- The government of Lesotho has made a solid promise to turn into law the 4-year-old Child Protection and Welfare Bill by October this year. Minister of Labour and Employment, Refiloe Masemene confirmed this week, further brushing aside allegations of lack of political commitment in relation to children's issues, as not true.
Advocate Masemene said it is now time to change attitudes of fighting government but rather to join hands and support government to deliver for community, particularly children. Stakeholders in children's issues and welfare had organised a one-day ministerial roundtable, as part of lobbying for passage of the Bill, which process started back in 2004.
Mr Masemene, who represented Lesotho's executive, heading senior government officials, said the Bill was already in Attorney General's office ready for cabinet before it is taken to the parliament for discussion, asking stakeholders to be patient as the Bill under-goes normal processes that should followed.
At the moment, parliament is adjourned indefinitely for winter holiday to give members time to go to their respective constituencies to report back.
Earlier, during discussions held in capital Maseru, principal secretary at the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, Ponto Lebotsa, had informed stakeholders that there were nine Bills at attorney general's office that needed urgency to be passed but "we have shortage of manpower and capacity in all government ministries, not only justice," she said.
The Bill emphasises best interests of the child such as the rights to health, education, protection and participation, according to legal gurus in Lesotho and outside.
Accrding to Advocate Sakoane Sakoane, former head of Lesotho's Law Reform Commision, the Bill is not rejecting any Basotho traditions and customs that ensure child protection, adding that the Bill is also recognises role of restorative justice in rehabilitating, instead of punishing the child.
"According to the Bill, children below 10 years should not be prosecuted for criminal offences but receive therapeutic interventions that will rehabilitate or restore their innocence," he said.
Mr Sakoane highlighted that among controversies in the Child Protection and Welfare Bill is the abolition of corporal punishment, as it is regarded as a custom. "The major controversy being on the section of the Bill which refers to sexuality and adolescent health where the Bill encourage strengthening of sexual and reproductive health education in schools, introduction of family planning services in schools as well as access to services such as termination of pregnancy and access to AIDS treatment to sexually abused children," he mentioned.
In addition: "Due to the high poverty situation in Lesotho, the Bill allows for 13 year[-old] children to be engaged in light work while children from 15 years are allowed to be employed in order to address the poverty problems that face children in child headed households such as hunger in order to enable them to fulfill their basic needs," he explained.
Dr Itumeleng Kimane, of the National University of Lesotho is also full of praise of the Bill, but questioned why the process of making the Child Protection and Welfare Bill, which started in 2001 and completed in 2004, had not been tabled in parliament.
"The Lesotho Child Protection and Welfare Bill is highly commended in many countries as the best legislation that covers all issues and challenges pertain to children more than any other child legislation in Africa. Other countries have even come to Lesotho to learn from our Bill," commended Dr Kimane.
"Our neighbour, South Africa, asked for permission to use the Lesotho's Bill to train their magistrates in the restorative justice system as outlined in the Bill and Lesotho told them to go ahead and use it. Our country is still slow in the enactment process while countries like Rwanda, Zambia and Sudan conducted a study tour in Lesotho to learn from this Bill," she also said.
She pointed out that even though the Bill is not yet law, other countries have encouraged Lesotho to start implementing some other sections of the Bill as well as create awareness so that when the Bill is enacted it will be well received by all stakeholders and community at large.
A massive sensitisation on child protection issues as enshrined within the CPW bill was supported by UNICEF in 2005-2007 to raise awareness among parliamentarians as well as teachers, police and child care providers.
As outlined by Dr Kimane: "To mention a few achievement that resulted from the development of the Bill: the establishment of a child and gender protection unit within the police service in all districts, establishment of the office of the Master of high court that deals with administration of the estates of the deceased, establishment of district child protection teams, as well as funding secured for orphans and vulnerable children from global fund and European Union to help in their various needs," she added.
She however stood by her view, saying the main source of the problem in enacting the Child Protection and Welfare Bill is caused by lack of political commitment, particularly on issues related to children, appealing to Lesotho government to establish a focal ministry specific for children to deal with children issues in the country.
She said Lesotho is listed as the first country in Eastern and Southern Africa in development of a detailed child legislation Bill but locally there is no progress of passing the Bill into a law.
Lesotho faces a huge and increasing problem of orphaned children, mostly left after death of both parents, to fend for themselves whereby they are now living in difficulty and poverty conditions.
Among challenges faced by orphaned children are property grabbing, increase in school drop-outs, hunger, stress and early marriage. Some are forced to involve in sex work, domestic work, petty crimes, substance abuse, living in streets, no clothing, no shelter and inadequate or no protection at all, according to official reports from the social welfare department.
As government made fresh commitment to passing the law, stakeholders further recommended that a task team be established that will receive regular reports from government on progress made in relation to the Bill in order to ensure transparency and ensure process to finality.
A government of Lesotho/Unicef 2005 survey revealed that 57 percent of children in primary schools are orphans while in secondary schools there are 12.5 percent of orphans. 30.5 percent of the orphans in the country are out of school and of these, 60 percent are girls.
"Currently there is a real danger of a very good legislation remaining toothless, while the situation of children deteriorates," concluded Unicef-Lesotho official Nafisa Binte-Shafique, further pointing out that the Bill is a comprehensive tool that was developed with children and young people and reflects their voices and views. "This critical piece of legislation enshrines the principles of best interests of the child, child participation and non-discrimination. UNICEF has supported this cause since its inception and continues to support government in advancing the situation and lives of children here in Lesotho."
Official numbers of orphaned children in Lesotho is estimated at 180,000 but this data is outdated as it is from 2004-2005, with officials admitting that reliable data on orphans is a further challenge to the country.
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