MASERU 06 June 2007 - A UNICEF supported study recently disseminated by the Family Health Division within the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare (MOHSW), revealed the overwhelming need of establishing a child helpline to protect children in Lesotho against abuse, neglect, violence and exploitation.
Following a 2001 rapid assessment conducted by the MOHSW, which revealed the magnitude of sexual abuse against children and youth (aged 0-24), a Needs Assessment Study of children was initiated through UNICEF's support. The sample size of the study covered 500 individuals, mainly children, throughout the country. Roughly 63 % of interviewees were females and 37% males aged between 0-18 years.
The impact of HIV and AIDS on the development of children is compounded by factors such as poverty, abuse, violence and exploitation. The social and emotional wellbeing of young people is of vital importance to the future of Lesotho. "If our children are doing well, our society is doing well and this new study gives an invaluable insight into what is worrying Basotho children" said Dr. Bosielo Majara, Acting Director, Family Health Division, MOHSW.
About 94% of children interviewed in the study admitted being sometimes sad. The main reasons were: death or sickness of parents; being beaten; lack of empathy from parents (e.g. following rape) and being neglected, insulted and scolded. When asked whether children have problems, 91% said yes, quoting not going to school, hunger, rape, death of loved ones, being abused, insulted, threatened and exploited.
Over 90% of children said it is important to listen to children's opinions. A 16 year old girl said "children are often raped and treated badly, especially orphans, so listening to our opinions is important to protect us from these problems". Children said that parents, social workers, teachers, chiefs, Government authorities including police, should listen more to what they have to say.
Orphaned children and girls are more vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and discrimination. The study reveals that in 2006 out of 179 sexual offence cases among 0-18 year old children, all 179 were girls(1). With 180,000 orphans (about 23% of children aged 0-18), of which 100,000 are orphaned by AIDS, the number of vulnerable children in need of care and safety is critical and calls for an urgent need to provide innovative, effective solutions for their protection.
A Child Helpline is a phone and outreach service for children; it places children and their safety as its core principle, providing emergency assistance and linking children in need of care and protection to long term services and resources. It allows young people to express their concerns and talk about issues that affect them. "The child helpline will be linked to Social Welfare services, to CGPU of the Police and Adolescent-friendly health services to provide a comprehensive and effective all-round protection for children" said Nafisa Binte-Shafique, Youth and Adolescent Development Specialist, UNICEF Lesotho.
Over 50% of children interviewed know what a helpline is. Some said: "It solves your problems so you can be happy and comfortable" and "It helps children who have been abused or done things they do not like". Children's reasons for needing a helpline included for healing, counseling or just needing someone to talk to, seeking help from abusive parents, sexual abuse, harassment and maltreatment by relatives, peers and teachers. Children also felt the helpline could be useful for advice on relationships (girlfriend/boyfriend issues)
About 78% of children reported that they would call a helpline and 81% said they have used and have access to a phone, even in rural areas. Where phones are not available, children preferred the following alternatives: talking to a social worker, a suggestion box in school, youth clubs and talking to support group members. Children were not eager to talk to pastors, police and chiefs in their villages. They said many offences are known by community members that are supposed to protect children but nothing is done.
"Abuse, neglect, HIV and AIDS, conflict with the law and social challenges facing children should be topics of ongoing discussion. A child help-line offers a tremendous opportunity to establish a long-lasting protective environment for children" said Ms. Anne-Marie Fonseka, Programme Coordinator, UNICEF Lesotho.
In the midst of a multitude of daunting challenges, there is hope looming for thousands of children that are currently hidden in the shadows of domestic violence, sexual abuse, neglect, exploitation and conflict with the law. A child helpline can prevent child abuse as well as direct children on the road to recovery. "Child protection is a cause that concerns us all and the child helpline will be a further step towards achieving the elimination of violence against children" said Mr. B. Majara.
The next steps for the helpline to come live include: acquiring buy-in from key stakeholders such as Telecommunication providers, identifying an NGO to house the helpline and training people to become sensitive and child-friendly counselors over the phone.
UNICEF has been advocating for a child helpline as an extension of the many initiatives being undertaken to protect children. UNICEF, together with Government and civil society partners supported the creation of a task force to advance the Action Plan for a Child Helpline and the development of an enabling environment that will warrant the optimal functioning of a help-line. This includes: the enactment of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, the development of the Child and Welfare Protection Bill (which awaits enactment), the OVC Policy 2006, the operationalisation of the Child and Gender protection Unit of the Police, the Guidelines for management of rape survivors, the establishment of a network of Youth Centres, the District Child Protection Teams coming into force and a study tour to South Africa to gain insight on the running of a child helpline.
With an effective legislative environment coming into place, and efficient multi-sectoral collaboration, the helpline will ensure that children have access to services and programmes that will keep them safe and give them a channel to make their voices heard.
(1) Data from the Child and Gender Protection Unit of the Police (CGPU).
For more information, please contact:
Clelia Barbadoro - Communication Officer
UNICEF Maseru, Lesotho - Tel. +266-22-315801
Nafisa Binte-Shafique - Youth and Adolescent
Development Specialist - firstname.lastname@example.org
UNICEF Maseru, Lesotho - Tel. +266-22-315801