Every child has a right to education, best attainable standards of health, and protection from abuse, torture and labour which interfere with the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral, or social development. However, Covid-19 has had an adverse effect on the rights and welfare of children in Africa, particularly on the right to education. Despite measures to use digital platforms to deliver lessons, many children still cannot access these and the lack of access further aggravates vulnerable children across the continent. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced school closures in 191 countries, affecting at least 1.5 billion students and 63 million primary and secondary teachers.1
According to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), half of all students currently out of the classroom – or nearly 830 million learners globally – do not have access to a computer. Additionally, more than 40 per cent have no internet access at home.2 For those children who have access to digital platforms for learning, imminent risks of child pornography, online sexual exploitation and cyber-attacks are lurking in the background waiting for an opportunity to strike. And for many children who now stay at home, other impending risks include harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and being forced into early (child) marriage. Domestic and sexual violence also continue to be a significant concern.
Without access to comprehensive sexuality education, which is mostly delivered in schools, children should not be left to themselves, as staying at home puts them at more risk of attacks by abusers and predators.
Access to child-friendly justice forms the foundation on which the right to education, health, protection and freedom from torture and labour is built as it entrusts States, communities and households with the responsibility to consider the best interests of the child (Article 4 of the African Children’s Charter and Article 3 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child) as the primary consideration of all actions.
In Africa, comprehensive sexuality education is predominantly school-based in both primary and secondary schools and equips children with knowledge, skills, attitudes and values that empower them to realise their health, wellbeing and dignity. Without access to comprehensive sexuality education, young people would not have access to the information and knowledge to make informed decisions about their sexuality as nearly one-fifth of all African girls and women between 10 and 19 become pregnant,3 and these girls face the highest rates of sexual violence in the world.4
Child-friendly justice, therefore, requires that young people be provided with the skills and competencies to make informed decisions, and this includes information to access the internet as they go online for studies safely. The Covid-19 pandemic also further provides us with an opportunity to find alternative ways to promote justice and improve and facilitate access for those children who do not have the means to get onto digital platforms to gain information about their sexuality.
Marriage is one of those issues where there is no justice for children across the continent for many years. For one, when girls are sent off into marriages at the tender age of 10, for example, they are often deprived of the right to education. Child marriages jeopardise the rights of girls in Africa to education, healthy and productive lives. Girls living in rural areas of the developing world are twice as likely to be married off before age 18 as their urban counterparts, and girls with no education are over three times more likely to fall into this trap than those with secondary or higher education.5
Access to education is an empowering tool for children across the continent. When children, especially girls, have access to quality education, it provides them with the skills, knowledge and confidence to make an informed decision – and to their best interests. During this time, it is imperative that governments design mitigating educational programmes that meet the needs of all children as justice cannot be ensured for all children if some are ignored during the Covid-19 preventive and mitigation measures.
Global pandemics such as Ebola and Covid-19 remind us of the need to protect and promote the rights of children across the African continent. The International Day of the African Child reminds us to look not just at access to child-friendly justice from the legal framework, but for states to look at the underlying areas where injustices have continued to prevail. Ensuring that all children have access to education and are protected from harmful traditional practices and online harmful exposure is crucial at this time. This forms the basis for ensuring the dignity of all children across the continent is respected.