The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has welcomed new legislation protecting the rights of the young in Sierra Leone, where they suffer disproportionately from poverty and other social ills.
The National Child Rights Bill, approved by the Sierra Leone Parliament last week, is a "huge step forward for children's rights," the agency said in a news release.
Superseding all other existing national laws, the legislation offers an opportunity for aligning Sierra Leone with international rights standards for children, according to UNICEF.
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.
The Bill "marks for all children in Sierra Leone one of the most significant events since the end of the war in 2002," said the Representative. "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."
Poverty is endemic in Sierra Leone, which was ranked 176 out of 177 countries listed in the UN's Human Development Index. Infant mortality is estimated at 158 per 1,000 live births, under-five mortality rate at 267 per 1,000 and maternal mortality rate at 1,077 per 100,000 live births - all among the highest rates in the world.
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. About 11 per cent of children are orphans and 20 per cent do not live with their biological parents.
UNICEF said despite this bleak picture, "much progress has been made," citing increased immunization coverage rates and the Government's commitment to give priority attention to cutting child and maternal mortality.