Children of Rwanda
Realizing Children’s Rights in Rwanda
Children represent a large percentage of the Rwandan population, with 42.9% of the population between ages 0 and 14 and a median age of 18.8. This very young population is one consequence of the horrific genocide that occurred in Rwanda in 1994, where about 1,000,000 Rwandans were killed in only about 4 weeks. The negative repercussions of the massacre, along with current issues, continue to affect the lives of Rwanda’s children in various ways. Although promoting children’s rights is a government priority, Rwandan youth and children are not yet able to fully enjoy them.
Law N.54, passed in 2011, has already greatly promoted children’s rights in Rwanda. The passing of this law included the creation of the National Commission for Children, a governmental organization to specifically promote children’s rights. With about 414,000 births in Rwanda each year, it is essential that the rights of these infants, and children in general, are protected.
Realization of Children’s Rights Index:
Population: 12 million
Life expectancy: 65,2 years
Main problems faced by children in Rwanda :
Despite a major reduction of poverty between 2001 and 2011, more than 63% of Rwandans continue to live below the poverty line, with rural populations especially suffering. Poverty affects a large majority of Rwandan children, having serious effects on their access to nutritious food, education, health services, etc. Social protection programs that directly work with and benefit the poor are offered by the government and non-governmental organizations.
Children from the richest 20% of families are more likely than poor children to have a skilled attendant at birth, be registered at birth, attend school, not be underweight, be treated for diseases, and attend primary school. More than 90% of Rwanda’s poor population lives in rural areas, and 80% of poor households work in agriculture. Agriculture is considered the most important sector to concentrate poverty-eradication efforts.
A Rwandan child’s right to health is threatened even before their birth. Only 69% of births have a skilled attendant present, and the infant mortality rate of over 37‰ is cause for serious concern. The under 5 mortality rate is worse, at 52‰. 7% of children born have a low birth weight, and 12% of children under age 5 are underweight – with nearly twice as many rural children underweight than urban children. Nearly half of children under age 5 are stunted, likely due to only 17% of children receiving the minimum acceptable diet from 6 months to 23 months of age.
A wide range of diseases and illnesses contribute to this unfortunate situation (malaria, tuberculosis, diarrhea, typhoid fever), as does a lack of qualified professionals. Almost a third of Rwandans lack access to improved drinking water sources, with clean water being more accessible in urban areas. Only 64% of Rwandans have access to improved sanitation facilities.
There are high rates of vaccinations in the country, with nearly all children being vaccinated against the major diseases. However, those who do become sick or infected often lack access to health care or treatment.
While HIV/AIDS was a major issue in the nation following the 1994 genocide and the rampant sexual abuse that accompanied this time period, there is now a very low prevalence of HIV among young people in Rwanda. Only 2.82% of adults currently have HIV or AIDS. In an attempt to reduce the prevalence of HIV/AIDS, the State and its partners financed campaigns of public awareness and prevention programs, which contributed to a reduction in the number of HIV-positive persons. The Rwandan government currently spends between 6% and 11% of its GDP on health expenditures.
Rwanda has expressed its commitment to prohibiting corporal punishment in the nation, and has passed various laws protecting women and children against violence. The nation has also ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, which forbid violence towards children. However, many parents in the nation still use corporal punishment in the home: 58% of boys and 66% of girls reported abuse at home.
While there are laws protecting children from corporal punishment in schools, there is no assurance that this is followed. It has been reported that over 49% of Rwandan children had been physically punished by their teacher, with girls more likely to be punished than boys.
Rates of child marriage are very low in Rwanda, with only 1% of girls married by age 15. However, a full 8% of girls are married by age 18. While there is no data on Female Genitalia Mutilation/Cutting, it is believed that this practice does take place in the nation.
Children with disabilities are more likely to suffer from abuse and neglect, and often receive only limited specialized care.
In Rwanda, primary education and lower-secondary education is free and mandatory (through grade 9). The education system is considered to be one of the most progressive in Africa, and nearly 100% of all Rwandan children are enrolled in primary school. However, only 19% of males and 23% of females attend secondary school. Additionally, enrollment in pre-primary school is low, with only 13% of children enrolled. The Rwandan government spends about 5% of its annual GDP expenditures on education.
Despite high primary enrollment rates, the school system still suffers from many problems. Barriers to education remain, and include the cost of uniforms, the cost of school supplies, and unofficial school fees. There is only one teacher per 62 primary students. Access to education must continue to be expanded for the most vulnerable children, and quality of schools and relevance of education remains to be improved at all levels.
Under Rwandan law, all citizens are guaranteed equal treatment and protection against discrimination. However, ethnic tensions persist in many establishments, and the Tutsi minority, victims of the genocide, continues to be discriminated against by other groups in the nation. They largely are not integrated in the social and economic society of Rwanda, frequently lacking access to healthcare and education. The government of Rwanda fails to offer protections to this group, as they believe that, by recognizing individual ethnic groups, they will perpetuate discrimination and set the nation up for further violence.
Children with disabilities traditionally have faced discrimination, being excluded from school and community life. Such children are often hidden at home, as they are considered shameful and an embarrassment. It is believed that a full 10% of Rwandan children have a disability, and few attend school. While there are special schools and centers in urban areas, these are primarily for children with visual or hearing impairments, and are inaccessible to rural children.
Rwanda was the first nation in the world to have a majority of women representatives in parliament. While laws protect the rights of women, discrimination against and violence towards women continues. Furthermore, while homosexuality is not criminalized in Rwanda, no laws protect LGBTQ+ citizens, and many may face discrimination due to social stigma.
Although they previously lacked access to the same basic services as Rwandan children, access to education shall now be ensured to refugees in Rwanda, including upper secondary education. The UNHCR has assisted the Rwandan government in providing such services.
Finally, there are tight restrictions on freedom of speech in the nation, and media is tightly controlled. There is little diversity of thought in the media, suggesting discrimination, and possibly persecution, of those who waver from wide-spread ideas.
Rwandan law requires that all births be registered with the government within one month of birth. Following the genocide, birth certificates now cannot mention the child’s ethnicity, in order to avoid adding to the tensions that continue to exist between various ethnic groups.
Despite this law, only 63% of infants in Rwanda are registered at birth. This is a very low percentage, and puts the 37% of unregistered children at risk of being nationless and unprotected by the government. Unregistered children are often children of single mothers and unmarried parents, who do not report the births of children to authorities because of fear of stigmatization. This leads to further problems, as children who lack birth certificates do not officially exist in the eyes of society. Furthermore, citizenship is not guaranteed at birth. In order to receive citizenship, a child’s father must be a native Rwandan. Otherwise, children may face many barriers to being recognized by the state.
The situation of Street Children in Rwanda is severely under-documented and lacking in significant data. Recent studies have found that most of Rwanda’s street children are boys, and the majority of them can be found in the country’s capital city, Kigali. Over 85% of street children are not attending school.
Street children are exposed to numerous risks, including sexual and economic exploitation, health problems, malnutrition, etc. Many are uneducated or undereducated, meaning that they have little chance of finding the sort of employment that will enable them to escape the streets. Three quarters of children on the streets engaged in some job-related activities, with the other one-quarter collecting and selling garbage for money. The top four expenditures of these children are clothes, food, movies, and drugs.
To numb themselves to the reality of their wretched lives, street children often spend the little money they earn on drugs and alcohol. Cannabis, alcohol, and petroleum fumes are often abused. The conditions of their existence are such that the impact on their development, be it physical, psychological, cultural or economic, is invariably negative.
Many children were forced to the streets as a result of poverty, abuse, torture, rape, or abandonment. 71.5% of street children interviewed in one study had a mother living, and 51.6% had a father who was still alive. Urban children and children of extreme poverty who lack adequate care and supervision are most likely to become street children.
Almost half of the children seen on the streets in Rwanda during the day do, in fact, return to homes at night. These children, considered children “on the streets,” rather than “of the streets,” still face significant barriers to health, education, and wellness. They may spend some nights at home, and other nights on the street. They often come to the street to escape abuse or poverty at home, and many work or sell items to make money during the day before returning home.
Efforts over the past five years have returned hundreds of former street children to their homes. FIDESCO Rwanda, with the support of UNICEF, has opened transit centers to assist with the transition between a child’s life on the street and returning to their families. Here, children have food, shelter, education and a psychologist available. A focus of this effort has also been to provide economic and psychological aid to families in the nation. Street children often come from families of high poverty, who are unable to provide food for their children. With economic aid and advising, these families will be better prepared to care for their children.
Rwanda has ratified all key international conventions concerning child labor. Despite government efforts to eliminate child labor, there continues to be a high rate of child labor in the nation, with 16-22% of Rwandan children working. Laws concerning child labor are not always enforced, especially in domestic service settings, but enforcement agencies have taken recent action to combat child labor.
The minimum age for work in the nation is 16. However, with high poverty rates found in the nation, families facing economic difficulties may be forced to have their children work. These children often receive little education, low pay, and are vulnerable to discrimination and abuse. There have been instances of children being trafficked for domestic services, agricultural labor, and sexual exploitation. Girls and some boys are exploited in domestic service through extended family networks. Child labor has also been found in agricultural settings around the nation.
At the beginning of the 1990s, Rwanda’s children began to play a role in armed conflicts. By the end of the genocidal conflict in 1994, more than 2000 children were enrolled in military forces. The minimum age today for volunteer military service is 18.
While danger is, of course, high as a child soldier, these children also suffer when they return home. Often uneducated, unskilled, and without money, these young people suffer to find food and shelter and re-integrate into society. The Rwandan government does offer rehabilitation services and psychological therapy programs for child ex-combatants before they are reunified with their families.
Recently, Rwandan officials have denied the use of child soldiers in the military. Rwandan law forbids the enrollment of minors in the military or other armed groups. However, there have been reports that refugee children living in Rwanda, mostly from Burundi, are being recruited into rebel groups and militias. This is mostly being done by non-state armed groups fighting in Burundi and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Rwandan children, additionally, can still be found in armies in other countries, such as the DRC.
Rwandan law condemns child prostitution, slavery and abduction, and the government recently passed and implemented a national anti-trafficking action plan. According to the 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report, Rwanda does not fully comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s minimum standards, but is making significant efforts to become compliant. It was reported that the number of Rwandans subjected to trafficking decreased in 2014.
Rwanda is considered a source country for women and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor, but women and children from neighboring countries can also be found in positions of forced labor or prostitution.
The nation continues to investigate, prosecute and convict traffickers. The government provides some protective services as well, including counseling, medical and legal services, short-term housing for victims, and awareness programs.