Empowering youth and protecting child rights: Zanzibar’s Children’s Act

We hear a lot these days about the need to include children in decisions that affect them, but it’s a real pleasure when there’s a genuine commitment to participation that leads to positive real world impacts for children. It’s even more impressive when this commitment comes from a place with limited budgets and no shortage of alternative competing priorities. Such is the case in Zanzibar with its innovative Children’s Act (2011).

Rights of Children Team in Zanzibar

WFC Rights of Children Team meeting experts in Zanzibar

Our Rights of Children team has just returned from a week long field trip to these semi-autonomous Tanzanian islands off Africa’s east coast to see the effects of the implementation of the law to secure child rights, participation and juvenile justice in action. The trip included visits to a new children’s court, a rehabilitation centre and hospital and talks with the Minister of Women and Children, youth representatives, UN agencies, and social welfare officers about their experiences of the laws’ impacts in their communities.

In 2009, Tanzania was one of the first countries in Africa to undertake a National Study on Violence Against Children which showed that 6% of females and 9% of males experience sexual abuse and nearly three quarters have experienced physical abuse prior to the age of 18. The report also flagged up worrying levels of child poverty and child labour. To try to overcome these challenges and bring Zanzibar in line with international child rights law work was started on a new comprehensive child rights act that same year. It was clear that a fresh approach was needed and children themselves could have some of the answers.

One of ground breaking features that was trialled as part of the drafting process was a community-level child participation scheme to find out what societies’ youngest members wanted to see included in law. To make the process as child-friendly as possible youth facilitators (16-18 year olds) were trained to take these listening workshops into villages, schools and Children’s Councils across the islands. Over 500 children were consulted with measures to ensure that vulnerable groups including those living with HIV and disabilities were also included. Children were informed about their rights and duties and children’s rights violations were discussed. Most importantly the opinions and suggestions that these girls and boys gave on topics ranging from reducing corporal punishment to effectively dealing with abuse were actually listened to. Schools across Zanzibar are trialling alternative forms of ‘positive’ discipline that take child wellbeing seriously.

As with all pioneering steps it’s not always a smooth process. We heard from one of the UN staff assisting the process that the day after one school banned corporal punishment half the children turned up late for school! But this in turn opened up a lively discussion with the students about responsibilities as well as rights and soon the problem was resolved. Through these interventions and the inclusive process of drafting the Children’s Act the law is credited with helping the wider community to understand the importance of rights and producing a marked societal change in attitude towards children.

School Girls Zanzibar

School Girls in Zanzibar.

One of the great things we saw for ourselves in Zanzibar is how youth participation has blossomed into strong institutions that support and empower young people and give them a voice. Over 200 Children’s Council’s (for those up to the age of 14) and an active network of Youth Councils (ages 15-34) across Zanzibar work on strategies for access to justice, entrepreneurship, empowerment and ending deforestation. We met several passionate youth advocates who’ve come through the Children and Youth Councils and credited these groups with giving them new skills, opportunities and hope for the future.

Other key institutions and mechanisms have also been rolled out as a result of the law. One of our first stops on our trip was to the new Children’s Court in Zanzibar’s historic city of Stone Town. Children now have dedicated child-friendly facilities on a separate floor from adults. Zanzibar has established Child Protection Units, One-Stop- Centres for efficiently and sympathetically dealing with child cases of violence or abuse and has installed Gender and Children’s desks at police stations across the islands.

In 2015 the World Future Council gave Zanzibar’s Children’s Act a Future Policy Award in recognition of these achievements as a proven policy solution helping to secure children rights and to protect children. There is of course still much more to do to fully implement the Children’s Act and ensure that every child and young person’s rights are safeguarded. But what impressed us most on our trip to Zanzibar was the commitment from everyone we met – from the Director of Public Prosecutions and senior members of the Justice and Women and Children’s Ministries, to the youth councils working to empower young adults – to ensure that further progress is made.

We hope to do our bit, too. In the coming months we’ll be working to see how other countries can follow Zanzibar’s lead and what Zanzibar can learn from others to improve child rights laws and regulations even further. Later this year we will convene an event to share best practice on participation and child protection. In the meantime we say a big ‘Asanti Sana’ to those in Zanzibar who are working hard to protect children’s rights and combat violence against girls and boys through practical action.

Support the World Future Council to help spread elements of Zanzibar’s pioneering child right’s law!

To find out more about Zanzibar’s Children’s Act, click here.