The State of Children’s Rights in Southern Africa

By Musa Chibwana

The protection of children’s rights is not a concept alien to traditional African culture, and international human rights principles on the protection of the child are supported in the African cultural concept of human rights.

All the Southern African countries have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and the Welfare of the child.

There are however some cross-cutting issues that need to be addressed in all the countries. These include the following:

1. A general unavailability of a child rights culture in all the countries

The countries have come up with good legal instruments meant to protect children. For example, South Africa promulgated the Child Care Act 74 of 1983. And in Namibia, the National Constitution Article 15, stipulates the rights of children that should be protected, promoted and respected.

Despite the availability of these instruments, the communities are not very aware of them. Neither are the children as the rights claimers conversant with them. There is a great need to inculcate a child rights culture in the countries in question.

2. No institutions that facilitate the collection, collation and sharing current information about children’s rights

Information on the state of children’s rights is scattered in several documents, institutions and government departments. There is a great need in the countries in question to have institutions that collect, collate and disseminate up to date information on the state of children’s rights. Consequently, advocacy in these countries is weak because it is not empirically based.

3. Harmful cultural practices

Despite the significant efforts of the governments to ensure the rights of children, they are vulnerable to harmful cultural practices, such as:

  • Child pledging, unsafe ritual practices (e.g. Mozambique)
  • Religious beliefs (e.g. the Zimbabwean white garment apostolic sect which does not believe in the immunization of children)
  • Child marriage (Mozambique has one of the world’s highest rates of child marriage).
  • Early marriages for children considered ready for marriage after initiation rites. The 2003 Demographic and Health survey indicates that 18% of young women aged 20-24 married before the age of 15 and 56% before the age of 17.

In Mozambique, 36.9% married girls aged 15-19 have no education.

Teenage pregnancy and childbirth is associated with poor health outcomes for both the mother and child.

4. Child sexual abuse

Child sexual abuse has been noted as one of the challenges in the identified countries, and the statistics available reveal only the tip of the iceberg, as the majority of cases are not reported

  • Zimbabwe: 60% of rape survivors are children, and an overwhelming majority of the victims are girls.
  • During 2009 Zimbabwe Republic Police recorded 3448 child abuse cases while the Victim Friendly Court dealt with 1222 cases.
  • Mozambique: 8% of primary school children have been sexually abused and another 35% have experienced sexual harassment.

South Africa has promulgated the Child Care Amendment Act, (86 of 1991; 13 of 1999) which makes sexual abuse of children a criminal offense. Despite this law in South Africa, the numbers of child abuse cases are not reducing.

5. Access to quality education

South Africa is on track in achieving the MDG 2 on access to primary education. Gross enrolment rate in primary education (grade 1-7) is 98% and in secondary (grade 8-12) is 85%; the gender parity index is 0.98 and 1.08 respectively suggesting that girls and boys have equitable access to education.

Attendance at for childhood development and reception-year is low due to lack of means at household level, insufficient supply and poor quality at institutional level, and lack of appropriate norms and standards at structural level.

Net school attendance of children of primary schools age 7-13 years is 98%

Despite the high access to education, achievement of learners is not up to standard. Grade 3 students in 2007 scored 36% for literacy and 35% for numeracy on average. In the same year only 50% of the candidates for Senior Certificate passed. On the contrary, the pass rate for Zimbabwe has been plunging. In 2008, only 20% of pupils passed primary exams and the pass rate at O levels also went down steeply.

A number of factors contribute to the poor quality of education. These include untrained teachers, dilapidated infrastructure, lack of motivation of teachers, high textbook to pupil ratios and unaffordable school fees.

6. Social protection for child poverty

In South Africa, 68% of the children live in poverty.

In Mozambique, child poverty is a pervasive and deep rooted problem, with about 58% of children living below the poverty line.

In Zimbabwe, anecdotal information suggests that child poverty is rife. However, there is no source of information on the scope and extent of the poverty.

At the same time the social protection safety nets have not been able to cater for all the children needing care. This caused by the fact that the system is not resourced to do such.

7. Need for child friendly budgets

A major challenge in Africa is for the governments to significantly increase their level of investment in children.

Namibia has acknowledged that investing in early childhood development is the best investment in human capital for economic growth.

In Mozambique, UNICEF is assisting in the expansion of a social protection programme which provides cash transfers and in-kind material support to the most vulnerable households. Over the past two years, the number of direct beneficiaries has increased from 90,000 to 120,000. The governments have not been prioritising resource allocation to alleviating child poverty.

In Zimbabwe, the public assistance program has failed to capture all needy persons due to the low budget allocation for public assistance.

Governments must be advocated to adhere to the Dakar Declaration which stipulates that 20% of the national budget should be allocated to education while the Abuja Declaration notes that 15% of the same goes to health.

8. The impact of HIV and AIDS

In countries like Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, the HIV prevalence rate is around 10-15%. In South Africa the HIV prevalence is 17.8%. Zimbabwe has a higher number of orphans, in proportion to its population, than any other country in the world, according to UNICEF.

As many as 1 in 4 children in Zimbabwe are orphaned as a result of parents dying from AIDS.


22% of Namibians population live with HIV. The disease has been the leading cause of deaths since 1996. According to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare, there are approximately 114,000 orphaned children in Namibia of which 77,000 are orphaned by AIDS. AIDS led to a disruption of the population in the country. Child-headed households, school drop-out, prostitution and sex at a young age are some of the consequences of AIDS on children. Namibia adopted the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) in 2000 at the UN Millennium Summit. Of most importance to HIV/ AIDS is MDG 6, with its target of halting and beginning to reverse the spread of HIV/ AIDS by 2015 and combating malaria and other diseases.

South Africa:

While South Africa is the richest nation in sub-Saharan Africa and should have led the way in ARV distribution, its government was slow to act, and so far, only 37% of those in need of treatment in South Africa are receiving it. There is need to improve access to treatment of children living with HIV.

5.2 million people were living with HIV in 2009, with an estimated 413,000 new infections; South Africa is the hardest hit country by HIV and AIDS in absolute numbers. AIDS is the leading cause of maternal death accounting for 23% of all deaths. This is happening despite the free health care policy for pregnant women and children less than 6 years of age and the high coverage of services (92% ANC one visit, 91% skilled attendant deliveries1). The HIV and AIDS prevalence rate is 24.5%.


In Zambia, there are as many as 1.5 million orphaned children. According to figures released by the Central Statistical Office in 2007, there are only about 85,000 orphans and vulnerable children in Zambia. But the United Nations International Children’s Educational Fund (UNICEF) and other international humanitarian aid agencies put the present figure at over one million. UNAIDS estimates 1.1 million Zambians are living with HIV/AIDS; the prevalence rate for the 15-49 year age group is 15.2%.


Mozambique has an estimated 1.2 million orphaned children, of which 350,000 have lost their parents to AIDS. Children living in child-headed households are in a particularly precarious situation.

9. Issues peculiar to countries

Birth certificates

For Zimbabwe, it is estimated that in 2009, 45% of children under five in urban areas and 70% in rural areas did not have birth certificates. This means that all these children did not have a legal name, nationality or citizenship rights. This can be attributed to stringent rules that do not permit every child despite origin of parents to have birth certificates.

Child trafficking

For Mozambique, trafficking children to exploit them as sex-workers and domestic workers in the region is a growing concern. A report by the International Organisation on Migration estimates that approximately one thousand children and women are trafficked from Mozambique to South Africa every year for the purpose of exploitative labour and commercial sexual exploitation.

This phenomenon is also growing in Zimbabwe. In Zimbabwe however they are termed unaccompanied children.

Child labour

In Namibia, child labour is rife. According to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare of Namibia, there is little data available on the economic exploitation of children, although it is a problem which is known to be particularly acute on farms, where employment relationships often involve entire families – with fathers performing farm labour, mothers performing domestic work, and children often being expected to “help out” without extra compensation. Although it is now illegal for employers to demand the labour of their employee’s children, enforcement of this rule on isolated farms will be difficult if not impossible.

The government of Namibia ratified The ILO Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention in 2000. The Convention requires ratifying governments to take measures to effect the immediate abolition of the ‘worst forms of child labour’. The worst forms of child labour include slavery, child prostitution, using a child for illegal activities, and work which by its nature or the circumstances is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children.

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