Childhood ought to come with innocence, freedom and playfulness. But this is not always the case. In many places across the world, children bear numerous burdens including violence and harmful practices that violate their fundamental rights and limit the enjoyment of their childhood.

Yet, we all live in countries that have laws and have ratified regional and international protocols that protect the right of these children. Kenya is among these countries. It enacted the Children’s Act in 2001 and established the National Council for Children’s Services in 2002. It has also ratified key treaties including the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.

However, even with these laws, children are still exposed to harmful social and cultural practices including child marriage, forced marriage, FGM, hate crimes, among others.

For too long, some efforts we have put in place as a country has borne little fruit, which raises the question on whether we are using the right avenues or targeting the right stakeholders. In some cases, enforcing laws have created a culture of silence, where harmful practices are carried out in secret and with severe backlash against those who dare expose the perpetrators.

And as we mark the Day of the African Child to raise awareness of the status of the children on the continent today, we need to restrategise and put more focus on the children and what they want us to do for them.

We cannot do this, however, if we have not educated our children on their rights.  We must, therefore, make sure we create awareness in our children of what the law says about their rights, of how they can enjoy these rights and the recourse they have if and when these rights are violated.

This way, we would be establishing their agency in not only detecting but also reporting violations.  We would also be creating a platform on which children would raise their voices on prevention strategies we must adopt as we seek to protect them from harmful practices.

To achieve this, we should start at the most basic level: the household.  Having conversations about the rights of a child and democratic parenting will change the trajectory of many children’s lives.

The next step would be at the school level. This is where children spend most of their time. In creating an environment conducive for children to learn their rights would go a long way in empowering children to speak up and report harmful practises and enable them to enjoy their childhood.

Beyond making it the family’s and school’s business to be at the forefront of protecting the African child, we must also call for accountability from all levels.

Often, perpetrators get away with crime as people and institutions are compromised, leaving children violated and exposed to more harm.  As more cases are delayed, dismissed or do not even get to the authorities, children’s trust in the system is lost, and with it their sense of safety and acceptance.

As stakeholders, we should find ways to connect culture to accountability. We should promote an environment in which communities are honest and accountable even when there are no laws or law enforcers- to the benefit of the children.

But beyond all, we must provide safe spaces for children to talk about their experiences – both good and bad – and engage with the duty bearers without fear of discrimination or being singled out.

At DSW Kenya, we work with children to establish these safe spaces. Under our programmes Holistic Action Project for Young Adolescents (HAPA) and Together for Children and Young Adolescents (T4YA), we have partnered with schools to empower young children and adolescents to speak out and engage with their peers and duty bearers. Through these spaces, they are able to understand and articulate various issues affecting their lives, including harmful practices and why they want them abolished.

We should all do our parts, play our role in raising the voices of our children and creating an environment where children get to be children and to grow, thrive and reach their full potential. We owe it to them and to the development of the nation.

This article was written by Evelyn Samba, Kenya country director at DSW, and was first published by the People Daily on June 17, 2022