HomeOpinion & AnalysisChild protection is the duty of the state

Child protection is the duty of the state

A story carried in a daily newspaper recently failed to get the prominence it deserves. Titled Maize seed kills three children, the story only managed to make page 3 of the daily but it carries far-reaching implications on the state of child protection in the country.

BY CHINGA GOVHATI

A Bikita woman “cleaned” treated seed maize, roasted it and fed it to her three young sons who died as a result. She was convicted of culpable homicide and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment wholly suspended.

Both the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child provide for “holistic” protection of children by putting in place issues that need special consideration by state parties so that children’s rights become real rights which every child can enjoy for the benefit of their complete and holistic development. The guiding principles forming such provisions include a child’s survival and development, best interest of the child concept, non-discrimination, child protection and child participation. The principles form the basis of responsible citizenry and accountability by authorities.

In the case under discussion, it is very easy to blame the 37-year-old mother for having “killed her children”. It is also easy to even blame the father for having aided in the “killing”. That is the easy way out. According to the newspaper report, the mother “was lucky to escape jail”.

The story demonstrates that child protection in the country is non-existent. An analysis of the circumstances surrounding the children’s tragic death paints a grim picture of the importance placed on children’s rights in the country. The mother clearly had no other means of feeding her three minor children. No one says how she had come to be in that dire state except that she was not receiving assistance from the children’s father.

We are also not told why the father could not provide the so-called material support. We are also not clear whether the mother and now convict had ever made use of the justice delivery system to arm-twist the father in playing his part.

It is sad that when life is lost scapegoats are created. The mother who lost her children became one. Her vulnerability and desperation were never objectively assessed so that solutions could be found to the real issues. Prosecuting the poor woman is shifting blame and is not the solution to the real issue of starving children. It only traumatises her further.

Does anyone have any conscience at all? Is it not time that every duty bearer goes through introspection and “prosecute and convict” themselves? Is there no clear abdication of responsibility in situations such as this one? Who should assume the mantle of ultimate protection when it comes to children? Surely not an individual; in this instance a poor woman staying in a drought-stricken area!
The fear is that when everyone folds their hands and blames someone else, then the most vulnerable members of society become even further exposed to blatant violations. When duty bearers across the responsibility spectrum are aware that someone will hold them accountable, then preventive rather than reactive actions become the order of the day.

Child protection, in the absence of supporting structures, becomes so in name only. For instance if one were to research and follow up on this issue with the responsible authority, who would they approach? Is it the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare? Is it the Ministry of Social Services? The point is, there is no single authority that is responsible for the welfare of children, so at the end of the day no one is responsible.

While the children’s human rights’ movement may celebrate the inclusion of children’s rights in the constitution, there is no doubt that the real battle is yet to be won. This battle is about providing the requisite administrative and implementation framework that is well-informed and has the in-put of children themselves. Having laws on one hand is one thing and making the laws work for those that they are intended for becomes something else.

Making child protection really meaningful for children means providing for safety nets for those children who fall into special categories; children from difficult circumstances, children in child labour, children living with disabilities, children in prison and those in conflict with the law, neglected children and orphaned children. If this is not done, then the press can happily report on heart-rending cases of children dying (because the real issue of hunger has not been solved) and place the blame squarely on the parents (in spite of their circumstances.) Blame-shifting in such a manner can never solve the reality of the issue; that child protection is not the responsibility of individuals but all interested players up to the ultimate duty bearer, the state.

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