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Committee on the Rights of the Child examines the report of Cameroon

Geneva (30 May 2017) – The Committee on the Rights of the Child today considered the combined third to fifth periodic report of Cameroon on the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  

Introducing the report, Marie-Therese Abena Ondoa, Minister for the Promotion of the Woman and the Family of Cameroon, said that key national and sectorial strategies addressed issues of birth registration, violence against children, child marriage, economic exploitation of children, education of children with disabilities and indigenous children, and early childhood development with an emphasis on nutrition during the first 1,000 days of life.  In 2016, Cameroon criminalized female genital mutilation, breast ironing, child abuse, delay or refusal to enrol a child in school, and refusal to pay alimony.  Furthermore, an inclusive education curriculum was developed, the draft national policy on child protection focused on the completion of the institutional framework for child protection, and the African Union national campaign to put an end to child marriage was launched.  New schools had been established, especially in priority education zones, and 1,000 primary and secondary school teachers had been recruited for public service.  In the regions threatened by insecurity, the school infrastructure had been improved and teachers redeployed to welcome refugee and internally displaced children. 

Committee Experts welcomed the drafting of the crucial piece of legislation – the new civil code - and urged Cameroon to ensure that it was harmonized with the Convention in the definition of the child and the age of marriage, which was currently set at 18 years for boys and 15 for girls.  Experts were concerned about reports of torture and abuse by the police of youth demonstrators and children suspected of being associated with Boko Haram, who were not considered to be victims but terrorists and were interrogated by the army.  The Government must address the widespread sexual abuse of children - boys and girls - which took place both at home and in school, and ensure that perpetrators were prosecuted and victims adequately supported.  Experts raised concern about harmful traditional practices such as child marriage, breast ironing, female genital mutilation and ritual crimes on albino children and twins and, while welcoming the criminalization of many such practices, inquired about concrete measures taken to implement the law.  Other issues raised in the discussion included the very low age of criminal responsibility and juvenile justice, and discrimination and stigma against children with disabilities and inclusive education. 

In concluding remarks, Suzanne Aho Assouma, Committee Vice-Chairperson and Co-Rapporteur for Cameroon, said that Cameroon should adopt reforms to the criminal code to specifically ban corporal punishment, ensure that national action plans and strategies were adequately resourced and implemented, and that the robust fight against corruption, female genital mutilation and child marriage continued.  

Ms. Abena Ondoa said in her concluding remarks that no effort was being spared by the President and the people of Cameroon to promote and protect the rights of the child and to cooperate with all relevant stakeholders. 

The delegation of Cameroon included representatives of the Ministry for the Promotion of Woman and Family, the Senate, Office of the Prime Minister, Ministry for Social Affairs, Ministry of Justice, and the Permanent Mission of Cameroon to the United Nations Office at Geneva. 

This was the last country report to be reviewed during the Committee’s seventy-fifth session.  The concluding observations and recommendations on the reports of the United States, Bhutan, Lebanon, Qatar, Romania, Mongolia, Antigua and Barbuda and Cameroon will be adopted by the Committee before it concludes its session on Friday, 2 June, and will be available here. 

The Committee will next meet in public on Friday, 2 June at 5 p.m. to officially close its seventy-fifth session. 

Report

The combined third to fifth periodic report of Cameroon under the Convention on the Rights of the Child can be accessed here: CRC/C/CMR/3-5. 

Presentation of the Report 

MARIE-THERESE ABENA ONDOA, Minister for the Promotion of Woman and the Family of Cameroon, said that the periodic report before the Committee described initiatives undertaken in a context characterized by strengthening the rule of law and counter-terrorism; providing humanitarian responses for refugees from the Central African Republic and Nigeria and for internally displaced persons; and strengthening peace and social stability in the north-west and south-west regions.  The promotion and protection of children’s rights were at the heart of national priorities and the vision of development contained in the Growth and Employment Strategy Paper.  Key national and sectorial strategies addressed issues such as birth registration, violence against children, child marriage, economic exploitation of children, education of children with disabilities and indigenous children, and early childhood development with an emphasis on nutrition during the first 1,000 days of life.  Measures taken at the legal level included the criminalization in 2016 of female genital mutilation, breast ironing, school enrolment delay or refusal, child abuse and refusal to pay alimony.  The same law n° 2016/007 provided for sentencing alternatives for juveniles.  In 2011, the time period for birth registration had been extended from 30 to 90 days. 

At the institutional level, Cameroon had increased the number of main and secondary civil status and registration centres in urban and rural areas and in consulates.  It had put in place the National Committee against Child Labour in 2014, and adopted the National Action Plan for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.  Furthermore, the inclusive education curricula had been developed and the National Policy on the Protection of the Child had been drafted, which was focused on the integration of the protection of the child in all aspects of national life and the completion of the institutional framework for the protection of the child.  Ms. Abena Ondoa drew the attention of the Committee to other examples of progress, namely the stepping up of the fight against child trafficking as attested by 35 court cases in 2016, the official launching of the African Union national campaign to put an end to child marriage, the full or partial exemption of children with disabilities or children born to parents with disabilities from paying school fees, and the training of 150 law enforcement officers for the protection of children against violence in the humanitarian context.  In the area of health, children under the age of five had free access for severe malaria treatment, immunisation of new-borns had increased from 77 per cent in 2014 to 90 per cent in 2015, and efforts were being undertaken to promote breastfeeding and mobilize communities in favour of mother and child health.   

The education map had been expanded with the establishment of new schools, especially in priority education zones, and 1,000 primary and secondary school teachers had been recruited for public service.  In the regions threatened by insecurity, school infrastructure had been improved and teachers redeployed to welcome refugee and internally displaced children.  Some 100 children victims of violence and abuse in Koranic schools in the far north region had been reintegrated in schools and with their families.  Ms. Abena Ondoa concluded by saying that despite the difficult global economic environment and the insecurity affecting the country and the region, the situation of children had improved.  The Government would continue to ensure the well-being of all its children in collaboration with civil society and development partners. 

Questions from the Experts

JORGE CARDONA LLORENS, Committee Expert and Rapporteur for Cameroon, asked about the reasons that prevented Cameroon from ratifying the Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography and the Optional Protocol on a communications procedure.   

The enactment of the new civil code was long in coming and it was a crucial piece of legislation that was expected to harmonize the national laws with the Convention.  What was the status of this law, how would it define the child, and which approach would it adopt with regard to raising the age of marriage for boys and girls to 18 years, as it was currently 18 for boys and 15 for girls?  

What was being done to fight child marriage which occurred in all parts of the country, and how were traditional and religious leaders involved in those efforts? 

The Committee had received reports of torture and abuse by the police of youth demonstrators and in the framework of counter-terrorism measures, especially against children suspected of belonging to Boko Haram.  Such a child was not considered a victim, but a terrorist; the children were not interrogated by the police but by the army, which increased the risk of torture and ill treatment.  Was anything being done to ensure that children accused or suspected of terrorism were treated like children by the appropriate authorities?  What measures were being adopted to fight torture and ill treatment by the police? 

Was Cameroon planning to set up a help line for children, which could be used also to file a complaint of rights violations? 

AMAL SALMAN ALDOSERI, Committee Expert and Co-Rapporteur for Cameroon, asked the delegation about the plans to develop a comprehensive national action plan for the protection of children’s rights in line with the Convention and ensure that implementation resources, human and financial, were there. 

The delegation was also asked to inform the Committee about the coordination mechanism in Cameroon on the matters of child rights protection; the budgets allocated for children and the implementation of their rights; and progress made in the setting up of a database on children that would englobe all information about services and actions undertaken for the benefit of the children in the country.   

Ms. Aldoseri welcomed the efforts undertaken to disseminate the Convention among children and their parents, as well as the general public.  Were those efforts conducted systematically and did they reach all schools and communities and all children living in Cameroon regardless of the language they spoke? 

With regard to civil society, how many organizations were active in the field of children’s rights, how did the Government cooperate and consult with them, and what were the registration procedures like? 

Other Experts asked about registration at birth of children whose mothers were unable to pay hospital fees, the staffing of the civil status registration centres, and the birth registration of foreign children born in Cameroon.   

What was Cameroon planning on doing to ensure the prohibition of corporal punishment in schools and institutions?  What structures were in place for victims of violence and which services were therein available? 

The Government must address the sexual abuse of children, boys and girls alike, which was widespread in homes and in schools.  Were the perpetrators prosecuted and what solutions were provided to the victims? 

On harmful traditional practices, breast ironing was criminalized – what was being done to inform the general public about the new law?  How were the female genital mutilation practitioners informed about the law which criminalized the practice and what else was being done to combat it?  How were the superstitious beliefs about twins and albinos being addressed in order to raise awareness in families and communities in order to bring a change in mentality and protect the children from ritual crimes? 

The Experts raised concern about the negative impact of large extraction and logging operations on children’s rights and asked whether there were any laws or policies in place to protect children and ensure the accountability of businesses. 

On the principle of the best interest of the child, Experts inquired about the implementation in practice of this principle, particularly in the court decisions involving children in conflict with the law, and about measures to be taken to ensure that the principle was systematically applied in all administrative, legal and judicial procedures and decisions. 

The delegation was asked about the role and mandate of the Children’s Parliament; children’s access to information, including via the Internet; rules governing the protection of identity and images of children; and the impact of foreign debt servicing and illicit financial flows on the allocations for children’s rights. 

Responses by the Delegation  

The delegation said that the political will to ratify the Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography and the Optional Protocol on a communications procedure was there and that Cameroon would do its utmost to ratify those two treaties. 

Cameroon had chosen to merge the two laws, on children and on the family, into one law, the civil code, which was currently being drafted.  This new law would define the child as a person under the age of 18 and would establish the age of marriage at 18 years for both girls and boys. 

As far as child marriages were concerned, the Government was working with traditional and religious leaders, namely with the Association of Imams and Muslim Leaders, to raise awareness about the harmful effects of this traditional practice, which was principally taking place among Muslim communities.  The Government also worked with the Association of Traditional Leaders as they had access to grassroots where those practices occurred, as well as with wives of traditional leaders in order to amplify the message.  Other measures included addressing poverty, which was the root cause of this practice as well as the removal of children from early marriages and Government support to repay the dowry. 

As the threat of terrorism had increased in Cameroon, the number of children associated with terrorist groups had increased as well, and some ended up in the judicial system.  Cameroon was aware that such children should be treated as victims.  They were held in the Marwa Institute and measures were being taken to reunify them with their families.  The Government was also instituting the procedures for children in such situations that would ensure they were treated as victims and not offenders, and would never have to be processed through the criminal system but would rather be supported to reintegrate in their families and communities.  In order to determine the age of the child in the absence of a birth certificate, medical determination of age was applied. 

Cameroon was seeking to increase the budget for the Children’s Parliament, both when it was sitting in Yaoundé and in the regions, and to support the implementation of its decisions. 

The National Committee for Child Protection had been re-established with the support of the United Nations Children’s Fund and it was in the process of drafting the national child protection policy.  In 2015, the national platform for the protection of the child, including the protection of children in emergencies, had been set up with the support of the United Nations Children’s Fund.    

There were both public and private institutions that trained social workers.  Those studying at the national administration and judges training colleges had a salary paid by the State, while those who studied at private institutions had to sit a State exam for entry into civil service. 

All births that took place in maternity wards were registered regardless of whether hospital fees were paid.  In 2011, the deadline for birth registration had been extended from 30 to 90 days; if this period lapsed, the parent could address the request to the administration to issue the certificate, or if the birth had not been registered within six months, the parent had to petition the court to issue a supplementary judgement for the registration of birth.  All those procedures were free of charge, quick and simple.   

Since 2015, over 400 civil registrars had been trained and allocated to the civil registration offices.  All children born in the territory of Cameroon could have their birth registered, regardless of the nationality of the parents. 

A platform had been set up to fight child marriage, which comprised of the public administration, non-governmental organizations and development partners.  A four-year action plan had been drafted, which included lobbying of traditional and religious leaders and a study in root causes of the phenomenon, on the basis of which a communication plan would be prepared. 

The budget for the National Commission for Human Rights and Freedoms, which was an independent follow-up mechanism, had been increased in both 2014 and in 2015. 

Persons with albinism did not face formal discrimination but they suffered from negative societal attitudes.  A public awareness campaign, “a week on persons with albinism”, took place every year, to inform and educate the public about albinism and ensure that children with albinism were not subjected to violence.  Twins were treated as any other children and what needed to be done was to strengthen the understanding of the public that there was nothing mystical about them. 

One of the functions of the National Commission for Human Rights and Freedoms was to receive children’s complaints; once a child submitted a complaint, support would be provided to that child to help him or her to explain the nature of the right violation.  The Commission would also establish contacts with the family and community to verify the situation. 

Questions from the Experts

In the next round of questions, Committee Experts asked about children with disabilities and the support available to them.  Cameroon had made great strides in reducing infant and child mortality, but mortality rates for children under the age of five were still rather high.  What additional measures were being taken in this sense, and also to educate the people on the importance of the use of insecticide impregnated nets in order to prevent malaria, which was still among the major killers?   

Were there any programmes in place to help women suffering from obstetric fistula and programmes to encourage young mothers to exclusively breastfeed the babies?  

The delegation was asked about adolescents’ sexual and reproductive health, including access to contraceptives, other measures to prevent unwanted pregnancy, and steps taken to prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS. 

The school drop-out rates were very high, particularly among girls.  The Committee was concerned about the quality of education and the great disparity in access to education between rural and urban areas.  What was being done to increase the number of teachers and reduce the teacher-student ratio, which in some regions was as high as 150 students per teacher? 

Of particular concern was the many children living and working in the street.  What was being done to support and care for those children?  Which programmes were available to counter alcohol and substance abuse by children? 

Around 27 per cent of children aged five to 17 were involved in work, including in worst forms of child labour.  Was this statistic correct and what was being done to protect children from this form of exploitation? 

Another Expert asked about steps taken to increase the social workforce in Cameroon, and the impact of programmes and the progress in collection of maintenance allowance.  What was the status of the national policy for social protection and how would it be resourced?   

A concern often noted with regard to the care of children was the absence of clear standards of care and protection of children, particularly those without parental care, and the absence of a system and standards for recruitment of foster families.  What was being done to address those challenges?  How did judges ensure that children did not end up in prison with their mothers? 

The insecurity in the region was at the root of the arrival of around half a million refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons.  The Committee was aware of the challenges this posed to Cameroon.  The Expert asked about registration procedures, including for unaccompanied children, and how the principle of the best interest of the child was implemented in asylum procedures. 

What resources had been allocated to the inter-sectoral committee to combat child labour and how would the national plan of action to combat the worst forms of child labour be implemented in practice?  What measures were envisaged to remove children from worst forms of labour, including domestic work, and support their social and educational reintegration? 

Turning to juvenile justice, the Expert noted that children detained on terrorism charges were not separated from adults and that the treatment of children deprived of liberty was not in line with international standards.  The Committee remained concerned about the very low age of criminal responsibility and the lack of juvenile courts.  What was being done to put in place specialized juvenile justice institutions, from courts, to staff to legal assistance, from the moment of arrest and through all phases of the procedure?  

JORGE CARDONA LLORENS, Committee Expert and Rapporteur for Cameroon, said that in 2010 a law on persons with disabilities had been passed but it did not include denial of reasonable accommodation as a ground for discrimination.  Cameroon was one of the few countries in the region that had not yet ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – why the delay?   

Data on children with disabilities was lacking and this hampered the adoption of a strategy on children with disabilities.  In terms of education of children with disabilities, the delegation was asked to explain what was meant by “special” schools and to inform the Committee about its intentions on adopting inclusive education in the country.  

How was the law and procedure on the treatment of children victims of a crime implemented in rural areas? 

RENATE WINTER, Committee Chairperson, asked how a child involved in armed conflict was treated by the justice system.  The position of the Committee was that a child was always a child and that it should be juvenile justice system that addressed such situations.  

Responses by the Delegation  

With regard to the health services, the delegation said that the budget for health was substantial under the new three years emergency budget, which allowed Cameroon to refurbish the existing regional and district hospitals and health facilities and build a new one.  Specialized medical and nursing staffers in district and regional hospitals were available.  Human and financial resources were therefore in place to ensure that the health needs of the population were addressed. 

The midwifery training had been suspended but was now being resumed with the support of development partners and the first cohort of midwives was now graduating.  They would be immediately employed by the State without the need to sit recruitment and State exams, and would ensure that births in rural areas were attended by professional staff. 

A programme to fight maternal and child mortality included the promotion of anti-natal visits, vaccination of children, and malaria treatment.  In the framework of HIV/AIDS prevention, there were trucks that visited villages and provided voluntary counselling and testing services, while emergency caesarean kits and pregnant women vaccination kits were available in health centres. 

“A week of breastfeeding” was commemorated in the first week of August to promote exclusive breastfeeding and maternity leave was available to women four weeks prior and eight weeks after the birth.  No hospitals had the baby friendly label yet. 

Concerning adolescent health, there were clinics in Yaoundé which provided services and information to adolescents, while, under the patronage of the First Lady, “AIDS free holiday” was being organized to raise awareness among the youth about HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases and protection from unwanted pregnancy. 

All schools built in recent years included a water borehole and separate toilet facilities for girls and boys; resources were provided to schools without water to drill their own borehole. 

The new criminal code adopted in 2016 criminalized the sale and handling of counterfeit medicines, which was punishable by a prison sentence. 

Cameroon had gone down the path of diversion for children in conflict with the law, including children associated with Boko Haram.  This meant that children were never processed by the criminal justice system, but were reintegrated with their families.  In addition to supporting reintegration, preventative measures were being taken in the form of poverty eradication activities in the far north regions and awareness raising about the dangers of terrorism. 

An action plan to fight child labour had been adopted in 2014, which aimed to remove children from labour, reintegrate them with the families, and ensure their return to school.  A list of hazardous professions for children had been defined in the 1969 law, which was now obsolete, thus the Committee for the fight against child labour was working on adopting the new list.  It was also engaged in a mapping exercise of children in labour and in raising awareness about this unlawful practice.  

A pilot project was in place for street children and several public institutions provided support and services to street children, seeking to change their behaviour and assist them in social reinsertion, including through education and employment.  Social reinsertion of street children was not easy and measures were being taken to prevent children from going into the street in the first place. 

On children with disabilities, the delegation said that the law on persons with disabilities, which was adopted in 2010, included three strands of activities, namely prevention, re-adaptation and social reinsertion.  Under the law, measures focused on early detection of disability, awareness raising among the public about the danger of some behaviour and how this could lead to a child being born with disability, and the provision of prosthetics. 

Special services centres continued to provide services to children with disabilities so that from an early age they could join mainstream education.  Inclusive education was being implemented through the early education of teachers, the physical adaptation of school buildings, and the development of special modules on inclusive teachings in teacher training curricula.    

Cameroon had signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities but had not yet ratified it, although the ratification was being considered.  In that sense, a pilot project for the implementation of the Convention had been put in place and the law on persons with disabilities, based on the Convention, had been adopted in 2010, even before the Convention itself had been signed. 

In follow-up questions, Committee Experts expressed concern about access to education for children with disabilities in rural areas, and the stigmatization and social exclusion of children with disabilities, in particular children with intellectual disabilities.    

Primary education was compulsory and free of charge.  Parents who refused to enrol their children could be prosecuted.  Teachers who refused to take their assigned posts in remote areas were sanctioned, for example their salaries were suspended.  Several new schools had been built to reduce school overcrowding, but more time was needed to ensure they were adequately staffed with trained teachers and so reduce the class size and improve the student-teacher ratio. 

In follow-up questions, the delegation was asked about the hidden costs of education, and measures to address the real reason for which girls dropped out of schools, namely sexual harassment. 

The criminal procedure code set out that all cases involving minors must take place behind closed doors.  No photos or recordings could take place in court and once a sentence was handed down, no identification of the minor, not even by his or her initials, was permitted.  Specific features of juvenile justice in Cameroon included that as soon as an inquiry was started by the police, a social worker would be called in to participate in all proceedings.  The social worker would also take a personality inquiry and would sensitize the police about the best interest of the child.  Everything was done to ensure that the minor was not remanded in custody, but that he or she was in the custody of parents or the social worker.  Court proceedings were presided over by a specialized judge assisted by two advisers trained in juvenile justice.  The age of criminal responsibility was 10. 

In follow-up questions, Committee Experts strongly objected to the prolonged detention of children, which could even be as long as three years, and urged Cameroon to ensure that no child was detained for such a long time.  How many children were held in detention and what short and long-term measures would be taken to address this problem? 

The delegation said that homosexuality ran counter to Cameroonian values and morality; nevertheless, whenever a complaint for violence or discrimination was lodged, inquiry would be undertaken in accordance with the law.  

It was true that there were hidden costs of education.  The guidelines against sexual harassment in school had been adopted and the Ministry of Higher Education had even fired a university teacher for sexual harassment.  Girls were encouraged to come forward with complaints.  

New schools had been built in areas where structures had been destroyed by terrorist activities or those otherwise destroyed, particularly in the far north.  Due to insecurity, some children were unable to go to school, many of whom were internally displaced.  The Government had built new classrooms and provided additional teachers to increase the capacity of schools in host communities. 

The populations that needed to be resettled to make room for large development projects, such as dams, were relocated and received land and compensation in the form of infrastructure, such as schools or health centres. 

The legislation stated that the presence of a lawyer was obligatory whenever a child was present in the court, if parents could not afford one, a lawyer would be provided by the Government. 

Every child had a right to nationality, including children born out of wedlock.  Nationality was not granted to those not of healthy mind, but this did not imply children with disabilities but rather those who presented a risk to public order. 

With the decentralization process, it was the duty of local authorities to provide for the needs of their population and this included the provision of prosthetic and other assistive devices to persons and children with disabilities.  

Concluding Remarks 

SUZANNE AHO ASSOUMA, Committee Vice-Chairperson and Co-Rapporteur for Cameroon, noted the positive aspects of this interactive dialogue and said that Cameroon had a number of outstanding challenges, including birth registration, statelessness, and breastfeeding.  Reforms to the criminal code should be adopted as soon as possible to specifically ban corporal punishment and harmful traditional practices.  Other challenges were the effective resourcing and implementation of national action plans and strategies, and the continued robust fight against corruption, female genital mutilation, and child marriage.  

MARIE-THERESE ABENA ONDOA, Minister for the Promotion of Woman and Family of Cameroon, said that this was indeed a constructive dialogue in which the Experts had demonstrated special interest in the report and situation in Cameroon.  No effort was being spared by the President and the people of Cameroon to promote and protect the rights of the child and to cooperate with all relevant stakeholders. 

RENATE WINTER, Committee Chairperson, thanked the delegation and wished all the best to the children of Cameroon.