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Children’s rights are absolute rights, which are enforceable or actionable by children themselves or adults in the children’s lives.

That seems to be the whole premises of the Children’s Act of Botswana, flowing, of course, from international standards and obligations.  It would be impossible to engage in a conversation of the rights of children, and particularly, adolescents, without highlighting the principle of “evolving capacities”.

This principle is enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). It essentially recognises that as a child grows in their knowledge, skills, personality and what they are able to do, there is then less of a need to protect the child, as they are believed to be more able to take on responsibilities that come with their rights.

This then raises the question of whether or not children’s rights can be said to be unconditional, or if they can only be enjoyed by the ‘children’ who have been identified as holding more capabilities or capacities.

As mentioned in the previous article, ‘child’ is anyone below the age of 18 years. There are nuances for all the ages that fall within this community. The UN defines an adolescent as anyone between the ages of 10 and 19 years. In a UNICEF report of June 2018, adolescents numbered 1.2 billion individuals, coming up to about 16% of the world population.

Eighty-eight percent of this population is in the developing world. In Botswana, reports indicate that adolescents form 22% of the population. So this topic is one that is quite pertinent in our country, as adolescents have been notably been recognised as a rather vulnerable group. Evolving capacities suggest that the experiences of each young person, shape the agency and therefore autonomy each child would have over their life. It is essential that the difference is drawn, between this concept and that of maturity.

Maturity presupposed that one moves from a lower power, being a younger age, to yielding a higher power, determined by being of older age. Evolving capacities however, speak more to definition and looks into the processes followed in decision making in matters that affect the child affected.

It goes without saying that it is adults who are seized with the power to define most things in a child’s life. Holding this power, adults naturally rank children at a lower hierarchy than themselves, as opposed to viewing children as equal in a different way.

This tendency, by adults, derives from protectionism as opposed to liberalisation. This places emphasis and focus on the adult as opposed to the child, and reinforces the hierarchical understanding that a child is in fact an incomplete adult.

The argument against this approach, which is the premises of the principle of evolving capacities, is that children ought to be regarded as human beings,

in the present. This is not an invitation to ignore the general vulnerabilities of a child, but an invitation to consider them contextually – to think about children, beyond their parents, and the elders around them, but as rights bearers, themselves. And looking at the ways in which children as rights bearers should, as they attain more knowledge and skill, and interpretation of culture and social engagement, simultaneously, gain more responsibility to their rights.

Globally, there has been recognition that there is a tremendous lack of services specifically aimed at responding to the needs of adolescents. Most programmes aimed at this demographic are responses to or investment in the community, when “they become a problem” as is often the case.

Some areas that UNICEF have identified, are already challenges are mortality, marriage, early childbearing, education, violence, HIV, AIDS, and mental health.

There are other areas that have not been considered or at least noted. These include adolescent sexuality and access to contraceptives and preventative care.  It is often alluded to that culture and tradition dictate that these topics are taboo. Despite the truths that we are well aware of, evidenced by the increasing numbers of school dropouts of adolescent girls at all ages of this stage, and other indicators, these topics are avoided. Perhaps we strongly believe that we can silence the problem away, or leave it to teachings on morality, which dictate that there are things that should in fact be hidden by adolescents.

 In fact, often when speaking of adolescent relationships, the phrase used is that the young people are hiding with each other, “ba iphitlha mmogo” to explain that they are in a relationship. This eliminates the need to engage on elements of the relationship, and positive and active participation in the realities of relationships.

The belief seems to be that the conversations will only be had when the adolescents are older. We seem to be blind to the capabilities and capacities of adolescents, which social change can be premised from.

The first shortcoming in this regard is that programming for adolescents is usually designed by adults who already have set ideas about adolescents, and often taking a “children are the future” approach.

Efforts to preserve the future of young people, however, should not compromise the lives and quality of lives lived by adolescents in the present. Adolescents should fundamentally be engaged in decision-making where their own lives are concerned, regard had to their knowledge as well as other factors. This envisions equity, access to human rights, social recognition for children and adults equally, without the assumption that one is more valuable than the other, on the basis of age.

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