Children’s Status Bill Must Serve Best Interests of All

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By Wezi Tjaronda WINDHOEK Civil Society Organizations have urged parliamentarians to ensure that the Children’s Status Bill provides for the best interests of all children of Namibia. Some of the concerns over the Bill in its current form are that there are proposed amendments that unmarried parents make arrangements among themselves as to who will act as primary custodian and guardian. The Namibia Non-Governmental Organization Forum (NANGOF) Gender Sector said Wednesday such amendments further violate the rights of the children born out of wedlock. Liz Frank said in a press statement that unmarried parents, even if they have been living together in a stable relationship for years, will not be able to agree to joint custody. In case there is no agreement, either parent or someone acting on behalf of the child could apply to the children’s court for a decision. Frank said if the child’s best interests are not protected, this person with physical custody of the child could apply to a court or to a traditional tribunal for interim custody and, in cases where there is no legal agreement or court decision, the child will have no legal custodian or guardian. “There are many problems with the Bill as it now stands. If there is no court order or legal agreement, no parent has a right to claim maintenance because no one is the legal guardian,” she said. Despite the fact that the biology of child-bearing insists that the mother would have actual physical custody of the new-born, without a court order no parent would have the right to consent to urgent medical procedures, the statement said. In an attempt to be gender-neutral, Frank said, the Bill ignores the physical realities of birth and breast-feeding, and also the fact that society is not gender-neutral. She added that customary laws, which often discriminate against women, with domestic violence also bound to play a role in many cases where custody and guardianship are contested, might influence traditional tribunals. While it is important to strive for more gender-equal roles of men and women in child-rearing, ignoring the social and biological realities or parenting is detrimental to parents and children alike, said Frank. “Children born out of marriage deserve the same protection as those born within the institution,” she added. The Bill, she said, must work towards the protection of children based on the current situation in Namibia and not on fantasy that suggests that there are no differences between the sexes. In March this year, civil society organizations made their last-minute attempt to stop the Bill from passing the way it was, by making a presence at Parliament with concerns that equal custody by unmarried parents was likely to create conflicts in practice and would undermine children’s rights 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 supported 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 were concerned that some of the provisions would not be in the best interests of the children. 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 of marriage when Namibia has thousands of children orphaned by AIDS. The Bill was referred to the Standing Committees of the National Assembly and the National Council, which held public hearings on the Bill.