Child Bill Sparks Protest

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By Wezi Tjaronda WINDHOEK Over 25 civil society organisations (CSOs) on Tuesday made a last hour attempt to make lawmakers accommodate their amendments to the Child Status Bill. They said parts of the content of the Bill are not in the best interests of the child, as per the Convention of the Rights of the Child. Although passed by both houses of Parliament, “The Bill is not at the end of the road yet. We can only believe that Parliament cannot ignore such strong message,” said Dianne Hubbard, Coordinator of the Gender Research and Advocacy Project of the Legal Assistance Centre. The Bill will go back to the National Assembly because the National Council made minor proposals. During this time, the Minister of Gender Equality and Child Welfare can make amendments to the Bill. Scores of school children from different schools and representatives of the CSOs holding placards and shouting slogans made their presence felt at the steps of the National Assembly yesterday to ask Parliament not to pass the Bill in its current form. Through placards, they claimed that public opinion does not count anymore and that Parliament should represent the voices of the people and lawmakers should make laws that work for the children of Namibia. They said as representatives of the people, lawmakers should hear what the people want. They said they do not want abusers, absent fathers and rapists to have custody of the children and that they want the amendments to the Child Status Bill now. Notably absent, to the dissatisfaction of the group, were representatives of the ministry, which represents the interests of children in the country. The Minister, Marlene Mungunda, through her staff, was given a copy of the key concerns on the Bill from the dissatisfied organisations. Amongst the key concerns about the Bill supported by 21 non-governmental orga-nisations are that equal custody by unmarried parents is likely to create conflicts in practice and will undermine children’s right to maintenance by both parents as it was unlikely that both parents would take responsibility for the daily care of a child born outside of marriage. While they support the principles that children born outside of a marriage should be free from discrimination, and that single fathers should be encouraged to play an active role in the upbringing of their children, they are concerned that some of the provisions will not be in the best interests of children. The Bill provides that upon the death of one parent, the sole custody and guardianship will automatically go to the surviving parent, which means that the children could find themselves in the care of a parent whom they hardly know. “This will work against the interest of the child and against the interest of primary caretakers such as grandparents,” the key concerns about the Bill by the Legal Assistance Centre say. In addition to this, children born as a result of rape would be given to convicted rapists to assume full parental rights over the children. Other concerns are that the administrative procedures for identifying a guardian for a child is applied to children born outside marriage when Namibia has thousands of children that have been orphaned by AIDS. This they say discriminates against children born inside marriage. Khin Sandi Lwin, Unicef’s Resident Representative, who was the guest speaker, noted that any law that does automatically give sole custody to the surviving parent was cause for concern. In a situation where there is high prevalence of HIV/AIDS, children of single parents are at more risk of abuse and neglect. This calls for options to be built into legal frameworks to ensure that the principle ensuring the best interest of the child is properly practised. “We all want to get this Bill passed quickly but not at the expense of harming certain groups of children,” said Sand Lwin. The Cabinet’s version of the Child Status Bill was tabled in the National Assembly in February 2004 and was referred to the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Human Resources, Social and Community Development. While the committee consulted widely by conducting 28 public hearings, many of the committee recommendations were based on the ministry’ task force which had also consulted widely. The Bill was passed in November 2005 after little debate and was referred to the National Council, which referred it to its Standing Committee on Gender, Youth and Information. Some of the organizations that are asking for amendments to the Bill are Aids Care Trust, Catholic Aids Action, Childline/Lifeline, Church Alliance for Orphans (CAFO), Council of Churches in Namibia, Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Republic of Namibia (ELCRN) Evangelical Lutheran Church AIDS Project (ELCAP), Gender and Media in Southern Africa (GEMSA), Katutura Community Radio, Khomas Women in Development, Legal Assistance Centre, Namibia Girl Child Organisation, Namibia Media Women’s Association, Namibia Women’s Manifesto Network, Namibia Women’s Association (NAWA), Namibia Women’s Network, Namibia Women’s Voice, Namibian Centre for Women’s Leadership, Namibian Red Cross Society, !Nara, Omaheke San Trust, Ombetja Yehinga Organisation, Phillipi Trust, Sister Namibia, Tanidare Empowerment Network, the Rainbow Project, Women’s Solidarity Namibia, Women Support Women, Women’s Action for Development (WAD) and the Woman and Child Protection Unit Head Office (WCPU).

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