Protect children's rights in digital world

African member states are responsible for taking legislative and administrative action to protect children from exploitation and abuse. [iStockphoto]

June 16 is commemorated as the day in 1976 when South African children took to the streets of Soweto to rally support for their educational rights. Some of them lost their lives.

At the time, the quality of their schooling was poor and the Afrikaans Medium Decree was in place, forcing all black schools to use Afrikaans alongside English to teach.

Afrikaans was associated with the Apartheid system in South Africa and was even referred by Bishop Desmond Tutu as "the language of the oppressor" hence the strong disapproval and pushback. Following this, heads of state of the OAU instituted the Day of the African Child (DAC) in memory of the brave children who demonstrated and demanded the rights to which they were entitled.

Today, African children deal with a different but nonetheless parallel fight for their rights. Their existence in the digital world is not different from their physical one, which is why it is crucial to establish what it means to protect them and uphold their rights in this way. The Rights of Children in the Digital Environment is the focus of the DAC 2023 theme, chosen by the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC).

ACERWC has realised four guiding points for the rights of children as established in the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. These include non-discrimination, survival, development and participation of children in the digital environment. The goal is to protect children from harm, and provide safe space for their participation; they should enjoy the right to education, play, freedom of expression and association as they do in their physical environment.

With only a few countries having begun to address internet safety for children, dangers such as cyber-bullying, online sexual exploitation, exposure to inappropriate content and child sexual abuse become a concern for majority of children who have internet access with minimal to no regulation. African member states are responsible for taking legislative and administrative action to protect children from exploitation and abuse.

Endeavours by the AU to put in place the Malabo convention that provides a legal framework on cyber security and personal data protection to repress cyber-crime should inspire African countries to sign up. Kenya has the Data Protection Act 2019 and should also sign the Malabo Convention. With increasing discrepancies between children from low-income sub-Saharan Africa and those from more developed regions accessing the internet, the wealth gap continues to widen.

Lack of access to digital services bars educational advancement for students beyond physical learning and also excludes them from innovations and opportunities to improve their lives, with technological advancements remaining out of reach.

The ability to develop through online education as other children in countries where digital literacy is widespread is also diminished. AU member states should allocate sufficient funding for ICT services in schools, adopt the Malabo Convention, enact legislation to protect children's data, train educators and caregivers in teaching online safety and provide digital accessibility for disabled children or those from marginalised communities.

-Ms Wanjiru is a student, University of Central Lancashire, UK

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