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Committee on the Rights of the Child reviews report of Guinea-Bissau

7 June 2013

The Committee on the Rights of the Child today considered the combined second, third and fourth periodic report of Guinea-Bissau on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Introducing the report, Octavio Inocencio Alves, Legal Advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Co-operation and Communities of Guinea-Bissau, said that following the April 2012 coup d’état a transitional political authority had been established. General elections would take place by December 2013. An inclusive Government was being created and would be comprised of the most important political actors. This would allow for the removal of sanctions, improving the situation in the country and its relation with the international community. Despite the limitations imposed by the political context, significant progress had been made. The country had institutions to protect children at various levels and counted with new legal instruments containing provisions related to children, including on the prevention and combating of human trafficking and female genital mutilation.

Committee Experts asked about the dissemination of the Convention amidst the plurality of languages spoken and high illiteracy levels, and about the harmonization of the Convention with the provisions of customary law. Experts noted the institutional structures and national policies geared towards children’s rights and asked how were priorities set, in terms of resource allocation, to sectors and specific activities, and particularly to children’s rights. The Committee was concerned about the situation of children with disabilities who suffered discrimination and violence; about the situation of girls who were deprived of their right to education and were victims of harmful traditional practices; and about widespread physical and sexual violence against children. Child labour was also an issue of concern and Experts inquired about measures to ensure the return of children to school and penalties for those employing children.

Responding to the comments and questions, the delegation said that Guinea-Bissau would develop a comprehensive Code on the Protection of Children that would ensure that the provisions of the Convention were integrated into national legislation. However, given existing resource constraints, it was hard to say when this draft would be in place. The relationship between civil and customary law was very sensitive. Customary law was respected if it adhered to the principle of best interest of a person; however, the provisions of civil law prevailed in case of conflict. Legislation considered sexual violence against children on the basis of bodily harm and that was why sentences for perpetrators were rather lenient.

In his closing remarks, Mr. Alves reiterated Guinea-Bissau’s commitment to respond to all the questions asked by Experts, with a view to improving the situation of the rights of children in the country.

Aseil Al-Shehail, Committee Co-Rapporteur for the report of Guinea Bissau, noted that challenges, such as the lack of financial resources and low human resource capacity, represented the main obstacles for reaching the goal.

The delegation of Guinea-Bissau consisted of representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and of the Institute for Women and Children.

The Committee will next meet in public on Friday, 14 June, at 12 p.m. in the Palais Wilson, in order to adopt its concluding recommendations on the country reports reviewed and to conclude its session.

Report

The combined second, third and the fourth periodic report of Guinea Bissau under the Convention of the Rights of the Child can be read here (CRC/C/GNB/2-4).

Statement by the Delegation

OCTAVIO INOCENCIO ALVES, Legal Advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Co-operation and Communities of Guinea-Bissau, said that the report had been presented at the time of a limited relation between Guinea-Bissau and the international community following the coup d’état in April 2012. Sanctions had been imposed both on Guinea-Bissau and on certain personalities associated with the coup. Transitional political authorities had been established to conduct the return to normalcy, and presidential and legislative elections. In line with the Pact for Political Transition, and the political agreement signed between political parties and the military command, the transition had been fixed for a period of one year during which the necessary conditions to conduct general elections in December 2013 would be established. An inclusive Government was being created and would be comprised of the most important political actors. The formation of Government would allow for the lifting of sanctions, improving the situation in the country and its relation with the international community.

Despite these limitations, significant advances had been made. Guinea-Bissau counted with institutions to protect children at various levels and new legal instruments contained provisions concerning children, for example, on the prevention of human trafficking and female genital mutilation, a revision of the Code of Criminal Procedure, the regulation of detention centres and of birth registration. The Institute for Women and Children responsible for the defence and protection of the child; and it collaborated with many actors involved in the protection of children, including national and international non-governmental organizations and United Nations bodies and agencies, in particular, with the United Nations Children Fund. The Institute had developed a five year action plan to promote and protect children’s rights. This plan also included activities for combating gender inequalities and the eradication of harmful traditional practices, such as female genital mutilation and early marriages.

Examination of the reports under the Convention on the Rights of the Child

Questions by Committee Experts

PETER GURAN, Committee Expert and Country Rapporteur for the report of Guinea-Bissau, said that the two most vulnerable groups of children in the country were the talibé children and children sent abroad; what was being done to protect these children? There were two institutions in the country protecting the rights of women and children but so far the resources allocated had been meagre; which ministry was in fact in charge of coordinating the activities in favour of children? Twenty years after its ratification, the Convention on the Rights of the Child had not yet been translated into local languages. How was the Convention being disseminated in the country, particularly in the context of high illiteracy rates? The harmonization of the provisions of the Convention and customary law was an important task that still had to be undertaken, had any steps been taken in this regard? What systems were in place to ensure the participation of children and to ensure that their voices were heard?

Another Expert thanked the delegation for the account of the difficult political situation Guinea-Bissau was experiencing and inquired about the coordination and cooperation between the Government and civil society, how non-governmental organizations participated in the preparation of the report and in crafting of national policies related to health, education and other areas of interest. Concerning the Children’s Parliament, how were participants appointed and what kind of follow-up was given to their deliberations? Experts also inquired about the place of religion in education.

Even though the State was committed to the participation of children, nobody seemed to be funding it or providing the necessary resources. Laws prohibited female genital mutilation, human trafficking and other human rights abuses, and institutions and policies addressing issues such as poverty, women and children were in place; how was this stricture financed and why was the implementation of some of the issues slowed down? How were priorities set and resources allocated to sectors and specific activities, particularly, to children’s rights? In 2011, the Government had developed a Poverty Reduction Strategy which provided a framework for the allocation of resources to children rights; was this initiative funded and, if so, were specific allocations made for children?

Experts asked whether Guinea-Bissau planned to ratify the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; treaties concerning the rights of migrants and the rights of persons with disabilities; and related to the protection of the rights of children in international adoption. The Committee commended Guinea-Bissau for the adoption of a number of legislative measures, including on citizenship and statelessness. Was legislation on reproductive health and age of marriage being discussed?

The Committee expressed concern about the situation of children with disabilities. It seemed that the State was unable to provide them with the necessary protection and they were often victims of infanticide. The situation of girls was also an issue of concern, they were more likely not to attend school given the burden of domestic work; they were also the victims of traditional practices such as female genital mutilation; and they did not have the right to inherit. The principle of best interests of the child did not exist in tribal practices; were there any discussions with the transitional leaders concerning this principle?

Children were exposed to both physical and sexual violence at home and their environment. The Government was working on the submission of a law criminalizing corporal punishment and Committee Experts also asked about the status of this law and measures taken, in the meantime, in order to raise public awareness concerning the unacceptability of physical violence against children. Were there any programmes in place to combat sexual violence against children?

Response by the Delegation

Concerning the Code on the Protection of Children, a comprehensive study of Guinea-Bissau’s legal system and its compliance with the provisions of the Convention had been undertaken and submitted to decision makers. The Convention touched on many areas of the law, including customary and criminal laws, and that was why the Government turned to experts for advice on whether to prepare one single comprehensive piece of legislation or to incorporate the provisions of the Convention into several laws. The study had recommended the drafting of one piece of legislation in the form of a Code on the Protection of Children. However, given that the necessary resources were not yet available, it was hard to say when a draft would be in place.

The links between civil law and customary law remained a very sensitive issue, given the presence of a number of tribes and cultures with their own customs. For example, the right to traditional marriage was not recognized by the law but was tolerated and understood; and children born inside these marriages had the same rights as children born to legally married couples.

Religion was not present in public schools but there were Catholic and Koranic schools which were not part of the educational system. Koranic schools focused only on religious education and could not replace public education. The Government was studying a mechanism to properly integrate Madrasa schools into the official education system in order to allow Arabic-speaking children to attend schools in their own language. Catholic schools had a network of institutions from kindergarten to secondary school and were open to students from all religions. Children usually attended public schools in the morning and religious schools in the afternoon.

Child protection services were run by the Institute for Women and Children, operating under the Ministry of Women and Social Solidarity rather than under the Ministry of Public Health, as it had been earlier. The Institute was autonomous and coordination was channelled through internally created Committees, which included a range of public institutions, non-governmental organizations and civil society organizations working on the same issues. The Committees also met with traditional and religious leaders to raise awareness about the Convention. However, a number of these Committees had not been able to meet so far, such as the committee on social protection, due to a lack of resources. The Institute had seven National Action Plans in place to address specific issues, such as trafficking in persons and some of those plans were supported by a number of international partners, including United Nations bodies and agencies and international non-governmental organizations.

The provisions of customary law were respected if they adhered to the principle of the best interest of a person. However, if customary law clashed with the provisions of civil law, it positive law prevailed. Due to constraints on resources available, a number of courts at local levels had been closed down. Access to justice was expensive and the Government had established centres for the provision of legal advice for citizens and, while these centres did not cover the whole territory of the State, they constituted an expression of the commitment of the Government to ensure access to justice for its people.

The Government did not count with outreach or reception centres for vulnerable children and worked in close cooperation with shelters usually run by non-governmental organizations of civil society organizations; these shelters often catered to children victims of trafficking, victims of early marriages and talibé children.

Questions by Experts

ASEIL AL-SHEHAIL, Committee Vice-Chairperson and Country Co-Rapporteur for the report of Guinea Bissau, asked the delegation to expand on the provisions regulating the system of birth registrations and challenges families experienced to register their children. Even though progress had been made in the area of early and forced marriages and the protection accorded to children, what complaint mechanism was in place for children victims of harmful traditional practices and how were authorities trained for detecting and preventing such practices? What legislation was in place to protect children with disabilities and to prosecute and severely sanction perpetrators of infanticide?

Rates of infant and maternal mortality remained extremely high both due to quality of care and limited access to health care; what plans were in place to expand the outreach and community visits particularly in rural and remote areas, to improve emergency obstetric care and to remove barriers for access to maternal and child health care particularly in terms of its cost?

Concerning juvenile justice, Experts noted that the age of criminal responsibility was 16 years of age and asked the delegation to provide information about juvenile offenders under the age of 16, about alternative measures to detention that were in place, and how was the competition between traditional forms of justice and State justice resolved?

With regards to sexual violence against children, the Committee noted that girls were often treated as if they were responsible rather than as victims; and impunity existed for perpetrators. What specific measures were being taken to tackle the issue at different levels, including parents, families and communities, and also at the level of courts and police authorities? Paedophilia posed a huge problem in a number of other countries in the region, was it prevalent in Guinea Bissau?

Statistics indicated an increase in child labour, from 39 per cent to over 50 per cent, particularly in rural areas. This meant that children were out of school and were victims of trafficking, exploitation and worked long hours in hazardous conditions. What measures were in place to address the worst forms of child labour as per the provisions of the International Labour Organization Conventions N° 138 and 182, which Guinea-Bissau had ratified? What was the position of the State regarding the development of a system of domestic adoption and how were children adopted abroad monitored?

Follow-up Questions and Discussion

The national legal system contained no provisions on adoption and there was a great degree of reticence towards the subject, probably due to custom and culture. Social informal adoption was the norm, whereby families would take care of children without formally adopting them. Responding to the Expert’s comment that adoption provided additional protection against exploitation and abuse to children without parental care, the delegation stressed the importance of culture and customs in the country and indicated that that adoption was not an issue at all.

There was no conflict between traditional and formal judges and Guinea-Bissau did not have traditional judges along the model of Angola. Traditional leaders did have some degree of influence over the judicial process but this process was in the hands of official judges. The age of criminal responsibility was 16 and those aged 16 to 20 could not be treated on the same footing as others in the prison. There were no alternative institutions for juvenile offenders under the age of 15 and they were indeed in a vulnerable situation. Non-governmental organizations implemented all the activities related to the re-education and reintegration of young offenders and there were plans to establish a centre for young offenders.

Sentences were imposed on perpetrators of sexual violence against children on the basis of bodily harm and that was why they were rather lenient. The Government would be looking into hardening the sanctions for sexual crimes, in particular in cases in which the victims were minors. Violence against children was being addressed and female genital mutilation had been prohibited by law. Religious leaders too had been mobilized around the issue and Muslim leaders had issued a fatwa against this practice.

Many non-governmental organizations played a supplementary role to that of the Government and filled in where the Government could not; for example, one of the areas in which they were involved was ensuring that children were heard in their communities and in awareness raising activities related to the principle of best interest of the child.

In 2013, a new office had been created to ensure the registration of all newborns within five months of birth and nine field offices had been established, which handled regional registrars and birth registrations. Infanticide was covered in the Criminal Code but it was difficult for the State to establish the cause of death of infants with disabilities. A qualitative study on this phenomenon was needed in order to facilitate the work of the judiciary. Paedophilia was not qualified as a stand alone crime.

It was very difficult to prove instances of violence and crimes committed within families and behind closed doors. Many victims were very reluctant to report these crimes and the national justice system was very complicated. This meant that many perpetrators went unpunished or impunity for sexual and domestic violence and violence against children. The development of a complaint system and hotlines for children in distress remained a challenge because of several reasons, for example, the limited coverage of communications, the remoteness and difficult access to certain areas, and the capacity of the State to respond to complaints because of the linguistic complexity of the country and its population.

The minimum age for employment was 14 years of age. The Government was conducting a mapping exercise for a profound study on child labour, specifically, on its prevalence and impact on the education and health of children. Results of this study would underline the policy to address child labour and assist children engaged in this practice. A number of children from Guinea Conakry worked in the territory of Guinea-Bissau and it was an obligation of the Government to protect and assist these children. A strategy was in place to assist the talibé, or street children, in cooperation with teachers from Koranic schools because most of them frequented Koranic schools in afternoon. These children came from different parts of the country and did not have any family in town; the Government was also setting up a system of alternative families to take case of these children during the day and support them in attending the Koranic school in the afternoon.

In a series of comments and questions, Experts noted a significant increase in the incidence of child labour in the statistics, which meant that children were not in school. What was being done to address child labour and to ensure that children were back in school. How were monitoring and inspections conducted and what sanctions were in place for people employing children?

Some villages had adopted the system of self-management and parents and villagers contributed to school’s funding to improve the quality of education. These were not considered as payments under-the-table, but communities’ contribution to their schools. Schools’ infrastructure throughout the country was rather poor and many were lacking proper sanitation facilities. Primary education was free of charge, while school feeding programmes in rural areas aimed to motivate parents to send their children to school, girls, in particular.

There was no specific strategy to prevent early marriages but non-governmental organizations had taken measures in different communities to raise awareness and discourage the practice, which damaged girls’ physical and emotional development. The Institute for Women and Children counted with programmes to support children in need, which were accessible to victims of early forced marriage under certain criteria.

The country was divided in 11 health regions, over 100 health areas, and it covered most remote areas. The national health development plan for the period 2008-2017 was in place, together with strategic plans on malaria, HIV/AIDS, cholera, water and sanitation and other health issues. The Government also counted with instruments and mechanisms to promote breastfeeding and to reduce child and maternal mortality. Regional health centres had a doctor among their staff, while other health centres were staffed with nurses or midwives. The National Secretariat for the Fight against AIDS covered all actions in this domain; it developed the strategy and was in charge of managing and financing HIV/ADIS related activities. Abortions were allowed but they had to take place in a hospital and to be conducted by a professional; clandestine abortions were prohibited by the law. Condoms were available in the country but were not widely sold and non-governmental organizations were active promoting and educating people concerning methods of contraception.

The Poverty Reduction Strategy Programme presented a vision for the reduction of poverty and provided funds earmarked for the protection of children and gender equality. The lack of resources remained the main obstacle; the Government was unable to collect sufficient revenue and experienced budget deficits.

In June, the National Assembly would be debating the Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities with a view to its ratification. The Constitution enshrined the principle of equality and discrimination on any grounds was not allowed. Special schools for hearing impaired and mute children were available and a non-governmental organization was developing education programmes for the blind. These services existed only in the capital and the Government was aware that children with disabilities in other regions were deprived from access to such schools. Guinea-Bissau did not count with the necessary resources, technical conditions and the specially trained staff necessary for the inclusion of children with disabilities into mainstream education.

The Government had obtained debt relief for one billion US dollars in 2011 and the delegation was unable to say how had the resources previously allocated to debt servicing had been channelled. Due to the 2012 coup d’état, the relationship with the international financial institutions had been suspended and was currently being re-established.

Concluding remarks

OCTAVIO INOCENCIO ALVES, Legal Advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Co-operation and Communities of Guinea-Bissau, said that the dialogue had been a very interesting exercise and reiterated the delegation’s commitment to respond to the questions asked by Experts with the view to improving the situation of the rights of children in the country.

ASEIL AL-SHEHAIL, Committee Vice-Chairperson and the Country Co-Rapporteur for the report of Guinea Bissau, thanked the delegation for the dialogue. Although many legislative measures had been adopted, a number of challenges remained, such as the lack of financial resources and low human resource capacity that represented the main obstacles for reaching the goal. Guinea-Bissau should strengthen its cooperation and collaboration with a number of international agencies to address those issues.

KIRSTEN SANDBERG, Committee Chairperson, thanked the delegation for coming to Geneva to hold the dialogue.
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