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Chairperson of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, Honorable Members of the Committee, State Party representatives, civil society organizations, ladies and gentlemen:

Human Rights Watch is honored to address the African Committee of Experts at its 43rd Ordinary Session. Human Rights Watch is a non-governmental organization that documents human rights violations and advocates for change in over 100 countries around the world. We have been working on children’s rights for over three decades.

The Committee’s meeting coincides with two key moments.

Firstly, as the African Union and its institutions continue to mark the year of education throughout 2024, the Committee has a unique opportunity to provide a contemporary interpretation of states’ obligations related to the right to education through its new General Comment on the right to education.

We wish to draw its attention to two critical areas.

In previous sessions, we have addressed this body specifically about barriers to education faced by girls who are pregnant or parenting and have encouraged the Committee to urge countries to revoke punitive and discriminatory laws and policies.

Through our new interactive index, we have found that 38 members of the African Union have adopted policies related to the education of students who are pregnant or parenting. This progress shows momentum in advancing the right to education of these students across the continent. Still, over 10 countries adhere to punitive policies or lack frameworks that acknowledge adolescent pregnancy in schools. We also continue to document incidents where senior government officials or policy makers promote or resort to measures that hinder girls’ right to education and undermine their sexual and reproductive rights.

We encourage the African Committee to use all measures available to it to call on member states and all education stakeholders to adopt comprehensive responses to adolescent pregnancy, including by putting in place universal social protection measures, guaranteeing childcare and access to early childhood education, and improving access to sexual and reproductive information, including comprehensive sexuality education, and services. We hope the Committee will heed calls for continent-wide guidelines on the rights of pregnant and parenting students, to serve as a model of positive practice for school continuation and re-entry across Africa.

Internationally, momentum is growing to strengthen international law to explicitly recognize children’s right to early childhood education, and the right to free pre-primary, beginning with at least one year free, and free secondary education, in line with governments’ commitments under the SDGs. Madagascar adopted a bill in 2022 which provides one year of free and compulsory pre-primary education. South Africa is currently working on a similar bill to include one year of free pre-primary education. We welcome Sierra Leone’s adoption of a new education law in April 2023, guaranteeing children a full 13 years of free education, including one year of pre-primary as well as secondary education. Sierra Leone is also co-leading an initiative at the UN Human Rights Council to enshrine these rights in a new international legal instrument, such as an optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

We therefore encourage the committee to make a clear statement that the right to education includes a right to early childhood education that is free, accessible, of good quality, inclusive, and non-discriminatory. In line with African governments’ existing SDG 4, the African Union Continental Education Strategy, and other development commitments, we also encourage this body to recognize that all children have a right to at least one year of free pre-primary education.

Thirty-four years after the adoption of the African Charter, and consistent with growing state practice across the continent, we also urge this body to call on states to take immediate measures to ensure that secondary education is accessible to all free of charge and compulsory through the end of lower-secondary school.

Honorable chair, members of the Committee:

The Committee’s meeting also coincides with the anniversary of the eruption of armed conflict in Sudan. In West Darfur, Human Rights Watch has recently found evidence of widespread atrocities and grave violations against children by the Rapid Support Forces and allied militias in the context of a campaign of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. These included the deliberate killing of children, the bombardment of shelters hosting thousands of children and their families, maiming and injuries, rape against girls, abduction, ill-treatment and torture, and the recruitment and use of children by fighting forces. Our evidence shows that the Sudanese Armed Forces have also perpetrated grave violations, including arbitrary detentions, attacks on local aid responders and medical workers trying to provide assistance to civilians, and the deliberate obstruction of humanitarian assistance contributing to a man-made humanitarian catastrophe.

The rates of malnutrition for displaced children in some parts of Sudan, such as Darfur, are alarming, and refugee children who are now in Chad face a woefully underfunded humanitarian response, with extremely limited food assistance and basic services. Most cannot access education programs.

Armed conflict has an adverse effect on people and communities. In the case of children, the adverse effect of armed conflict is severe and long-lasting. Human Rights Watch urges the Committee in line with Article 42 of the African Charter to issue an urgent appeal to all parties involved in the conflict in Sudan condemning war crimes and other human rights violations perpetrated against children; to take administrative and other appropriate measures to protect the rights of children, including access to humanitarian assistance; and to comply with international humanitarian and human rights law, including respect for protections embedded in all African and international human rights law.

The needs of children are often trivialized in the context of armed conflict and political processes aimed at ending conflict. We urge the Committee to take the lead and cooperate with other African Union organs and mechanisms, such as the Peace and Security Council, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, and international institutions, to formulate a comprehensive range of initiatives aimed at providing the special assistance that children need during and after the conflict in Sudan.

Thank you.

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