By Emma Kakololo LOCAL civil societies are concerned about several provisions in the revised Children’s Status Bill, that has since been referred to the National Council for review, saying they are not in the best interest of children. The Bill was passed by the National Assembly last week and was tabled in the National Council on Monday this week for further scrutiny. Although supporting the Bill in principle that children born outside marriage should be free from discrimination and that single fathers should be encouraged to play an active role in the upbringing of their offspring, some provisions apparently do not consider the country’s social realities. And in essence, they would negatively affect children if the Bill were to be enacted. In their joint submissions, twenty one non-governmental organisations (NGOs) representing the interests of women and children say equal custody to unmarried parents as proposed by the Bill would likely create conflicts in practice and undermine children’s rights to maintenance by both parents. “It is unlikely that both parents will take responsibility for the daily care of a child born outside marriage in most cases. Equal rights of custody will not go along with equal responsibility for the child,” they charge. With an escalation in the number of cases involving domestic violence in the country, they also feel that equal custody rights is likely to be abused in many cases as a way to maintain control over women. According to them, the best interest of the child would best be served among others if custody of a child born outside of marriage is automatically given to the mother, “because only the mother is certain to be present at the child’s birth, and because of the health benefits of breastfeeding. However, a father would be able to apply to a children’s court for custody of the child at any time, in a simple and accessible procedure, without lawyers. The court’s decision would be guided solely by the best interests of the child. “Some say that it would be unconstitutional to treat single fathers and single mothers differently in any way. This is not true. The Labour Act provides for maternity leave, but does not give fathers paternity leave. Equality means treating people who are similarly situated in a similar way. It is legally acceptable to take social realities into account,” they elaborated. According to the proposed Bill, upon the death of one parent, sole custody and guardianship would automatically go to the surviving parent. This according to civil societies would mean children could find themselves in the care of a parent whom they hardly even know, therefore, working against the interests of the child and against the interests of primary caretakers such as grandparents who may have actually been caring for the child. The Bill also states that where a child is born as a result of rape, the convicted rapist would have full parental rights over the child. “The woman who is raped will not even be able to give up the child for adoption without the consent of the rapist. Upon her death the rapist would become the child’s sole custodian and guardian. This is horrifying and unfair,” stated the NGOs. “The administrative procedure for identifying a guardian for a child is applied only to children born outside of marriage. In this era where so many children are orphaned by Aids, this discriminates against children born inside marriage,” stated the NGOs, who also added the law should be appropriate for the majority of Namibians to minimise the need for people to seek legal recourse.
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