From the Editor’s Keyboard

The Day of the African Child and the Challenges of Child Abuse in Sierra Leone

18 June 2008 at 09:04 | 600 views

By Abdulai Bayrayay, Freetown.

Since its promulgation in 1991 by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) now the African Union (AU), June 16th has come to represent the honour bestowed on the mainly courageous Soweto black students that braved the deadly South African Apartheid killing regime in protest over the inferior Afrikaans type of education taught them.

During that fateful day, students from Orlando high school spontaneously took to the streets of Soweto with placards calling on the Apartheid regime to rescind its decision of providing a type of education that would potentially prevent Blacks and coloureds for that matter from attaining any dignified employment. To the chagrin of those innocent and unsuspecting students, the Apartheid government unleashed its human dogs of war, the police, which left scores of students dead as several others bled to death.

During my first historic visit to Soweto, South Africa in 1999, the sordid reality of what notoriously became the Soweto Massacre confronted me with emotional distress as I visited the Hector Pieterson Memorial Park, in honour of the first brave and courageous student killed by the hands of the Apartheid dogs. “He was killed right front of me. He was just twelve”, one of the tour guards at the symbolic park of the iconic image of the Soweto Massacre, Hector Pieterson, told me in an emotional outburst.

In solidarity with that historic event some thirty plus odd years later, one cannot fathom that open exploitation of children in the West African nation of Sierra Leone. Here, recognition of the historic Day of the African Child has over the years been reduced to one political speech after the other without any commitment or political will to put in place child protection laws. This is despite the fatc that there are laws enshrined in the country’s 1991 constitution that prohibit the exploitation of children in all its forms; yet child molesters and predators have often taken advantage of the rather fragile judiciary in perpetuating violations against children in the form of rapes, child labour and other infamous acts of human degradation like street trading.

In fact, children were particularly vulnerable as all sides in the devastating civil conflict from 1991 to the cessation hostilities in 2002, government troops, civil militias, and rebels of the erstwhile notorious Revolutionary United Front (RUF) not only used children as young as seven as combatants, but as sex slaves, “wives”, and porters, among a bundle of other degrading chores. In essence, children became both victims and perpetrators through the ironic machinations of adults who should have protected them at all times.

That is why as Sierra Leone celebrated this year’s Day of the African Child on June 16th, it would be an anathema if the political leadership, especially the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs fails to come up with a strategy that will start the long journey of criminalizing any acts that violates the rights of children that among others include trafficking and illegal transport for the purpose of selling them as slaves or exploiting their labour.

*Abdulai Bayraytay(photo) is PV’s Deputy Editor now based in Freetown. He holds a Master’s degree in Political Science and International Relations from Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada, and a Master’s degree in Social Work (child protection) from the University of Toronto also in Canada.