Moreover, because they are children, their complaints are often not taken seriously.
Even when children do make reports or abuse is exposed, perpetrators rarely face investigation or prosecution.
Phomolo Mohapeloa, Executive Director of Coalition on the Rights of a Child in Lesotho, a coalition that advocates for and supports efforts for effective implementation of the rights of children, observes that, “children are just beginning to be empowered to speak out their issues and feelings. Efforts are in place to enable and support children to do this and they include programmes of organisations that deal with child rights and responsibilities.”
Mohapeloa notes with sadness, “Sesotho culture does not allow children to speak out because it indicates disrespect to elderly people.”  It is time that both adults, and children, be encouraged to speak out about abuse. This is the only way that children will be safe in our communities.
Children often experience abuse in the very settings where they should be the safest, such as at home, schools, in educational, care and judicial institutions, the workplace and the community.
Street children and orphans are especially easy targets because they are poor, young, often ignorant of their rights, and lacking adults to whom they can turn for assistance.  Studies have found that girls are more vulnerable to sexual violence because of their lower status in society and their limited opportunities for casual income.
Lesotho has ratified many international and regional human rights treaties that are of particular importance for the rights of children. Along with most other countries in the world, this includes the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which obliges governments to protect children from all forms of abuse and violence.
According to Mohapeloa, in Lesotho “the Education Bill and Children’s Protection and Welfare Bill are in place to prohibit and address corporal punishment.” The Sexual Offences Act and the Orphans and Vulnerable Children Policy are some of the national legal and policy framework achievements.
As well, the Government established the Child and Gender Protection Unit (CGPU) in 2002 to respond to increasing cases of abuse, exploitation, neglect and violence against children and youth. 
Yet despite these laudable efforts, there are still many gaps when it comes to implementation. This includes a lack of data and statistics on cases reported and prosecuted. As well, state actors are not always empowered to assist child victims. Structures created to assist children, such as the Master of the High Courts and special Child-Friendly Courts are under-resourced in terms of finances and human resources and thus are not as effective as they could be.
A UNICEF supported study revealed the overwhelming need of establishing a child helpline to protect children in Lesotho against abuse, neglect, violence and exploitation. Over 90% of children said it is important to listen to children’s opinions. A 16-year-old girl said, “children are often raped and treated badly, especially orphans, so listening to our opinions is important to protect us from these problems”.
The study reveals that in 2006 out of 179 sexual offence cases among 0-18 year old children, all 179 were girls. With 180,000 orphans (about 23% of children aged 0-18), of which 100,000 are orphaned by AIDS, the number of vulnerable children in need of care and safety is critical and calls for an urgent need to provide innovative, effective solutions for their protection.
“Abuse, neglect, HIV and AIDS, conflict with the law and social challenges facing children should be topics of ongoing discussion. A child help-line offers a tremendous opportunity to establish a long-lasting protective environment for children,” notes Anne-Marie Fonseka, Programme Coordinator, UNICEF Lesotho.
Comprehensive responses to gender-based violence are needed, alongside prevention strategies, if children are to be effectively protected. States must take the primary responsibility. That means prohibiting all kinds of violence against children, wherever it occurs and whoever is the perpetrator, and investing in prevention programmes to address the underlying causes.
People must be held accountable for their actions, but a strong legal framework is not only about sanctions, it is about sending a robust, unequivocal signal that society just will not accept violence against children.
Parliaments and their members can be among foremost champions of child protection. Pier-Ferdinando Casini, president of the Inter-parliamentary union (2007) argues, “freedom from violence will only be possible if we parliamentarians respect our duties to children and act upon them.”
Parliamentarians have the power to legislate, to oversee the enforcement of laws, to allocate financial resources and to mobilise public opinion. As legislators, they can make a significant difference to children lives.
What can be done? Key actions could be to: strengthen national and local commitment and action, to prohibit all violence against children, and ensure accountability and end impunity. There is a need to prioritise prevention, promote non-violent values and awareness raising, as well as enhance capacity of all who work for and with children.
“The solution is to sensitise law and policy makers about children’s rights, strengthen sentences for perpetrators, create user-friendly support systems for children to report abuse and to encourage children to speak out, “concludes Lydia Muso of the Maseru-based Lesotho Child Counselling Unit (LCCU), which provides abused children with psychological counselling.
Given the particular vulnerability of girls, there is also a need address gender dimensions of violence against children. The safety of our children is in all of our hands, and nobody, adult or child, should stand silent on abuse.
Teboho Senthebane is a freelance writer and founding member of Media and Arts Watch Association (MAWA) Ts’ireletso, in Lesotho. This article is part of a series produced by the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service for the Sixteen Days of Activism on Gender Violence.

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Nilanka Jayasooriya says:

We all have to raise our voice against child abuse…

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