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ENDING HARMFUL PRACTICES AFFECTING CHILDREN
The 2013 Day of the African Child was celebrated in June under the theme of “Eliminating Harmful Social and Cultural Practices Affecting Children: Our Collective Responsibility”. In a region where many harmful practices against children persist, the decision by the African Committee on the Rights and Welfare of the Child to focus on this issue was welcomed by both international human rights experts and civil society in Africa. To continue this focus on the issue, this month’s CRINmail on Violence against Children will round up the latest news and reports on harmful practices affecting children, drawing on both ongoing concerns and positive reforms.
Defining harmful practices
According to a 2012 report by the International NGO Council on Violence Against Children, the common characteristic of harmful practices is that “they are based on tradition, culture, religion or superstition and are perpetrated and actively condoned by the child’s parents or significant adults within the child’s community ... still enjoy majority support within communities or whole states ... [and] are often perpetrated against very young children or infants, who are clearly lacking the capacity to consent or to refuse consent themselves.” The report gives special coverage to particular practices that appear to have been neglected by human rights advocacy because of their long-standing acceptance within a given child's community. The following looks at some of these.
Corporal punishment is one of the most long-standing and widespread harmful practices affecting children worldwide. It is a widely accepted means for adults to punish or "discipline" children, even though it would constitute assault if perpetrated against another adult. However, in the majority of states is it lawful for adults to physically punish children, and the violence occurs in all settings of children's lives, including at home, schools, alternative care settings, penal institutions, and as judicial sentences.
Ahead of the Day of the African Child, the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children submitted a paper emphasising how corporal punishment is now recognised as "a social and cultural practice which seriously breaches children's rights to physical integrity and respect for their human dignity."
Coinciding with this view was a recent court ruling in Namibia, where the Windhoek Magistrate's Court convicted four teachers of a private school of assault for subjecting a 14-year-old pupil to corporal punishment. The ruling was based on Namibia’s Supreme Court decision in April 1991 that the use of corporal punishment would be in conflict with the Constitution's prohibition of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The then Chief Justice, Hans Berker, stated in a separate judgement that “even if very moderately applied and subject to very strict controls, the fact remains that any type of corporal punishment results in some impairment of dignity and degrading treatment”. Full story.
Likewise in the Philippines, a new bill seeks to ban corporal punishment used to “discipline” children, which it defines as "humiliating [and] degrading". The Anti-Corporal Punishment Act of 2013 aims to strengthen the current law which bans corporal punishment of children in schools and penal institutions by extending the prohibition to also cover alternative care and home settings. The Act makes a comprehensive list of all forms of “humiliating or degrading” treatment intended as punishment that should be criminalised. View the list here.
Victims of acid attacks are mainly girls and women who are seen to “transgress behaviour norms, for example by refusing a marriage proposal or sexual advances or for disputes within their marriage or household,” says the International NGO Council of Violence Against Children.
In India, where there are around 1,000 recorded acid attacks each year, the Supreme Court has ordered the regulation of the sale of acid in order to curb acid attacks on women and girls. The Supreme Court had previously criticised the federal government in July for failing to come up with a policy to curb the attacks. Central and state governments now have three months to implement new measures, which include buyers needing to show a valid identity card, reporting acid sales to the police, and increasing compensation for victims towards rehabilitation. Acid attacks are common across South Asia, but Bangladesh has recorded a reduction in cases after similar restrictions on sales were enforced there.
But many women’s rights activists in India consider the court ruling as only a partial victory. They say government officials did not consult with survivors or civil society organisations with regard to the compensation figure, which is considerably lower than the £34,000 some victims have to pay for multiple surgeries. In addition, the ruling is not retrospective, which leaves many women and girls who were attacked previously without any support.
Refusal of life-saving medical interventions
Parents holding various religous beliefs or who believe in alternative medicine may reject life-saving medical interventions for their children on the basis that it is forbidden by their faith or goes against their ideology. The denial of life-saving medical interventions not only concerns children's right to health, but in fatal cases, it also violates their right to life.
Numerous cases of so-called "faith-healing" have emerged in the United States, where many states still afford legal exemptions to faith-healing parents. As of July 2011, the Canadian Medical Association indicated that 19 out of 50 States in the US retained laws that allowed faith-healing exemptions to child abuse and neglect felonies.
In addition, a 1998 review of child fatalities in the US from religious motivated neglect covering the period 1975-1995 documented 172 cases of child fatalities following the refusal of parents to seek medical treatment. This included 140 fatalities in which the child had at least a 90 per cent chance of survival had medical treatment been obtained.
But criticism of faith-healing and faith-based legal exemptions to abuse laws appears to be on the rise, partly thanks to media coverage of cases. In a recent one, the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the reckless homicide convictions of a faith-healing couple who prayed while their daughter died of undiagnosed diabetes instead of taking her to hospital. Dale and Leilani Neumann were sentenced to 180 days in jail and 10 years probation for the death of their daughter Madeleine Neumann who died in March 2008 aged 11, only calling emergency services when she stopped breathing.
In a previous shocking case of neglect also in the US, a two-year-old girl died after choking on food as her parents, rather than seeking emergency medical assistance, prayed during the 40 minutes that she remained unconscious before dying. In another US case, a 16-year-old boy died from a burst appendix after his parents chose to “pray away” his severe appendicitis rather than taking him to hospital. The parents pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide and were sentenced to five years’ probation.
Female genital mutilation is one of the most widely recognised harmful practices, and is consequently strongly challenged within children's and women's rights advocacy. But genital mutilation affects both boys and girls. Routine male circumcision performed on the basis of religion or culture is increasingly the focus of children's rights advocacy. While acknowledging that the two gendered practices present considerable differences in terms of anatomy, degree of genital alteration, and side effects, they also present similarities. Aside from being performed for non-medical reasons, both practices are usually carried out on children, are done without the affected child's consent, they seek to irreversibly alter the child's genitalia, they entail the surgical removal of healthy tissue, they carry major physical and psychological risks, they are known to desensitise the genitals and reduce sexual pleasure, and they enjoy majority support within the communities or states in which they are practiced.
In July UNICEF published a new report on female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), which concludes that despite widespread opposition to the harmful practice at both policy and community levels, 30 million girls are still at risk of being cut in the next ten years. The study identifies social pressure and a lack of open communication on the issue as fuelling the continuation of the practice in the 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East where FGM/C persists that the study reviews. The survey found that FGM/C remains almost universal in Somalia, Guinea, Djibouti, and Egypt. But on a positive note, the report also found that those who oppose the practice are not only women and girls, but also men and boys, with more males being found to be against FGM/C in Chad, Guinea and Sierra Leone than females.
To combat the practice, UNICEF recommends greater awareness raising within communities and education of its members, as it links higher levels of education of mothers to a lower incidence of risk of FGM/C for daughters. The organisation also recommends making anti-FGM/C attitudes that exist within communities more visible, such as the fact that 10,000 communities in 15 countries, which represent some eight million people, have abandoned the practice. Download the report.
Meanwhile in relation to male circumcision, there are calls to regulate the practice, as it is often performed in an unhygienic or incompetent way, by non-medically trained persons, and without adequate pain relief. This has led to many cases of botched circumcisions. For example, recently in South Africa dozens of boys and young men aged between 13 and 21 died in the past couple of months after being circumcised during coming-of-age rituals. Yet these are not isolated incidents, as several hundred circumcision-related deaths have been recorded in South Africa in recent years during annual ceremonies that are common among the Xhosa, Sotho and Ndebele ethnic groups. Full story.
But while regulation would indeed make male circumcision safer, when it is performed on children regulation alone would result in legitimating a practice involving surgery, which conversely is performed for non-medical reasons, on a non-consenting individual. There is growing opposition within the human rights and medical communities towards medically unnecessary surgery performed on newborns and young children. The claims put forward assert that non-consensual, non-therapeutic male circumcision performed on children constitutes a gross violation of children's rights, including:
- their right to freedom of thought and religion when it is performed for religious reasons;
- their freedom of expression, as the practice is performed at an age when boys lack the capacity to consent, or refuse consent, and therefore takes advantage of their young age and vulnerability;
- their right to bodily integrity and protection from physical or mental injury or abuse, since it involves the medically unnecessary surgical reomoval of healthy tissue, and as with any form of surgery the procedure carries health risks; and
- when fatal health complications arise, it violates their right to life.
In Germany, a Cologne state court set an important precedent by ruling that religious circumcision of infants and boys should be made illegal, as the practice inflicts bodily harm on individuals who do not consent to it. Despite predictable claims that the ruling represents a violation of parents' freedom of religion, the court reasoned that a child's right to bodily integrity is above parents' freedom of religion, meaning that parents' freedoms cannot be upheld at the expense of other people's (boys') rights. Full story.
Similar legal debates have sprung up in other countries, with human rights experts, such as national children's ombudspersons, arguing that children have the right to autonomy over their own body and that boys should be able to decide for themselves whether to undergo circumcision at an age when they are able to give their informed consent, or refuse consent. These views have been put forward in Norway, the Netherlands and Denmark, among others.
Medical associations around the world have also voiced their opposition to routine male circumcision of infants and boys as a medically unnecessary procedure which goes against medical ethics. In a 2013 edition of the medical journal Pediatrics, paediatricians and medical associations from 17 countries agree that "[c]ircumcision fails to meet the commonly accepted criteria for the justification of preventive medical procedures in children," and that existing research does not justify “surgery before boys are old enough to decide for themselves.”
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Harmful practices: Powerful persuasion - Combatting traditional practices that violate human rights
Organisation: New Tactics in Human Rights
Date: 19-23 August 2013
More details here.
Abuse & neglect: 13th ISPCAN conference on child abuse & neglect
Organisation: International Society for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect
Date: 15-19 September 2013
Location: Dublin, Ireland
More details here.
Europe: Promoting children's rights in Europe - recent developments
Organisation: Genital Autonomy
Date: 16-17 September 2013
Location: Keele, United Kingdom
More details here.
Exploitation: Child & Adolescent health & well-being - safeguarding children from sexual exploitation
Organisation: Public Policy Exchange
Date: 19 September 2013
Location: London, United Kingdom
More details here.
Sexual violence: Evidence into action
Organisation: Sexual Violence Research Initiative
Date: 14-17 October 2013
Location: Bangkok, Thailand
More details here.
Violence: 19 Days of Activism - Prevention abuse and violence against children and youth
Organisation: Women's World Summit Foundation
Date: 1-19 November 2013
More details here.
Bodily integrity: Whole bodies, whole selves - Activating social change
Organisation: Genital Autonomy et al.
Abstract submission deadline: 15 December 2013
Event date: 24-27 July 2014
Location: Colorado, United States
More details here.
The Last Word
"After the knee-jerk indignation has subsided, hopefully a discussion will kick off about how much religiously motivated violence against children a society is ready to tolerate."
-- Prof. Holm Putzke on the reaction to the German court's ruling against ritual male circumcision
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