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Today marks the International Day of the African Child. Since 1991, this day has been celebrated in honour of schoolchildren who participated in and lost their lives in the June 16, 1976 Soweto Uprising in apartheid South Africa.

This year, the day follows the meeting of African leaders in Sandton, South Africa for the African Union (AU) Summit. It was the predecessor of the AU, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which first instituted this day recognising the importance made by the protest of the South African students but also the need to promote the rights of African children.

The summit provided an opportune moment for African Heads of State and Governments to critically discuss and engage in conversation pertaining to African youth, particularly in light of some of the grievances young people on the continent raise today. One can posit that the African child is the most vulnerable person on the continent as different countries find themselves afflicted by grim circumstances such as war, economic hardships, high unemployment and the risk of disease.

Over the past years children across Africa have continuously found themselves victims. In Nigeria last year, Boko Haram abducted 234 girls from their school in Chibok. Despite the reaction and international outrage the girls have yet to be rescued with some of them forced to convert to Islam and sold off into marriages while others were taken across the border into neighbouring Chad and Cameroon.

In the Central African Republic (CAR) French United Nations (UN) peacekeeping troops have been accused of sexually abusing children. An investigation has been opened by French authorities. However, the UN remains mum and even suspended the aid worker, Anders Kompass, who leaked the reports of rape and sodomy of young boys in Bangui, CAR.

Closer to home in Zimbabwe, there has recently been outrage over child marriages, with the age of consent being virtually lowered from 16 to 12.

Members of the public, MPs, Government officials and legal professionals have expressed concern at recent court rulings regarding sex with a minor.

Legal expert, Alex Magaisa, wrote that “while Zimbabwe’s age of consent is often reflected as 16, this is not an accurate reflection since it is only where a girl is under 12 that there is an irrefutable presumption that they cannot consent to sex.”

Information, Media and Broadcasting Services Minister Professor Jonathan Moyo commented on the matter tweeting that “there are no extenuating circumstances in statutory rape. A child below 16 cannot consent to a sexual act.”

These examples are a few of the hardships and harms that African children face. It is imperative that African leaders look at the place of the African child and critically determine whether they have done enough to protect and promote this group of people.

By most accounts, the AU as an organisation and individual African countries have failed to protect African children. The girls in Nigeria remain in the hands of the terrorist group, Boko Haram. In CAR, the AU has failed to put pressure on the UN to hold French peacekeepers to account for their sexual abuse crimes, with serious discussions on the matter not even tabled at the recently ended AU Summit.

Ending the plight of the African child should be a top priority of the AU as it works towards Agenda 2063. It will take a consolidated effort of nations, regional bodies and the continental body as a whole to bring this to fruition.

The aim should not only be to provide education to children but also to ensure that African children are able to live and learn in a safe environment. Policy should focus on protecting the rights of African children as well as finding ways to rehabilitate children that have been victims of violence and abuse particularly in war torn countries.

Africa is increasingly getting younger and is in fact, the most youth-full continent with about 65 percent of the total population of Africa below the age of 35 years, of which close to 30 percent are under the age of 15.

It is important for African leaders to pay close attention to the growing number of young people in their countries. As they grow, their demands continue to increase. With close to 10 million young people entering the job market annually on the continent, sustainable solutions to youth unemployment issues need to be found.

Ignoring young people tends to have a domino effect on all sectors of life social, economic, and political as their plight drives them to look for means to escape them, in some cases violent or criminal.

Source : The Herald

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