The Bill is the outcome of a review Sierra Leone's laws both statutory and customary, as they pertain to children. It domesticates to a large extent the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child with some local adaptations. The National Child Rights Bill supersedes all other existing national laws and adopts the international definition of the child as any person under 18 years of age. As such it represents a unique opportunity for making a number of national laws and policies more aligned with international standards, which is unprecedented in the history of Sierra Leone.
"As a Government we owe it to the children of this country to ensure that their well being, survival and development are secured," said, Shirley Gbujama, the Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children Affairs.
With non-discrimination as one of the guiding principles of the Bill, it provides the overall framework for ensuring adequate standards of care for all children in Sierra Leone. These include prohibition of early marriage, of conscription of children in to the armed forces, the right to a name and nationality, free and compulsory education, protection against domestic violence and child trafficking, structures and systems for the protection of children at village and chiefdom levels, as well as protection against harmful traditional practices affecting children including female genital mutilation.
"The implementation of the Child Rights Bill provides us with an operational framework for the roll-out of child rights in Sierra Leone", said the UNICEF Representative, Geert Cappelaere. "UNICEF will continue to assist the government with the implementation of the Bill to make sure that all children get the respect for their rights as they deserve. Today's adoption of the Child Rights Bill marks for all children in Sierra Leone one of the most significant events since the end of the war in 2002. It is clear also from discussions in Parliament that many more efforts are needed to ensure a fully fledged culture of children's rights in all parts of society," the UNICEF Representative concludes.
According to the Chairman of the Parliamentary Action Group for Child Survival (PAGOC), the Hon A.O.D. George, Parliamentarians and all child protection professionals are "the gatekeepers" of children's safety. "Without this vital legislation, for example, the current practice in affording children their right will rest on the whims and caprices of executing officers', Hon A.O.D. emphasised.
Sierra Leone's recent history puts children in a very precarious situation. Poverty is endemic. According to the 2006 Human Development Index, Sierra Leone is ranked 176 out of 177 countries listed. An analysis of the key indicators shows that children and women suffer the most. The country has one of the highest infant, under-five and maternal mortality rates in the world: Infant mortality is estimated at 158/1,000 live births, under-five mortality rate at 267/1,000 (MICS 2005) and maternal mortality rate at 1,077 per 100,000 live births (MICS 2005).
However, much progress has been made. Immunization coverage rates are steadily improving with 35per cent children 12 - 23 months fully immunised, with 63per cent of them immunised against measles (MICS 2005). Almost all the country's peripheral health units at the community level have been fitted with solar powered refrigerators for vaccine preservation. Most important however is the strong commitment from the Government to make reduction of child and maternal mortality one of its two highest priorities.
The education system is slowly recovering with 4,600 primary schools now operational and net enrolment standing at 69per cent. The work done to support teacher training through the UNICEF supported SABABU Education Project funded by the World Bank, made a direct contribution to Sierra Leone qualifying for debt relief by reaching the completion point under the enhanced Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative. Sierra Leone has also developed an Education Sector Plan which qualified it for catalytic funds from the Fast track Initiative.
Children are exposed to violence, exploitation, abuse and deprivation. Almost one half of children aged 5-14 years are engaged in some form of child labour, with regional disparities (urban 27 per cent and rural 57 per cent). About 11 per cent of children are orphans and 20 per cent do not live with their biological parents. Sexual and gender-based violence remains a serious concern. (MICS 2005)
In 2000, the Committee on the Rights of the Child emphasized the need to ensure a consistent definition of the child; establish a minimum age for marriage; ratify the Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Inter-country Adoption; provide protection and services for victims of sexual exploitation and abuse; give every child access to primary education; have alternatives to imprisonment; seek international assistance to address the high child mortality rates; and address the high prevalence of female genital mutilation. Sierra Leone submitted its second periodic report to the Committee in 2006.
UNICEF is on the ground in over 150 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence. The world's largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS. UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments.
For further information, please contact: Alison Parker, Communication Specialist, External Relations and Advocacy Unit, UNICEF Sierra Leone: Tel + (076) 601310; Email: email@example.com