30 May 2000
Calls for Coordinating Mechanism for Child Matters, Greater Efforts to
Expand Education, Health Care
The Committee on the Rights of the Child concluded discussion this afternoon of an initial report of Djibouti, saying in preliminary remarks that although the country was in a difficult economic situation and suffering the after-effects of wars in the Horn of Africa, it needed to establish a mechanism to coordinate efforts on behalf of children, as the current Government approach was 'piecemeal', and that education and health services should be augmented.
The Committee also called for greater efforts to help street children and to end traditional discrimination against girls. And it called for Djibouti to consider withdrawing a reservation to the Convention on the Rights of the Child under which the country said it did not consider itself bound by anything in the treaty that was contrary to traditional Muslim religious values.
Formal, written conclusions and recommendations on the report of Djibouti will be issued before the Committee adjourns its three-week session on 2 June.
Mohamed Abdou, State Attorney of the Ministry of Justice of Djibouti, introduced the document this morning and was on hand throughout the day to answer questions from the Committee's ten independent experts.
Discussion during the afternoon meeting focused on basic health and welfare; education, leisure, and cultural activities; and special protection measures. Mr. Abdou said, among other things, that efforts were made to register births, but the process could be difficult in rural regions; that shortages of resources and the disruption caused by conflicts in the region had hindered attempts to carry out regular censuses, resulting in a shortage of data on the situation of children; and that spousal abuse and child abuse could be prosecuted under the law, but that such incidents were rarely reported outside the family.
As one of the 191 States parties to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Djibouti, which ratified the international treaty in 1990, must submit periodic reports to the Committee on the status of the country's children and on efforts to implement the Convention.
The Committee will meet in private session on Wednesday, 31 May. It will next reconvene in public at 11 a.m. on Friday, 2 June.
Discussion focused on basic health and welfare; education, leisure, and cultural activities; and special protection measures.
Mr. Abdou, the Djibouti Government representative at the meeting, responding to questions, said, among other things, that there was a legal obligation to declare births within a month; births should be reported to the local registrar; the limit was two months in rural regions; if the time limit was exceeded, a court authorization was required to register a birth. Many births were not registered; when they took place outside the capital, the process could be difficult. A registration system existed for children born in refugee camps. Clandestine refugees in the cities posed a problem; there was a low registration rate for such children; the children of nomads were apt to be registered through the work of employees of the Population Activities Section. The population service registered children born out of wedlock, using the mother's name. There were sometimes difficulties, as Sharia law did not recognize children born out of wedlock. There were three systems of law in the country: customary law, Sharia law, and ordinary law; the intent was to unify case law under the three systems, with specialized chambers for Sharia, customary and administrative laws.
More resources were now provided for maternal and infant care, he said.
Abuses such as torture or other acts of child maltreatment could happen in any country, Mr. Abdou said; such cases were rare in Djibouti, but when they occurred, the perpetrators were punished; misinformation was a problem, however; members of the political opposition in Djibouti sometimes declared in the press that torture and maltreatment were frequent and systematic; that was not true. In the case of minors, there sometimes were complaints of torture by police in police stations in towns; in his role as State Attorney he had never spared any effort in investigating and prosecuting such crimes; there were former policemen in prison for carrying out such acts.
All forms of pornography were prohibited, Mr. Abdou said; the media were monitored to ensure that children were not exposed to anything that was harmful to them; traditional social roles of protection still pertained in the country. There was nothing to prevent minors from forming associations, although he was not aware of any; such associations had to respect tradition. Anyone could join a political party.
Privacy for children was recognized in theory, but in practice there were difficulties, Mr. Abdou said; some people considered that a child was not in a position to look after his own good; in general the Government tried to balance such issues by considering the best interests of the child.
Djibouti had had difficulties carrying out a regular census, Mr. Abdou said -- there were problems with resources, and the conflicts that had torn the region had further interfered. As a result, there was a shortage of data on population characteristics.
Changing attitudes about female genital mutilation had included making it clear that the practice did not have to do with religion, Mr. Abdou said; many people in fact had thought that religion called for it; now even religious authorities were stating that it should not be done; much progress had been made among attitudes in urban areas as a result; eventually those who insisted on continuing such traditional practices, if they did not listen to reason, were going to have to be prosecuted and punished.
There was an extreme shortage of libraries and a dire shortage of books, he said; reading was not well-established in the culture, and efforts were being made to change that. International help was needed to improve reading rates among children. Freedom of the press was guaranteed, along with freedom of expression; no incidence came to mind of persons prosecuted for speaking their minds unless it involved lies, slanders, or harm to the rights and freedom of others.
An education bill and a campaign launched by a national women's organization aimed at systematic literacy and the education of girls, Mr. Abdou said; it was understood that education was good for girls and women.
Spousal abuse or child abuse could be prosecuted, Mr. Abdou said, but in general such events were not reported outside the family; if police did find out about incidents of abuse, they investigated.
As was true in most Muslim countries, decision-making in the family tended to rest with the father, Mr. Abdou said; generally, custody was awarded to the father in cases of divorce, although if a mother sought it she might win custody in court; polygamy did pose problems for children, as a father had only so much money, and if he had several families it was harder for him to afford food and education for his children.
Marriages between different religions occurred all the time, Mr. Abdou said; children of such marriages could choose which religion they wished to subscribe to.
Families -- extended families -- often lived in crowded conditions and with limited resources, Mr. Abdou said; family life could be chaotic, and children sometimes paid the price; fathers tended to enforce discipline and generally to take autocratic roles in families. A centre run by French Franciscan sisters took in abandoned children under age 5, many of whom were born to single mothers, many of whom were prostitutes; two State institutions existed for housing and caring for children; they were short of resources, especially given the pressures they were subject to.
Maternal mortality had declined in recent years, and rates of vaccination had climbed considerably, Mr. Abdou said, although the rate remained high and anaemia was frequently a factor in maternal health; some 92 per cent of women had prenatal consultations; many diseases were transmitted from mothers to children; AIDS was a problem, as Djibouti had many people coming in as refugees and also was a garrison town, so that the presence of the disease in Africa was reflected in the country; malnutrition was a problem.
Because of the large influx of refugees in Djibouti, the Government was ready to ratify the relevant convention on refugees, Mr. Abdou said; child registration systems were functioning in the three main refugee camps in the south of the country; these camps, as of 1996, had 23,000 people in them; women and children made up 80 per cent of this population; the Government, in cooperation with the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), did its best to provide services to refugees; the number of refugees had declined somewhat under programmes for voluntary repatriation; assistance for these returns came from UNHCR.
Detention of suspected youthful offenders was no longer than six months, Mr. Abdou said; the period often had to be that long for cases to be developed and investigations to be carried out; perhaps, if the Committee recommended it, the Government could make justice work more quickly. Children were detained separately from adults; efforts were made to provide suitable living conditions; recreation was available; free health care was provided.
The Government, with its limited resources, was having difficulty meeting the needs of street children, Mr. Abdou said, although civil society, through various organizations, provided some services; free health care was offered; as far as he knew, such children generally did not attend school, as they came and went too freely, although when they received temporary care from civic organizations attempts were made to teach them to read.
If someone raped a girl under 15, the sentence was doubled, Mr. Abdou said; other efforts had been made to protect girls from rape and other sexual crimes.
The Government had undertaken a vast rehabilitation programme for children who had been caught up in armed conflict, with help from UNDP and the World Bank, Mr. Abdou said; the Government also, with help from the United States and from the French Army, was systematically clearing landmines.
Preliminary conclusions and recommendations
The Committee had several preliminary responses to the report of Djibouti. Formal, written conclusions and recommendations will be issued before the Committee adjourns its three-week session on 2 June.
The Committee said, among other things, that the dialogue had been fruitful; that implementation of the Convention was hindered by a difficult socio-economic environment and by the lingering effects of war; that more had to be done to publicize new laws relating to children, and that these efforts should go hand-in-hand with efforts to implement the laws; that technical assistance was needed to help the Government coordinate its child-rights system, and that the Government should seek such assistance from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; that there was currently a piecemeal approach to implementing the Convention, and an over-arching policy was needed; that the country's reservation to the Convention, which was a troubling general statement covering the entire Convention, perhaps should be withdrawn; that the nation's three systems of law should be unified, as anticipated, and that problems related to religion and adoption might subsequently be resolved; that an independent, specific mechanism for child rights should be created, or at least an intermediate measure taken to establish a focal point for child-related issues; that an Office of an Ombudsman for children should be established; that changes of attitude and tradition were needed to combat discrimination against girls and to establish greater respect for the opinions of children; that birth registration needed to be more comprehensive; that torture and brutality against children by police forces were a source of concern, along with the effects on children of polygamy; that limited resources existed for child health programmes, but somehow services for adolescents should be expanded; that efforts were needed to improve the education system; and that progress was needed in dealing with the problems of street children, improving the juvenile justice system, and preventing children in dire circumstances from resorting to prostitution.
* *** *