Lesotho has been ranked 153rd among 197 countries by Child Rights International Network (CRIN), regarding access to justice for children.
In its report, Rights, Remedies and Representation, published on Monday, the global research, policy and advocacy organization indicates the ranking is the result of research on how children can use the courts to defend their rights.
CRIN says the research was carried out with the support of lawyers and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and seeks to help countries improve access to justice for children.
Children’s rights activist and Seinoli Legal Centre Director, Advocate Lineo Tsikoane, speaks with Sunday Express (SE) reporter, Lekhetho Ntsukunyane, about the report and what it means for Lesotho.
Advocate Tsikoane was also director of the now-defunct Non-Governmental Organisation Coalition of Rights of a Child (NGOC).
SE: The Child Rights International Network report does not make for pleasant reading as far as Lesotho is concerned. Could you please explain more what this report is all about?
Tsikoane: This study looked specifically at the ease or hurdles associated with accessing justice for children in different countries. It looked at how easy or difficult it is for a child who either wants legal redress or has been wronged by the system or has wronged the system, to access the courts and in the end, justice. It looked at the protection and provision mechanisms specifically tailored to ease this process for children as a group rendered vulnerable by age. Please note that I purposely avoid using the blanket term vulnerable. Children are merely made vulnerable by age which brings with it issues such as access to finance, experience and know how.
SE: Who is a child according to Lesotho’s laws?
Tsikoane: A child in terms of the law in Lesotho is anyone below the age of 18 years.
SE: So what does it really mean for Lesotho to be ranked No 153 by the Child Rights International Network in its survey?
Tsikoane: This is a very negative ranking as that’s towards the very poor mark of 179. It is not a good ranking at all which means we are letting down our children but at the same time, that’s not surprising. Access to justice is a problem for everyone in Lesotho, it gets worse the younger one goes. It is logical to conclude that it was expected, albeit a painful admission, that accessing justice for children would be very difficult.
SE: Lesotho is said to have ratified the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), so why is accessing justice still a problem for our children?
Tsikoane: It is true that Lesotho ratified the UNCRC. I happened to have been a child representative of Lesotho during the reporting and re-commitment in 2002 at the United Nations Special Session on Children. I can safely tell you that His Majesty joined other Heads of State in the ‘Say Yes’ campaign for children’s commitment and the then minister of youth committed Lesotho to easing children’s access to justice. This means ensuring that children in Lesotho enjoy all the rights embodied in the UNCRC hence the process of reform of the then Child Protection Act of 1980. As a child, I was privileged to have formed part of the junior committee and know that accessing justice as easily as possible was a big proponent of the review. So yes, Lesotho has to ensure every child can enjoy all the rights contained therein.
SE: But has Lesotho been compliant with the convention?
Tsikoane: This is a hard question to answer by saying yes and no because the convention has numerous provisions and rights by their very nature fall into different categories and the way they are granted differs. But on access to justice, I would say Lesotho is performing very badly. I am saying this based on numerous issues. Firstly, I am looking at children in conflict with the law and their treatment by our system; secondly, the hurdles of accessing courts in general, be it for civil or criminal cases; thirdly, the state of our legal aid and its form in so far as providing child-friendly services, and fourth, the state of our justice system and the inherent delays that are not only affecting children but everyone. This should tell you how hard it becomes for children. The country has performed better in granting other rights but has dismally failed in others. The provision of the right to education is an example of those we are doing well in, so the question of performance of the country on the convention as a whole would be too lengthy. But on access to justice, I would say we are doing very badly.
SE: As a children’s rights activist, do you have any specific cases of abuse that you would like to share with us?
Tsikoane: There are countless cases that I can relate, but three that immediately come to mind include a child who was procedurally adopted by a certain prominent lady and then let go and exposed to further abuse by the individual and the system itself. The other case is about a child who was viciously attacked by a dog in Leribe and to date, that issue has not been fully addressed. Lastly, there are numerous cases of children whose lives are permanently scarred by our inefficient health system because those children are both poor and unrepresented. A close friend of mine who works at one of our hospitals once asked if nothing could be done. In communities that I work in, the worst victims are always children. We bring cases before the court on behalf of communities adversely affected by development.
SE: How effective is the Children’s Court in Lesotho?
Tsikoane: I personally think there is a lot that is yet to be done by the court. A simple visit to the juvenile centre will tell you there is much that we should be doing as a country. The increase in the number of children who are victims of land grabs and children who constantly become vulnerable tells you that children don’t know of and don’t have a way to seek justice.
SE: But what needs to be done for the country to improve access to justice for children?
Tsikoane: We need dedicated efforts to ensure that children access not only justice but enjoy the totality of rights. The weakening of child-centered organisations has had very damning results for children in Lesotho. While some organisations continue to advocate for the rights of the child, it has become normal again to relegate children’s issues. Contrary to where Lesotho was almost 12 years ago when children’s rights were high on our agenda, we have become complacent and now offer the bare necessity. At some point, Lesotho was ranked very high as far as children’s rights were concerned.
SE: As an activist and a lawyer, do you have any notable initiative you have taken to ensure the protection of Basotho children?
Tsikoane: I spent all my teenage years as a child-rights advocate. I have advocated for the inclusion of and respect for children all my life. I advocated both as a child and later as a professional for the promulgation of the Children’s Protection and Welfare Act. When I was a director of the NGOC (Non-Governmental Organisation Coalition on Rights of a Child), partnering with World Vision Lesotho, we held, for the first time, children’s parliament full with the mace. This gave a platform for children to air their views and debate their issues as they would want them presented in parliament. Since then, I have spoken on numerous forums on how Lesotho can best provide, protect and enable children to enjoy their rights.
SE: Do you engage government in your work? And again, who are the other stakeholders you work with?
Tsikoane: I have very cordial relations with the Ministry of Social Development, the Child Protection office in particular. I offer support and often converse with them on issues that affect the welfare of and the rights of children in Lesotho. I have recently graduated to incorporating issues affecting the youth too and engage the Ministry of Gender and Youth, Sports and Recreation as the interrelation of childhood and the youth is natural. I also have engaged UNICEF and other stakeholders that have direct interest in the welfare of children.
SE: What could be your last word of advice?
Tsikoane: As a mother, I believe my passion for children’s rights is coming full circle because now, it’s not just about others, but also my own children. The commitment of any country to development can be tested by its commitment to its children. Unless we do more to secure and ensure that children are protected, provided for and fully participate in the world we are constantly creating, our future is bleak as a country. I always say nations cannot be judged on their intentions but their actions. And here, we are failing dismally. I would encourage our government to retrace its steps and find where we went wrong from having the best practice to where we are now. There are many of us that this country spent so much money in capacitating and building, particularly regarding children’s rights. Most of us are still keen practitioners and would want to be useful in the creation of a Lesotho that is fit for children to live in safely. As we used to say then, ‘E SENG ‘NA FEELA (Not just me)’, I reaffirm my commitment to ensuring a world in which every child would be free.