By Thandiwe Kubere

MASERU – Children are among the most vulnerable members of society and need special protection. It is therefore the community’s shared responsibility to ensure that all children are safe from any form of harm and they grow in nurturing environments to be reputable members of the society. Every child therefore, has a right to be protected from violence, exploitation and abuse.

According to UNICEF, violence against children can be defined as:  “all forms of physical or psychological abuse, injury, negligence, maltreatment and exploitation, including sexual abuse”. On the other hand, Children’s Protection and Welfare Act of 2011 declares: “a child has a right to access education, adequate diet, clothing, shelter, medical attention, social services or any other service required for the child’s development. A child shall not be denied or hindered from medical treatment by reason of religious or other beliefs. They have a right to education regardless of the type or severity of the disability they have. No child shall be compelled to undergo cultural rites and practices which may negatively affect his right to education. A child has a right to sexual and reproductive health information and education appropriate to his age.”  

In its efforts to combat violence against children, promote and protect their rights, as well as to restore hope where it has been lost, on behalf of World Vision International Lesotho’s Advocacy, Partnering and External Engagement lead, Maseisa Ntlama explained the organization’s vision for every child is to have life in all its fullness and for every heart to have the will to make it so.

Over the years, World Vision’s objective has been to mainstream child protection into all sectors and ensure that their holistic needs are met, including those of water and sanitation, health and nutrition and more. It defined child protection as all measures taken to prevent and respond to abuse, negligence, exploitation and all other forms of violence against children.  This includes creating awareness through different channels, identifying those who experienced abuse and making sure that they receive all the help they need. This involves further referring them to relevant authorities so that justice is served.         

“Alongside communities, we advocate for the elimination of abuse towards children and adult beneficiaries. We also support the government with policies and regulatory frameworks which give children more access to vital social services and justice and see to it that they are implemented”, Ntlama said.                               

Despite many efforts to curb violence against children, it remains a critical challenge facing Lesotho. Seemingly, this is caused by the long legacy of poverty and the high rate of unemployment which is evident in the country.  Due to these, and other factors, children become at risk and fall victims of domestic violence, substance abuse, sexual abuse and negligence in a worrying manner. What is even more concerning is that some forms of abuse, whether physical, emotional or sexual,  happen in places where children consider safe and protected – their homes, schools and online. Additionally sexual violence was found to be present in schools, between students and from teachers against students.

A study of 2011 revealed that in Lesotho, a total of 5.8% of all households with children had at least one child who had been subject to violence during the year of 2010. This data included: 4.6% of physical violence, 1.1% of sexual violence and 0.1 of physical and sexual violence. Reports also revealed that approximately 10 000 get abused every year in an alarming rate.

USAID during the same study revealed that in 2013, there was a high rate of child sexual abuse, around 10,000 cases or 2-3% of all households. The kinds of violence reported were physical and sexual abuse, corporal punishment, emotional and psychological abuse as well as discrimination against orphans living with HIV. In 2005, the Child and Gender Protection Unit noted that out of 668 cases reported, 340 (51%) were sexual offences, and out of these, 166 cases involved children under the age of 18,teachers against learners.  In many cases, children suffer at the hands of the people they trust.

Children in Lesotho face a number of challenges, especially those living in poor conditions. Poverty eventually leads to malnutrition and diseases related to lack of safe drinking water, especially in rural areas. Despite the efforts made to combat child labor, children still fall victims of labor, labour in the form of; animal herding, domestic work, commercial sexual exploitation, which in some instances results in human trafficking. Again, although the principle of non-discrimination is not condoned in Lesotho’s Constitution, discrimination continues to affect the rights of children, especially those who are underprivileged. Most of these children have no access to education or good healthcare services.

Moreover, there is still presence of poor retention rates at primary and secondary levels, low student learning achievements, graduates with inadequate skills for the workforce and poor school governance. It has been realized that rural areas are more affected. This is also due to challenges of early marriages/child marriages, child labor and child headed families. One of the reasons is that extreme poverty also gives parents the idea of sending their children to work in order to help them instead of sending them to school.

According to laws and child protection systems, every child has the right to be protected regardless of any given circumstance. To ensure this, children have special legal rights which are enforced by the state.  Child protection systems connect children to vital social services and fair justice systems – starting at birth and organizations which include the likes of World Vision and NECDOL, see to it that the rights of children are promoted and protected. They provide care to the most vulnerable, including children uprooted by conflict, poverty and disaster; victims of child labor or trafficking; and those with disabilities or in alternative care. Above all, protecting children means protecting them holistically and making sure that their physical, mental and psychosocial needs are met to safeguard their futures. 

The Children’s Protection and Welfare Act of 2011 states that the rights of children, responsibilities of parents and the State are; giving the child Identity, the right to grow up in a loving and caring environment, to education and health, social activities, the right to opinion, to be protected from exploitative labor and many more.

Even with this case, it has come to realization that freedom of expression does not necessarily apply to children that are subject to custom respect and elderly traditional obligations. Certain practices and customs restrict the application of children’s freedom of opinion and expression. This can be witnessed when young adolescent girls are sold to old men in marriage when their views and feelings are not taken into consideration.

World Vision in 2016 revealed that, according to the Marriage Act of 1974, marriage is only possible at the age of 21 for both men and women, and UN report of 2015 stated that one out of five girls in Lesotho are married before they turn 18 years old. The report further reflected that least 2% of boys marry at age 15 and 19% before they turn 18 years old.

Ntlama deliberated that it is necessary to encourage, promote the right of children to participate and respect child freedom of opinion in schools, within families, in health care services and judicial system. On the other hand, according to previous studies, the legal court system apparently does not take children’s testimonies very seriously. It appeared that children are not equally respected and this situation is aggravated by the gaps in the implementation of the rights of the children stating that children should be listened to.

In its efforts towards having in place, a comprehensive and well-coordinated social protection system that has sufficient capacity to promote the rights of children, World Vision International Lesotho works closely with Her Majesty Masenate Mohato Seeiso, who is considered an advocate of children’s rights, relevant experts, community leaders, journalists, wives of principal chiefs and other stake holders. 

In one of her statements, Her Majesty declared: “Let us all protect children against all forms of abuse, including early marriage and ensure that legal action is taken against perpetrators of early marriage. We all have a responsibility to ensure that laws protecting children are implemented.”

Throughout all we do, we listen to young people to ensure their needs drive our programming and advocacy. Our initiatives support parents and caregivers, and build alliances at the local and global levels to leverage knowledge, raise awareness and encourage action.

Through increased public awareness, education and responsive policies, we can end violence.