Civil society laments state of children in Botswana

14 Feb 2019

By Mosidi Mokaeya

The well-intended Children’s Act came into effect in 2009 anchored on ensuring children’s rights are respected and protected in accordance with international laws on the rights of the child. Of late civil society has been challenging government to allocate a sound budget towards its implementation and ensure that everything is done in the best interest of the child. Human Rights Advisor at Stepping Stones International (SSI) Chirwa Mahloko maintains that the P500 000 that government allocated to the implementation of the Children’s Act was peanuts. “The Children’s Act implementation depends on programs and systems that function well. Unfortunately this can only be aided by adequate fund allocation,” he said.

Mahloko at the close of 2019 invited journalists to a dialogue between CSOs and Members of Parliament (MPs). The intense dialogue focused mainly on issues surrounding the implementation or the lack thereof of the Children’s Act of 2009. The discussion also centred around the state’s failure to report to United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) on the state of children in the country as often as prescribed. He said the objective of the meeting was for CSOs and MPs to appreciate a process that took place and to share what happened after the necessary process. He said the process was simply measuring government’s commitment towards protecting children. He further stated that it was important for those in attendance to consider the issues that were raised by UNCRC. For the longest time Botswana has not reported to the UNCRC on the state of her children’s wellbeing.

Mahloko said it should raise an eyebrow. Botswana only submitted the report in 2003 and the in 2017. UNCRC expects member states to report every two years. Mahloko was however grateful that government does not meet CSOs with hostility each time the Children’s Act is mentioned. In some countries, those tasked with compiling any report that leads to questioning the implementation of their Children’s Act have to do it outside the country. Botswana government is not hostile. CSOs on the other hand are grateful but their patience is running thin as the state is too slow to protect children from abuse. Botswana’s peaceful environment has allowed civil society to develop a complimentary report as an evaluation of the primary state report to UNCRC. That in itself is seen as a great milestone. Meanwhile on the ground, children continue to suffer different afflictions daily and sexual abuse on children by far takes the lead. In December 2018 this publication reported that the country could indeed be turning into a haven for child sexual molesters. The story was written after uncovering a horrible incident that took place towards the end of last year in Mochudi.

A man in his mid-fifties claiming to be a traditional healer had coerced a 13 year old girl who attended his church. He sold her false dreams of his herbs giving her a trouble free life. He then convinced her to accompany him to his house where he further convinced her to drink potions and then raped her repeatedly for weeks. Such cases happen way too often in Botswana and the perpetrators roam free. CSOs’ one bone of contention is that the Children’s Act makes provisions for all child convicted offenders to be registered into some kind of database before they get to prison. Meanwhile on the ground it is not happening. When offenders finish their sentences, there is a high likelihood that they may be employed or left in custody of children. These could be anybody, from teachers to gardeners, bus drivers, nannies and so on. If the register was in place one could easily do a check on their nannies for instance, to see if they do not appear in the register. Speaking of measures put in place to combat child sexual abuse in the country according to the state report, government feels it is adequate that it has enacted the Children’s Act in 2009. CSOs on the one hand feel enactment of an instrument is not sufficient until it is well implemented. They expect the state to come up with tangible results as evidence of the change brought about by the instrument dating back to its enactment.

Additionally, CSOs had expected detailed information regarding the situation as it currently is on the ground regarding child protection issues. “It would have been of comfort if there was at least a sound plan. The report sounds like there is no plan on the part of government to fight the many afflictions of children, not just sexual abuse,” said Mahloko. Some of the areas the report is silent on are how children are being ravaged by HIV as a result of the sexual abuse, access to health care services by expectant teenagers, access to basic education, access to justice and so on. “We needed the evidence to come in the form of court cases of children that are ongoing, media articles and so on, which there was not much information on,” he said. As a country Botswana is not doing so well when it comes to reporting to international bodies. It is however seen as crucial by CSOs because it makes government accountable for what it commits to. CSOs could push more in influencing the agenda to be more human rights focused in parliament. MPs also have the duty to approach civil society organisations, they need each other. There needs to be dialogue about opening up opportunities to collaborate. It is sad that discussions of children’s rights issues are seldom ever discussed in parliament. CSOs should be influencing the agenda of parliament to talk about Gender Based Violence (GBV) for example and have commitment in the highest platform. In 2017 a man in Gaborone raped and killed a toddler. There was an uproar of campaigns by CSOs and media condemning cruelty on children, and the noise soon died down.

Nothing changed in terms of policies. The nation continues to cry about perpetrators being given bail and intimidating victims. Some even going to the extent of killing them. CSOs are not questioning government on why rapists are left to roam the streets. It creates a perception by society that the country’s legal system is weak as perpetrators are given bail two days after raping children. Communities do not bother reporting such cases anymore because of their lack of faith in the courts. “According to the penal code, those who commit murder should not be given bail. Most victims do not know that, as a result they never bother to challenge perpetrators on bail applications and CSOs are not making enough effort to assist,” said Mahloko. At the end of each reporting cycle, member states reflect to identify gaps within their policies, legislation and so on. When they go for the next cycle they are expected to have addressed issues identified previously. “If the country misses opportunities to report it also misses opportunities to protect children according to international standards. In Botswana’s case it will always be work in progress because we seldom ever account,” he said. Other governments have integrated child friendly budgeting into their national budgets. They have put serious thought into how much is allocated to children. They do a thorough check on the human, technical and financial resources available for them to look after children and the resources they have available for the implementation of the Children’s Act. They check on the training activities they have for professionals working for and with children. They then allocate adequate funds towards implementation.

Botswana is essentially being asked if its child protection laws are in sync with international conventions. By next year the state will be expected to submit another report to UNCRC on the current situation on the ground regarding children. Statistics of child sexual abuse for one are not painting a pretty picture. In other countries there are human rights commissions. The issue though is not whether or not systems are in place, but whether or not they are effective. Zimbabwe is a classic example of one state that created the structure but was never able to make it function. The country is notorious for allocating billions of dollars to child protection systems that only look good on paper. “As much as we say the money Botswana allocated to implementing its Children’s Act is small, we need to learn from the Zimbabwean example and tread carefully going forward,” said Mahloko.

Each member state is required to put systems and legal frameworks in place that satisfy the requirements by UNCRC. There are still some issues that are seen as controversial across the continent like that of corporeal punishment. As much as some constitutions prohibit degrading punishment including corporal punishment, they speak of adults and leave children out. Africans still like to use the expression that goes ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’. CSOs hope that in the New Year, themselves, government and media will form better partnerships in ensuring that children’s rights are respected and protected as required by UNCRC.