Human rights staff in West Africa help street children reunite with families during COVID-19

Aminata Kebe speaking at an event in Dakar, Senegal, April 2018. ©OHCHR/AMINATA KEBE

Aminata Kebe, Human Rights Officer in the West Africa Regional Office of UN Human Rights, has been leading the advocacy efforts by that office to protect the rights of children begging in the streets of many countries in that region.

Many of these children are enrolled in Koranic schools, also knowns as daaras, where they are forced by their guides to beg in the streets, as a sign of allegiance and to contribute to their upkeep. This centuries-old practice has raised concerns for the rights of these children who, away from their families, are often subjected to physical and psychological abuse, and whose right to an education are lost to hours spent on the streets,

The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention have tallied to 12,991 the number of cases of infection to COVID-19 in West Africa. The more time these children spend on the street, the more vulnerable they become to contracting the coronavirus.

Aminata tells us how she and her colleagues continue to fight for these children's rights during the pandemic.

How has COVID-19 affected your work?

COVID-19 has affected my work at different levels. First, I had to reconsider my work plan by reprogramming a number of priority actions whose feasibility was no longer possible because of measures restricting movements and assemblies. In addition, teleworking can be difficult in a context where the partners we work with have not yet adjusted to this new working method and continue to solicit us to carry out field activities. For example, we support the Government to remove children from the streets and reunify them with their families, and as a representative of the office in the monitoring unit set up for that purpose, partners who wish to continue organising in face to face meetings do not always understand my absence due to the physical distancing measures. Moreover, working from home is not always easy when children are present and we must take care of them and accompany them in their studies.

What is your office doing to protect the rights of people during this epidemic?

UN Human Right' West Africa Regional Office (WARO) is conducting comprehensive monitoring of the human rights situation in the region in the context of COVID-19. From the beginning of the pandemic, our Regional Representative seized the Minister in charge of human rights and the Minister in charge of gender and child protection to draw their attention to the respect of human rights while emergency measures are put in place, particularly for vulnerable groups such as, prisoners, women, people with disabilities and children. He encouraged them to take specific measures to ensure their access to fundamental rights in this context, particularly reproductive health for women that should not be left at a standstill. He also urged them to continue to monitor and prevent gender-based violence, which can increase in a context of confinement, and ensure that the data collected are disaggregated at least by age and sex.

With regard to children's rights, WARO in partnership with the Economic Community of West African States, supports national strategies to protect vulnerable children from COVID-19 in six West African countries: Gambia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Niger and Senegal. Within two months, more than 1,500 children were removed from the streets and reintegrated into their families. We also provided them with 1,200 dignity kits consisting of clothes, toiletries, shoes, towels and travel bags.

What are the main human rights issues at stake in your region in the COVID-19 response?

One of the main challenges is the protection of children's rights. In West Africa, particularly in Senegal, child begging is widespread, especially those who attend certain Koranic schools. In the context of the pandemic, children are more than ever at risk of contamination while the violation of their rights is more exacerbated. Our civil society partners who went on the ground to monitor the situation found malnourished children living in inhumane conditions without water or sanitation in Senegal. In Gambia, children were simply abandoned in the streets by their marabouts, men supposed to teach them the Koran. Many children have been deported from countries neighbouring Niger and abandoned at that country's border. As a result, WARO has increased its support through its Project for the Protection of Child Victims of Rights Violations (PAPEV), which is funded by the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation to support vulnerable children. We also continue to advocate, with other key stakeholders such as UNICEF,   for Governments to devise a sustainable solution to protect these children's rights, and that requires strong political will.

Biggest challenges and lessons learned thus far during the pandemic?

Governments lack emergency management strategies and that is a real challenge that the international community s need to address to make States more resilient. The promotion of Economic and Socio-cultural Rights (ESCR), mainly the right to health, must also be better addressed in our interventions that focus more on Civil and Political Rights. The pandemic has finally shown us the importance that ESCR can have on other rights and the need to better support States in their efforts to provide access to these rights. 

Why is it important to stand together during this pandemic?

The importance to stand up for human rights has become more than obvious and relevant in the context of the pandemic. We have seen how individuals have helped block the way to COVID-19 by performing acts of solidarity to help one another. This pandemic has taught us how social inequalities can be exacerbated during crises and how fundamental rights, which are often taken for granted, can be challenged. It remains important for UN Human Rights to continue its efforts to support States in implementing their commitments for the realization of human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights, especially in the context of crises.

26 May 2020

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