In Accra, a motley group of about 100 children and youth is waiting impatiently for the arrival of Marta Santos, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's Special Representative on Violence Against Children.
From the arid landscape of Mali to the tropical rainforests of Cameroon, they have travelled thousands of miles and traversed 13 countries in West and Central Africa between them to find out what governments and world institutions are doing to protect children and young people from violence.
The activists, ranging from adolescents to those in their early twenties, are participating in a unique consultation forum led by child rights organisation Plan International where they will collectively apprise the UN Special Representative of their views and findings on violence against children in West Africa.
Writing on the wall: Delegates fine-tuning their agenda. Plan / Vera Akumiah
Millions of children in Africa, across all its regions, face various forms of violence and harmful practices, including female genital mutilation (FGM), child marriage, bonded labour, accusations of witchcraft, and a number of other lesser known practices. Violence has devastating consequences for children's health, development and overall well-being. It occurs in many settings and is prevalent across boundaries of culture, ethnic origin, class, education and income.
In West Africa, for example, even though all countries have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, children in the region still continue to suffer a wide range of violations many of which are deeply rooted in traditions and customs. For instance, an estimated 101 million girls 10-years old and above have undergone varying forms of genital mutilation in Africa.
Some of the girl leaders gathered in Accra know of other girls in their schools and communities who have experienced extreme forms of harmful practices. "When I was in primary school, I met an eight-year old girl who had suffered FGM as a child. It left her with scars and partially incontinent, with an offensive bodily odour. Feeling dejected, she dropped out of school. Ever since, I have become determined to speak out against violence against children, especially on harmful traditional practices like FGM," says 17-year-old Aïssata from Mali. In countries like Sierra Leone, Mali, and Guinea the practice is so rife that almost 9 out of 10 girls undergo genital mutilation.
In 16-year-old Betsy's community in Cameroon, girls can be subjected to painful ritual of breast ironing where a pubescent girl's breasts are flattened by using hard objects likes stones to try to stop them from developing. It is usually carried out by mothers who believe they are protecting their daughters from sexual harassment and rape as large breasts would attract unwanted attention from boys and men.
One of the contributing factors to slow progress in ending harmful practices in Africa is plurality of legal systems in the continent. As a legacy of their colonial past, many African countries have constitutions that recognise customary laws with their origins in local practices as an equal source of law. So even though there exist dominant legal systems, the customary laws are still very much central to the day to day lives of most people. This creates a situation where people's actions are rarely confined within one system of law. As a result, there is a tendency to follow the one that suits best.
For efforts to end harmful practices it is therefore imperative that States must ensure that domestic legislation relevant to children's protection from violence and harmful practices are in full conformity with international human rights standards. It is also important that supremacy of such laws is explicitly recognised to avoid potential conflicts in their legal interpretation and implementation especially in situations where statutory, customary or religious laws are frequently used to justify the practice and to avoid compliance and punishment.
"Governments need to be held accountable on all the promises they make on behalf of their countries. At this Forum, we would like to know from the UN Special Representative what concrete actions are being taken towards eradicating these harmful traditional practices," says 19-year-old Dombene from Ghana. Dombene, Betsy and Aïssata are all presidents of National Child and Youth Advisory Boards in their respective countries.
Plan has played a leading role in setting up these boards across 12 countries in West and Central Africa. This is in response to a key recommendation on child and youth participation in the landmark 2006 UN Study on 'Violence Against Children'. The aspect of tackling exclusion is highly considered in their composition. The boards, among their members, have children from excluded populations and marginalised groups such as those with disability; other vulnerable children and youth like HIV and AIDS orphans; and children in difficult situations. The boards inform and advise national governments, and can also reach out to the office of UN Special Representative on 'Violence Against Children'.
Securing active participation of children and youth is already beginning to make an impact. The advisory board in Benin has been absorbed by the government. "The board has been designated as an official platform for review of children's protection by children themselves. The board's decision is duly considered by the Benin government for changes required in policies and actions on any aspect of children's protection," says Nathalia Ngende, programme manager of Plan's 'Violence Against Children' programme.
On Sunday, the Forum venue in Accra was reverberating with motivational songs, stories and sheer confidence of the army of young activists who are resolute to change the world of harmful practices they live in. When Marta Santos arrives later during the week, she will know that children and youth in West Africa are ready to take global lead in ending violence against children. From Bambara to Dangme, they are saying the same thing in every language.