Adolescence as a stage, with all it’s byproducts and realities is one of those areas that are hardly spoken about, addressed or even really engaged in.
One might argue that in fact, there is so much more avoidance, generally of all matters related to adolescence, than various other areas of consideration. Often, adolescents are treated as younger children, failing to, of course, differentiate between children who are still fully dependent on their parents for absolutely everything.
The starting point of this consideration is unavoidably, the rights of a child. Many African parents take the view that children’s rights is one of those oblique and perhaps even senseless areas of human rights for purposes of advocacy. I have heard people ask why a child needs rights when they are financially and socially dependent on their parents. To this end, childhood is treated as a means to an end: a way towards adulthood. It is almost assumed that adulthood is the state to aspire to. For many, it is difficult to appreciate that children, no matter how young, from the time that they are outside of their mother’s bodies, in particular, are humans, who, as a matter of fact, have rights.
This conception of children as rights bearers is of course even more difficult to imagine, because we often attach a person’s dignity to the amount of power and authority they yield. This is, of course, a derivative of patriarchy, the notion that men are more “adult” than other people, and therefore are the only ones who can make decisions for them. These issues of power dynamics and authority, are why for long, women too were considered either objects or children belonging to men: first their fathers and later their husbands and their husband’s families. It is from these origins, I think, that the phrase, “women & children” was coined, rendering the two inseparable, and assuming that the vulnerabilities that play themselves out in the lives of the two groups, are the same.
Children’s rights, as we well know, are not a “new area of rights”. It is for this reasons that international and regional mechanisms have put together conventions. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is one such convention. The recognition of children’s rights often comes from the consensus that by virtue of specific vulnerabilities, children need protection. As a result, the CRC is a convention that all UN members have signed and internalized, except the United States of America. The CRC entrenches dignity of all persons as well as the worth of all persons. In it’s preamble, it reads, as one of it’s introductions, “the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth.” I am careful to note here that, at some point, particularly before birth, for the reason that a child is more often brought to life by a mother, there is a point at which the ights of the child and the rights of the carrying mother interact. Whether they overlap, or intersect, or diverge, is a matter of perspective and is not the subject of this piece.
Botswana is one of the UN member states. Having ratified the CRC, the Children’s Act of 2009 was designed to address all issues perceived by the legislator, to be the matters pertaining to children. Very early on, it defines what a child is, by stating that a child is any person below the age of 18years. The Act goes on to enunciate on various matters, emphasizing that in all issues pertaining to the child, a child’s best interests should be accorded paramount importance. This principle of “best interests of a child” has it’s origins in the family law discourse where parents may be separating, or divorcing, and the decision has to be made on the custody and access as well as maintenance of the child. It has found it’s way into the spaces of advocating for the rights of children.
Children are not, however helpless adults to be. They are, if you will, full blown human beings, whose existence is not based on the continuum that they will at some point attain human rights. They are already, as valuable as the next person.
But thinking about this more intensely, a 1month old child, and an 18year old child, differ tremendously. These differences are not just in terms of the needs of the child, as a child is more than just what they need. This is also with reference to their behaviour, their exposure, their physical transformation, as well as the formation of their own individual as well as social and perhaps even intellectual and developmental ideologies. There are also various things that are allowable at one age and not the other.
This series engages with the very sensitive topic of children, with a focus on adolescence as an area of interest, where the child is in between childhood and adulthood. It will consider the ways in which we can and perhaps should engage children, or adolescents in various matters related to human rights. It will also explore some of the topics that we, as a society, avoid.