Committee on the Rights of the Child reviews report of Cyprus

Committee on the Rights of the Child

30 May 2012

The Committee on the Rights of the Child today reviewed the combined third and fourth periodic report of Cyprus on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Presenting the report, George Papageorgiou, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Labour and Social Insurance, said Cyprus was traditionally a child-centred society with a strong family focus. Regrettably the Government of Cyprus was not able to ensure universal application of children’s rights to all children throughout the territory, due to the fact that since 1974 the Government had been prevented from exercising effective control over one third of the territory as a result of illegal foreign military occupation. Children in Cyprus generally enjoyed high levels of respect for their rights, but there was always room for improvement. Milestones included the establishment of the Office of the Commissioner for Children’s Rights, ratification of both Optional Protocols to the Convention, and new legislation on working conditions for young people aged 15 to 18 years. Free and accessible education was provided to all children and was compulsory until 15 years and an ambitious educational reform programme was underway. In the second part of 2012 Cyprus would take over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, and make combating child poverty a key priority of its Presidency.

Bernard Gastaud, Committee Expert acting as Rapporteur for the report of Cyprus, noted that the report took place in an unchanged political situation but said data collection seemed to be almost inexistent apart from some laudable exceptions: data gathering was vital in order to identify solutions. He asked about forms of discrimination against children from minority groups, migrant children, and children wanting to access education in Turkish.

Maria Herczog, Committee member acting as Co-Rapporteur for the report of Cyprus, raised questions about the Children’s Parliament in Cyprus, early childhood education and care, and alternative care provisions.

Other Committee Experts asked questions about juvenile justice, detention of unaccompanied minors and migrant children, foster care and adoption, alcohol, tobacco and substance abuse among adolescents and teenage pregnancy rates. Pre-school education and affordable childcare were also raised, as was the use of corporal punishment both in schools and in the home, and pre and post natal care, breastfeeding rates and children with special educational needs.

The delegation of Cyprus included representatives of the Ministry of Labour and Social Insurance, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Education and Culture, Cyprus Police Headquarters, Ministry of Health, Ministry of the Interior and the Permanent Mission of Cyprus to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The next public meeting of the Committee will take place at 10 a.m. on Thursday, 31 May 2012, when it reviews the combined third and fourth periodic report of Viet Nam (CRC/C/VNM/3-4).

Report of Cyprus

The combined third and fourth periodic report of Cyprus (CRC/C/CYP/3-4) can be read on the Committee’s website.

Presentation of the Report

GEORGE PAPAGEORGIOU, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Labour and Social Insurance of Cyprus, said Cyprus was traditionally a child-centred society with a strong family focus. Since the establishment of the Republic of Cyprus in 1960, great importance had been placed on the respect and protection of children’s rights, with efforts enriched by the 1990 ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Regrettably the Government of Cyprus was not able to ensure implementation of all of its international obligations, including ensuring universal application of children’s rights to all children throughout the territory, due to the fact that since 1974 the Government had been prevented from exercising effective control over one third of that territory as a result of an illegal foreign military occupation. It was noted that under international human rights and humanitarian law the responsibility to ensure international human rights lay with the occupying power, which exercised effective control, even through the presence of forces outside its territory. Consequently all information and data in the report concerned the area under the effective control of the Government of Cyprus.

As stated in the September 2011 report submitted to the United Nations by the Cyprus Commissioner for Children’s Rights, children in Cyprus generally enjoyed high levels of respect for their rights, but there was always room for improvement. The establishment of the Office of the Commissioner for Children’s Rights in 2007, in accordance with the Paris Principles, was a milestone, while the ratification of both Optional Protocols to the Convention further enhanced the protection of children’s rights. A proposal to sign the new third Optional Protocol on a communications procedure was expected to be approved by the Council of Ministers in coming weeks. Labour legislation had recently been amended to ensure appropriate working conditions for young people aged 15 to 18 years. A draft Adoption Bill was under discussion which would ensure effective procedures for national and inter-country adoption. Children participated in decision-making processes in matters that concerned them through the Children’s Parliament, established in 2001, which consisted of 80 members aged 12 to 18 years old and met every two months. Children were further involved in proceedings at the Family Court, in partnership with the Social Welfare Services, while in criminal investigations police and courts were putting special child-friendly systems in place.

Free and accessible education was provided to all children and was compulsory until 15 years. Since 2004 pre-primary education had been compulsory and was offered free at public kindergartens. An ambitious educational reform programme was underway to modernize the education system and include a unified approach and a new curriculum. Some areas with disadvantaged pupil populations had been designated ‘Zones of Educational Priority’ to tackle illiteracy and school failure. Children with special educational needs were integrated in regular schools with a child-centred programme to meet their individual needs. Measures were being taken to address anti-social behaviour, bullying and violence in schools. The prevention of violence in the family was another key Government priority tackled by a National Action Plan for 2008 to 2013. On 1 June 2012 a European Helpline for missing children would be launched. In the second part of 2012 Cyprus would take over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union: a key priority of its Presidency would be the strengthening of social cohesion focusing on combating child poverty and promoting children’s well-being.

Questions from Experts

BERNARD GASTAUD, Committee Member acting as Rapporteur for the Report of Cyprus, noted the report took place in an unchanged political situation since the last time the Committee reviewed Cyprus. The report was very specific and allowed the Committee to note progress made and current obstacles and difficulties. The collection of data seemed to be almost inexistent apart from some laudable exceptions: data gathering was vital in order to identify solutions. It seemed the responsibility for data collection on children had been passed to the Commissioner for Children’s Rights but did she have the resources? What about resources for children, in the light of the economic crisis had budgets been reduced? Several laws prohibited discrimination, but certain forms of discrimination existed, particularly against children from minority groups, migrant children, and children wanting to access education in Turkish.

Furthermore, how could a child or group of children make a complaint of violations to the Commissioner for Children’s Rights if they were unaware of the existence of the Commissioner? New training guidelines had been drawn up for professionals who worked with children; had all persons working in those categories been made sufficiently aware of the Convention? Could the delegation provide more information about the Children’s Parliament, for example did it have an advisory role?

An Expert asked about the National Action Plan on Family Violence and whether there had been any trials or court proceedings against perpetrators of violence on children? The use of corporal punishment in homes and schools was an issue. How effective had the nationwide awareness-programme to sensitize the public on domestic violence and corporal punishment been? What measures had been taken to promote positive discipline for children and to discourage the use of corporal punishment? Children of Greek Orthodox religion were stigmatized or marginalized in public schools, because of their own or their parents’ religion. Could the delegation provide information on how it ensured children with different ethnic or religious backgrounds were not undermined or discriminated against? What was being done to ensure freedom of religion for children to ensure a child’s right to non-discrimination on the ground of religion? An Expert noted that Cyprus signed the Council of Europe Convention on the trafficking of children in 2007 and asked whether they had ratified it yet.

Response from the Delegation

A delegate updated the Committee on draft legislation, saying that the Adoption Bill and the Juvenile Justice Bill were still under discussion in Parliament following consultations. The Government recognized that the establishment of special Juvenile Courts delayed the Juvenile Justice Bill, which would not only deal with children’s cases but also make provisions for child-friendly courtrooms.

Police data, disaggregated by gender and age, on domestic violence was maintained and issued annually and was publically available on the website of the Cyprus Police. It was regularly analyzed and studied by the police. The majority of domestic violence cases were of bodily harm. Data showed that 74 per cent of complainants were women, and 82 per cent of the accused were men. Children accounted for 12 per cent of complainants with an equal balance between girls and boys, and only one per cent of the accused. From 2005 to 2008 a total of 4,012 cases of domestic violence were reported: of those 44 per cent were officially investigated and 85 per cent filed at court. Of the cases that went to court 49 per cent were interrupted, suspended or withdrawn, and of the rest 68 per cent led to convictions and 32 per cent led to acquittals. The challenge of dealing with domestic violence would be the theme of a new project initiated by Cyprus Police to run concurrent to Cyprus’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

Police data on the 998 cases of child abuse reported between 2004 to 2011 showed that 28 per cent were of a sexual nature. Between 2004 and 2008, 491 cases were investigated of which 78 per cent went to court, 26 were interrupted, suspended or withdrawn, and of the cases which reached completion in court 76 per cent resulted in convictions and 24 per cent in acquittals. The considerably higher conviction rate of child abuse cases versus domestic violence was the result of a stronger and focused approach on the former by the police. Trainers who taught police how to deal with child abuse cases emphasized that the best interest of the child involved were paramount, even if that meant acting against the best interest of the police, the criminal justice system, the courts or the State. Homicides of children or infanticides were very rare.

Acts of corporal punishment were considered offences and punished as such. Any form of corporal punishment, whether in schools or in homes, was strictly prohibited. The Committee was informed that section 54 of the Children’s Act was outdated and would be replaced. Cases of the use of corporal punishment by both parents and teachers had been prosecuted in courts and led to convictions. For example, a recent court case involved the abuse of four young children in a special education school by their teacher and a child professional.

The Government was promoting policies to ensure the integration of children from different cultural backgrounds and narrow the achievement gaps between groups of pupils. Areas with disadvantaged children operated as ‘Zones of Educational Priority’. Specific objectives of the multicultural educational policy included ways to help non-native speaking pupils be integrated into the system. Special educational methods and teaching approaches had been developed in order to improve education services. Currently pupils in public primary and secondary schools were required to take religious instruction. However a system had recently been implemented that allowed pupils to be exempted from attending religious instruction if a request was provided by their guardian, and at secondary level they could similarly be exempted from attending religious ceremonies in their schools. That reform was reached following extensive consultations with various religious groups.

Traffic accidents were a problem in Cyprus, and the victim pool of traffic accidents in Cyprus showed children and young people were high risk groups. Concerning children specifically, for several years the Government and Police had promoted a series of measures to reduce the overall number of fatalities and injuries. Awareness-raising took place in close cooperation with the Ministry of Education consisting of interactive road-safety courses and other campaigns targeting specific issues such as wearing a seatbelt or a helmet, or using a motorbike. Penalties for young adults who used the roads improperly had been increased.

Despite the economic crisis the budget allocated to children had remained at the same level, and had even been increased in areas such as social care and children’s health. The budget of the Ministry of Education and Culture had also remained constant, with 78 per cent of it earmarked for children.

Any racial attack or incident was thoroughly investigated and prosecuted when possible. Since 2005 the police registered offences which were racially motivated. Since 2011, children were involved in 29 per cent of all incidents. Of the cases that had been brought to court, there had so far been 80 convictions. Those cases were very challenging for professionals involved, as acting in the best interests of the child applied to both sides. On one side there was a need to take a firm stance against racism, but on the other side there was a need to be flexible and adaptive to delinquent offenders. In order to harmonize professional police conduct with the multicultural nature of society, several measures had been taken.

There was a dedicated budget for the training of professionals in children’s rights. Ministries that dealt with children had incorporated the Convention as a core part of their ongoing training. Training on the rights of children and the Convention was mandatory for police, and was provided through seminars from the Commissioner for the Protection of Children’s Rights. Furthermore police underwent ongoing training consisting of specialized courses on children’s issues, for example child abuse, child sexual abuse and so on. Those seminars were usually delivered by multiple agencies and experts. Cyprus was still only at the signature stage of the Council of Europe Convention on the trafficking of children but was undergoing consultations and hoped to ratify it by 2013.

Questions from Experts

MARIA HERCZOG, Committee Member acting as Co-Rapporteur for the Report of Cyprus, said Cyprus was known to be a child-friendly society which highly valued children and efforts to actively involve children in decision making were noted. The Committee hoped that children’s voices would be heard. The Children’s Parliament was often quoted as a good example in Europe, and compared to other countries the Children’s Parliament seemed to be very active and functional, and not just symbolic. However reports said it was suffering budgetary constraints as it was only financed through non-governmental organizations. Many important elements of the support provided to children and their families were visible, but it was clear that many families felt that child rights were not treated consistently and that children were not often given a chance to express their views.

Shared responsibility concerning early childhood education and care involved one year of free preschool education for all children in Cyprus, but what was available for children in the first four years? Could the delegation provide more information on maternity leave? There was a growing number of two-income families where both parents worked, and of lone-parent families, families who needed day-care for their children between the ages of zero and four years. Data shows that 75 per cent of children attended day-care. Was the system unified or divided and consisting of a crèche and kindergarten? How accessible and affordable were day-care provisions, how were day-care staff trained, both in home-based care and institutionalized care, and what did the phrase ’24 hours day-care’ mean? Were specialised services provided in the mother tongue for non-Greek speaking children and services to teach them Greek before they started school?

The Co-Rapporteur asked about alternative care provisions. She said there appeared to be a good policy and preference for providing foster care rather than residential/institutional care for children. Who decided whether children went into foster care or residential care? In a recent case that was widely publicized three girls ran away from a residential care-home, and were found somewhere near Nicosia where they had been taken hostage by men and raped. Their care home was reported to have very poor facilities and untrained staff, and subsequently the supervisor of the home was sacked. Could the delegation provide more information into that specific case as it could cast light on the situation of the residential care system? Was any data available on adoption in Cyprus, both domestic and inter-country? There were accusations that newborn babies were sometimes sold, especially those born to migrant or refugee women.

According to legislation only children older than 12 years could be heard in courts in the case of the divorce of their parents and their custody being decided. Had any child-friendly measures been implemented, given 2012 was the year of child-friendly justice? What about the integrated approach to children with disabilities? Were teaching staff and school facilities prepared to take good care of children who had special educational needs?

Questions from Experts

Was teenage pregnancy a problem, an Expert asked, adding that the Committee was concerned that alcohol, tobacco and substance abuse was also an issue for adolescents? HIV/AIDS was a very limited problem in Cyprus as the report charted only three cases among adolescents since 2002, although no data for 2005 onwards was provided. The child helpline ‘For Hope For Children’ for missing children was welcomed, but would the Government consider establishing a free national helpline for children in need that could deal with any matter or issue and have an outreach component for the most marginalized children and children living in the most remote areas?

An Expert welcomed the State party’s ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2011 and asked for a wider description of the situation for children with disabilities, such as their access to leisure time and facilities available for them. What adjustments were needed to allow them access, for example to beaches, so they could enjoy leisure time? The report said there was a policy of inclusive education in mainstream schools but data provided showed children with special educational needs numbered over 300 in primary school but there were none in secondary school. Was that secondary tier data not available?

Statistics on pre and post-natal care for pregnant women showed 100 per cent coverage, but did that include asylum seekers and migrant women, an Expert asked? There was little data on nutrition in infants and pre-school children, or about access to exclusive breastfeeding. Concerning breastfeeding, could the delegation give more information on the baby-friendly hospital initiative? Cyprus was signed up to the International Code of the marketing of breast milk substitutes, so how did it control the sale of those substitute products in Cyprus and did it have any infant feeding policies? Were there services and programmes for adolescents on life skills, reproductive health education and psycho-social support? What maternity and paternity leave entitlements were available?

The issue of child labour was raised and an Expert welcomed the long-awaited amendment to the legislation protecting children at work that was adopted earlier this year. The delegation was asked for more information on the amendment, and whether the minimum age for children to work, which was 15 years, was universal. Previously there had been some exceptions, such as for children who worked as domestic servants.

The representation of separated and unaccompanied children was raised, as it seemed their applications remained pending until they reached adulthood. What legislation ensured the rights of displaced persons? The Committee had information that a lot of women were being trafficked into Cyprus and asked for more information. In light of the Arab Spring that was still taking place, and given the geographical location of Cyprus, one would expect that people, including children, would flee conflict in certain countries to Cyprus. Was there any information specifically on children who had fled armed conflict in regional countries and whether those children may have been involved in armed conflict? An Expert welcomed that Cyprus would be tackling the issue of child poverty upon taking up Presidency of the Council of the European Union, and said the Committee would like to be informed on the outcome of that very important initiative.

Response of the Delegation

Children may submit complaints to the Office of the Commissioner for Children’s Rights via its webpage anonymously. The Commissioner would investigate any complaints, prepare recommendations and communicate them to the relevant Ministry, Council of Minsters and the House of Representatives. The Commissioner presented an annual report to the House of Representatives, and also participated in all meetings of parliamentary committees in which matters relating to children were discussed.

A child must receive permission to engage in employment. A joint committee consisting of the Labour Inspectorate, Social Welfare Division, the Commissioner for Children’s Rights and other organizations was responsible for deciding whether a particular form of work was suitable for children. Permission was not granted to young immigrant children under the age of 18 years.

Child protection in Cyprus came under the State and municipalities had no jurisdiction in the area. Children were only taken into the protection of Social Welfare Services as a last resort, and it was usually when they were victims of neglect or unaccompanied minors. Foster care was managed by the Social Welfare Services, and all children aged zero to five years were always placed in foster care. It was more difficult to find foster parents for an adolescent with behavioural issues than for a baby or young child, but 75 per cent of all children in alternative care were in foster care, out of a total of 200 children in care at the end of 2011. Foster families did not receive a salary, but were given an allowance between €400 and €800 per month to cover the costs of the child. It was preferred to have one child per foster family, but up to three were allowed. The Government had concerns because there were not enough foster parents to meet needs, and it had formulated an action plan to improve suitability criteria for foster parents, to increase their monthly allowance, and to provide them with regular training. Each district had a multi-disciplinary committee including social workers and psychologists which decided a care plan for each child, with emphasis on the earliest possible rehabilitation of the child, and with child participation. Care was provided to children until the age of 18 and sometimes until 21 years, and the child’s Care Plan was reviewed at least once a year but normally every three months. There were eight children’s homes in Cyprus, which were small units of up to ten persons and had a more family-orientated environment. Regarding adoption, a main concern of the pending Adoption Bill was to prohibit private adoptions. The Government shared the concerns of the Committee as regards private placements. In 2011 there were 33 national adoptions and 12 inter-country adoptions.

In 2006 the age of criminal responsibility was raised from 10 or 12 years old depending on the offence, to 14 years irrespective of the offence. Age 14 was the most common age of criminal responsibility both in the European Union and internationally and further raising that age was not on the Government’s agenda at present. There was no criminal responsibility for children up to the age of 14, whatever the offence, so there were no criminal proceedings. Instead a young offender under age 14 would be treated by Social Welfare Services, Child Health Services and child psychologists. Children aged between 14 and 16 would go through a procedure that intervened between the police investigation and the Attorney General’s decision on the case: a committee of representatives of the police and Social Welfare Services would review the case, consider details of family and psychological situation, and suggest to the Attorney General whether the offender should be prosecuted. The Attorney General tended to not prosecute juvenile offenders. The percentage of decisions to prosecute children aged between 14 and 16 was 38 per cent and the Attorney General usually decided on alternative sentences such as guardianship, community service or execution of sentence. For ages 16 to 18 there was no special procedure, but the age and other factors were always taken into account by both the investigating police and the Attorney General.

Between 2003 and 2008 on average 36 children per year were sentenced to prison, a figure that was significantly reduced to only four per year on average, 0.2 per cent of the prison population, between 2009 and 2011. There was only one prison in Cyprus, so if a child was sentenced to prison the child would go to that prison. However there was a special juvenile block for children up to 18 and young adults up to age 21, which was divided from the rest of the prison population and ran special programmes. In August 2012 a new modern children’s block would be opened adjacent to the prison and provide for greater separation from the adult prison.

Unaccompanied minors were not placed in detention on the mere fact that they were unaccompanied or illegally residing in Cyprus. Instead such minors were placed under the care of the Social Welfare Systems. At present children could not stay with their parents in police detention facilities, instead a parent was released to allow for unification and childcare. Children would be able to be detained with their family in a reception centre, which was due to open soon and had a special ‘family block’ staffed by specialized personnel. Support for child victims and witnesses in court proceedings came from the Social Welfare Services and the Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services.

Measures to improve school conditions and prevent bullying, cyber-bullying, school violence and anti-social behaviour had been implemented. Those measures included large investment into prevention and intervention, and developing personal and social skills in pupils, self-appreciation and support to the families of vulnerable children. Task forces on inter-school violence had been formed, teams consisting of teachers, school counsellors and educational psychologists. The National Observatory on School Violence had been established as a result of a previous concluding observation of the Committee. In 2002 the school drop-out rate was 17.3 per cent, but by 2011 it had decreased to 11.2 per cent.

The new school curriculum, introduced in 2011 on a pilot basis, included human rights and the rights of the child, which were taught in both primary and secondary school level. Parts of the new curricula were being implemented into the classroom gradually so it could be assessed before full implementation.

Of children aged zero to two years, 16.5 per cent attended childcare, and in the age group three to five years, 85 per cent of children attended some form of early childhood education care.

Regarding special educational needs of children, inclusive education where children were educated in mainstream schools was used wherever possible. For severe cases where children could not attend mainstream schools there were special education centres. Mainstream schools had specialized classes that children could attend for a few hours per day, in addition to regular classes, while modifications were being made for schools to help children with physical disabilities – such as being in a wheelchair, being deaf, blind, or physically impaired – be comfortably taught in schools. In 2010 the percentage from 4.1 to 6 per cent of children were recognized to have special educational needs, and only 1 per cent of children were educated in a special education centre.

During pregnancy women received all the health information and care needed in order to deliver a healthy child. Directly after birth, rooming-in practices were followed and breastfeeding was a priority. In the next three months a multi-disciplinary committee appointed in 2009 was due to present a National Breastfeeding Action Plan. Community health workers supported new parents, particularly mothers, with home visits and following the birth. Breast milk substitutes were monitored by environment inspectors on a 24 hour basis. Regarding child nutrition, the menus of school canteens were strictly monitored and milk and fruit were offered to all students once a week. It was reported that some private clinics refused to register babies because families had financial problems. Those refusals were reported, were found to be illegal and unethical, and any private clinic that followed that practice would be expelled. The law required the permission of both parents for a child to have a medical assessment or a major medical act, but in cases where it was in the best interests of a child to be assessed (such as in cases of child abuse) an inter-disciplinary medical committee could override the need for parental consent.

School health services offered various programmes on preventing sexually transmitted diseases, smoking, drug-talking and preparing children for adulthood. Issues surrounding puberty were taught on an educational programme addressed at pupils in the first grade and aimed to promote physical and psycho-emotional health during puberty. The main aim of the programme was to acquaint pupils with the changes that took place during puberty. Teenage pregnancy was approached in a holistic manner and a young woman was supported in every decision she made. Regarding eating disorders and obesity, a new hospital department was due to be opened which in cooperation with the British National Health Service would offer expert treatment to sufferers. If a student wanted to be tested for HIV/AIDS the multi-disciplinary committee would again have to make the decision in the student’s best interest. Counselling and screening was available at the Gregorian Clinic for HIV where practice was in line with international protocols. The Government recently agreed to build a dedicated psychiatric hospital for children and young people, which would be constructed in 2012.

Concerning maternity and paternity leave, maternity leave consisted of 18 weeks fully paid, and in addition both parents were entitled to 18 weeks of unpaid leave. Dismissal of a pregnant worker was prohibited provided the pregnant woman notified her employer of her pregnancy in writing and provided a medical certificate. The same provisions applied to parents who were adopting a child.

Concluding Remarks

BERNARD GASTAUD, Committee Member acting as Rapporteur for the Report of Cyprus, thanked the delegation for its spirit of partnership and collaboration and the substantial efforts already made to achieve progress in Cyprus. Some measures were still at the planning stage, but the implementation of those measures would only serve to benefit children in Cyprus. It was hoped that all measures would be applied before the next meeting between Cyprus and the Committee.

GEORGE PAPAGEORGIOU, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Labour and Social Insurance of Cyprus, thanked the Committee for the fruitful discussion and said the debate and views expressed were a constructive stepping-stone forward. Cyprus respected democratic values and principles strengthened by an independent media, an active civil society and an independent legal and supervisory system, and took seriously its international obligations. Cyprus committed to fully implementing the Convention and keeping children high on the agenda, and was doing its best to meet the challenges that inevitably arose and welcomed the Committee’s helpful and practical advice on how to improve, especially under the conditions of the current economic crisis.

JEAN ZERMATTEN, Committee Chairperson, welcomed the commitment shown by the State party and said the concluding observations would be sent at the end of the session.

 

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