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Safeguarding: The Cry of the African Child

The African child is not asking for anything extra ordinary, he /she is only asking for the basic necessities of life: to be nurtured and protected from any harm within and outside the family. It is a cry for a culture where the welfare of children and vulnerable adults must be a priority. Children are longing to be empowered to have a voice and to be seen. Parents, community leaders, governments, and all stakeholders, must make it a priority to help children to form a free view and to create the conditions conducive for children to exercise their right to be heard.

In most African countries, child bearing is considered a defining feature of the traditional African family. This is because children are symbols of respect, status, and completeness in the family. The African child in most cases is born into a very welcoming and accepting culture, where everybody is ready for his/her arrival and his/her basic needs are even met before he/ she arrives.

However, the abuse and neglect of children in Africa has become a very serious issue that violates basic human rights which demands a call for action on behalf of the children by responsible adults. Abuses such as child sexual abuse, child trafficking, child marriage, child prostitution, child labour, corporal punishment and neglect of disabled children, represent some of the abuse and maltreatment that children suffer silently in Africa.

The Global Fund for Children (2007) asserts that children in Africa are more likely to be raped, trafficked, beaten or abused and are less likely to go to school, receive proper health care or be properly nourished compared with fifteen years ago, despite binding legislations meant to improve the situation of children. Ebigbo (2003), in an intensive study of 100 female hawkers and 100 female non-hawkers aged between eight and fifteen years, found that 50 per cent of the female hawkers were sexually abused during their hawking of goods on the streets and 9 per cent of the non-hawkers had been forced into sexual intercourse while running errands or walking to or from school.

Sad to say that many African leaders are skilled in talking but with little or no action to accompany the rhetoric. It appears that policies are made just to be compliant to the international community since implementing them is another story. For example, most African countries rectified the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child created in July 1990. However, the problem of several abuses of children lies in the lack of commitment on the part of stakeholders and individuals to invest time and money in social programmes to address these problems in Africa. Article 27 of the Charter explicitly states that member states shall undertake to protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse and to take measures to prevent the inducement, coercion or encouragement of a child to engage in any sexual activity (OAU, 1990). Despite the ratification of this Charter, provision of child welfare programmes and services has been largely left to foreign and local non-governmental organizations and UN agencies such as UNICEF instead of well financed public child welfare agencies staffed by professionally trained social workers.

African children witness and experience sexual and domestic abuse because of the lack of governmental commitment to prevention and protection of children,  enforcement of laws, and the absence of comprehensive children and family welfare programmes to protect children. This has endangered the psycho-social development of children in the sub-region. It is therefore a matter of urgency and Africans must commit themselves to safeguarding their children and vulnerable people who cry for their safety. Nonetheless, given the scale and complexity of child sexual abuse and maltreatment, prevention cannot be left only to the politicians. All actors, from lawmakers traditional rulers, community leaders, clergy and church community to the media and civil society actors and the girls themselves, have a role to play in the fight against child sexual abuse in our society.