COMMITTEE ON RIGHTS OF CHILD EXAMINES REPORT OF NIGER

Committee on the Rights of the Child
4 June 2009


The Committee on the Rights of the Child today reviewed the second periodic report of Niger on how that country is implementing the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Introducing the report, Barry Bibata Gnandou, Minister of Women and Child Protection of Niger, said that the report had been drawn up under the leadership of the directorate of the National Committee for Survival, Protection and Development of the Child and had been the fruit of an extensive consultation between the Government, civil society and development partners. The Committee’s concluding observations of 2002 had resulted in a follow-up process in Niger and focal points had been established to carry out the follow-up work. Progress achieved included significant investments to improve the position of children, particularly in the field of health and education. That had led to significant decreases in infant mortality rate and progress in the area of education.

Several laws and texts had also been adopted to ensure respect for children’s rights. A draft code of the child was currently in the adoption process. Female genital mutilation had also decreases from 4.5 per cent in 1998 to 2.2 percent in 2006. On the fight against child trafficking, the Government had created a national commission and a national plan to tackle the issue. Further, a judiciary and juvenile protection plan had also been put in place, which had created justice procedures protecting minors. Ms. Gnandou acknowledged that there were still several challenges that needed to be overcome in the areas of birth registration; the fight against abuse, exploitation and violence against children; increasing the number of girls in schools; the harmonization of national texts with international instruments; and taking care of orphans. All those areas needed more resources at all levels.

In preliminary concluding remarks, Committee Expert Kamla Devi Varmah, who served as co-Rapporteur for the report of Niger, said that today’s dialogue had been excellent as the delegation had given very precise answers. The Committee’s recommendations would particularly focus on putting in place a definition of children, as well as the minimum ages for marriage, labour and criminal responsibility. The recommendations would further also focus on, among other points, freedom of conscience and religion; the right not to be subjected to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; strengthened efforts for education, especially with regard to girls in rural areas; basic health care for children and families; access to drinking water; and the well-being of children with regard to HIV/AIDS and malnourishment.

Other Experts raised a series of questions pertaining to, among other things, the fact that the harmonization of Niger laws with the provisions of the Conventions seemed to be prevented by the legal pluralism prevalent in the country due to the existence of customary law, Sharia law and positive law in the country. Other questions asked included what happened once a child abuse case had been reported? What concrete measures were being taken to take care of children being caught up in conflict areas in northern Niger? And what specific measures where in place to tackle chronic malnutrition?

The Committee will release its formal, written concluding observations and recommendations on the second periodic report of Niger towards the end of its three-week session, which will conclude on 12 June 2009.

The delegation of Niger also included representatives from the Permanent Mission of Niger to Geneva, the Prime Minister’s Cabinet, the Child Protection Agency, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health.

When the Committee reconvenes on 5 June 2009, at 10 a.m., it will consider the third and fourth combined periodic reports of Romania (CRC/C/ROM/4).

Report of Niger

The second periodic report of Niger (CRC/C/NER/2) notes that Niger ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990. The end of the military regime in 1999 was marked by the holding of multi-party elections and a referendum on the new Constitution. The Constitution establishes a democratic multi-party political system and enshrines the principles of the rule of law, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, etc. The Constitution of 1999 also reaffirmed the commitment of the Republic of Niger to, inter alia, human rights as set forth in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and recognized not only the principle of primacy of international obligations over domestic law but also that of the separation of powers, which is an additional means of safeguarding human rights against any possible abuse.

With regard to the definition of the child in Niger, diverse positions are currently reflected in Nigerian law. In customary law, for instance, the age of majority is a totally unknown concept; children only become independent from their parents after their first marriage. State or modern law, on the other hand, recognizes the concept of majority, but the ages set for the attainment of majority vary according to the area under consideration. Thus, while the age of civil majority is 21 for both sexes under the Civil Code, the age of criminal majority and electoral majority is 18 for girls and boys. Although the age of civil majority is 21, a minor may attain majority artificially by means of emancipation. This occurs automatically when the minor marries, by a judicial decision at the request of the father or mother, provided that the minor is at least 15 years of age. For persons with legal status, the Civil Code sets the marriageable age at 18 for men and 15 for women. For persons with customary status, on the other hand, the marriageable age is 14 for girls and 16 for boys.

Presentation of Report

BARRY BIBATA GNANDOU, Minister of Women and Child Protection, thanked the Committee on the Rights of the Child for the efforts that it had been involved in to promote the well-being of children in Niger. The willingness and desire of the Government to make Niger a country worthy of its children had been reflected by the ratification of the Convention in 1990.

The present report had been drawn up under the leadership of the directorate of the National Committee for Survival, Protection and Development of the Child and had been the fruit of an extensive consultation between the Government, civil society and development partners, Ms. Gnandou noted.

The Committee’s concluding observations of 2002 had resulted in a follow-up process in Niger, indicated Ms. Gnandou. Focal points had been established to carry out the follow-up work. Progress achieved included, among others, significant investments to improve the position of children, particularly in the field of health and education. That had led to significant decreases in infant mortality rate and progress in the area of education.

Several laws and texts had also been adopted to ensure respect for children’s rights. A draft code of the child was currently in the adoption process. Female genital mutilation had also decreases from 4.5 per cent in 1998 to 2.2 percent in 2006. On the fight against trafficking, the Government had created a national commission and a national plan to tackle the issue of child trafficking. Several religious leaders and traditional chiefs were also helping in the fight against trafficking, Ms. Gnandou said.

A judiciary and juvenile protection plan had also been put in place, said Ms. Gnandou, which had created justice procedures protecting minors. That programme had also allowed developing a partnership with several actors involved with children, including the police and juvenile courts. A newly adopted National Policy of the Civil State would also lead to an increase in birth registrations.

Ms. Gnandou highlighted that there were still several challenges that needed to be overcome in the areas of birth registration; the fight against abuse, exploitation and violence against children; increasing the number of girls in schools; the harmonization of national texts with international instruments; and taking care of orphans. All those areas needed more resources at all levels. Due to the political will shown by all stakeholders and the dynamism of international collaboration, the Government was optimistic that it would see an improvement in the situation of children in Niger in the years to come.

Questions by Experts

KAMEL FILALI, the Committee Expert serving as Rapporteur for the report of Niger, noted that the demographic rate continued to be high in Niger. The economic constraints enjoyed by many families were a large handicap. He noted the progress that had been achieved in the field of promoting the children’s rights, citing investment in health and access to drinking water. The Committee also noted that the State had introduced new laws to align its legislation with the Convention. However, harmonization of Niger’s laws with the provisions of the Convention was prevented by the legal pluralism prevalent in the country due to the existence of customary law, Sharia law and positive law in the country.

The plan to implement a commission to work on the harmonization of Niger’s laws with the Convention was a good idea, noted Mr. Filali. Could the delegation tell the Committee what the current work of this commission was, particularly with regard to the minimum age for marriage?

In other questions, Mr. Filali asked about the interaction of the Government with international non-governmental organisations in the field of health and nutrition; what the difference was in rights between legitimate and non-legitimate children; what plans the Government had to ensure that girls completed the whole grammar school curricula; and, with regard to corporal punishment in Koranic Schools, whether those schools following a legal process?

KAMLA DEVI VARMAH the Committee Expert serving as co-Rapporteur for the report of Niger asked about the situation of birth registration, most importantly in rural areas. With regard to health, she asked what measures had been taken to reduce child mortality and malnutrition; what was being done to better living conditions for children; and what progress had been made in breastfeeding? On education, she wanted to know what had been done to improve teacher’s qualifications. Finally, she wanted to know what the Government was doing to eradicate corporal punishment completely.

Other Experts then raised a series of questions pertaining to, among other things, the fact that the Parliament had been dissolved in 2009 and that the draft Code of Children had been pending before it since 2005. On decentralisation and streamlining, Niger’s report indicated that there had been appointments at the local level, but not at the regional and departmental level, and it was wondered if there were any plans to change that.

One Expert noted that there was still a strong belief in the family, the religious community and among social workers that it was dangerous to listen to children’s views in Niger. What did the Government do to address that issue and to ensure the right of children to be heard? How were rural poor and pastoralist children getting information about their rights and how were they able to express their views? Did children profit form rural radio programmes?

Other Experts asked about the applicability of the provisions of the Convention in domestic law’ whether the national strategic plan for child survival was working, and if it had been effective in ensuring that children had access to safe drinking water; and if the Government had any plans to improve girls’ rights in the school environment. Experts also asked about the working relationship between the Government and non-governmental organisations in the area of children and their rights; what guarantees there were for the independence of the national commission of human rights and whether children or parents could file complaints to it; and what approaches and preventive measures the Government was applying to ensure that children were not subjected to torture and other degrading punishment, and specifically if the definition of torture included female genital mutilation.

Furthermore, an Expert noted that Niger had one of the highest growing populations in the sub-Saharan region. Considering this increase in population and the inflation, was the increase in budget allocation the delegation had reported really an effective increase he wondered? Also, what was the reason behind the decrease of allocations for social services?

Response by the Delegation

Responding to these questions and others, the delegation reassured the Committee that once an international treaty was adopted by Niger it became national law and had primacy over domestic law; it could thus be invoked by everyone.

Turning to the general situation in the country, the delegation said that in Niger human rights were central. There were currently events that were affecting democracy. Since 1993, they had had a series of coup d’états because people had not been in agreement with what the Government was doing. That certainly had affected the life of the country and its progress.

The delegation noted that Niger’s legal system was entirely inspired by France’s system. According to the Constitution, the President could dissolve the Assembly with the agreement of the Prime Minister, and a new Assembly had to be re-established within a certain timeframe. The President had to call people to the ballot box to elect a new Parliament and a referendum would soon take place.

On decentralisation and streamlining, that had been inspired by France as well, the delegation said. The Departments were represented by a Governor, the regions by Sub-prefects. However, these officials had no effect on the regionally elected officials. There was no interference between elected bodies and decentralised Governmental bodies.

The delegation further indicated that they had decided to proceed with the decentralisation at three levels: the grassroots and community level, the departmental level and the regional level. That process required resources to ensure that it was effective and in line with their budget capacity, thus they had decided to start at the grassroots level. It had not been possible to ensure at the same time elections at the departmental and regional level. Those representatives were not appointed but elected by the people. Further, while traditional chiefs did take part in the traditional legal system, they did not interfere in the elected system.

On customary law, the delegation said that there were a huge number of such laws in the country and it was difficult to know them all. They were not all Islamic law, but some of the customary laws had been “Islamified”. The Government was currently working to eradicate that pluralism. The first step would be the establishment of the Code of the Child. That draft code was currently being reviewed as it had not yet passed the National Assembly. The country was 95 per cent Islamic and every draft law had to be compared to the dominant regional belief. The Government had also set up a special committee to look at the draft code. Once passed, it would bring the current pluralism to an end.

The delegation said that they were aware that there were certain situations that were difficult to deal with. However, the draft code had provisions that would protect all children, including those that were not considered as legitimate or born under adultery.

On the role of tribal chiefs, the delegation noted that if parents were not happy with the decision of a tribal chief they could turn to the judiciary system and bring the issue before the courts.

The Code of the Child currently in the drafting process had not only been a governmental process, but it had involved civil society, tribal chiefs and religious chiefs, as well as the Christian minority. All aspects had been reviewed. Consensus had, for example. been reached on the draft code’s provision that no child could be married under the age of 16. The Government had not wanted to force any decisions; that is why they had wanted all stakeholders to be involved in a consensual process.

On the current status of the draft code, the delegation said that it was currently before the Government’s General Secretary for assessment and it would then go before the Council of Ministers. The draft was being discussed continuously. A group of non-governmental organisations were also supporting the work to ensure that the text would see the light of day.

Further Questions by Experts

During the second round of questions, Experts asked further questions on topics including, among others, what the situation of a child whose father or a mother was not a citizen was, i.e. if they were considered a citizen; what the situation of children whose parents were divorced or separated was; whether there were any plans to set up family planning centres at the local level; what had been done to curb the fertility rate; whether there was monitoring of the situation of children in prisons; whether the Government planned to review the use of custody for children; whether Niger’s legislation provided for the protection of street children; and who were Niger’s partners in the multilateral agreement adopted by the Government to fight human trafficking.

On education, an Expert estimated that the budget allocation for this area was too low. Further, many children were leaving school at 12 years of age or even before. What were these children doing until the age of 14, as they were not allowed to start work before that age, he wondered? Moreover, was there any vocational training offered to children?

Regarding health issues, concerns included the fact that acute respiratory problems and diarrhoea were the major causes of child deaths, and malnutrition was the major cause of death for children under five in Niger. Further, less than half the population had access to drinking water and the breastfeeding rate was very low in the country, which had resulted in the health problems just mentioned. What activities was the Government undertaking therefore to fight malnutrition, to promote handwashing in families and within the schools? On HIV/AIDS, what preventive measures where being undertaken by the Government? Also, what was the breastfeeding policy, particularly for HIV/AIDS positive mothers?

Other health issues included a high rate of maternal mortality. On adolescent health, the report had not given much information and the Committee was still concerned about the high rate of early marriage. What was Niger doing specifically in health counselling for adolescent mothers, for example? Did adolescents have confidential access to health services? How would the State attain the rate of zero prevalence of HIV/AIDS among children between 15 and 19 years old, as indicated in its report?

Experts asked further questions, including, what happened once a child abuse case had been reported? What concrete measures were being taken to take care of children being caught up in conflict areas in northern Niger? And what specific measures where in place to tackle chronic malnutrition?

Other questions included whether there were national plans to eradicate violence against girls and female genital mutilation; whether children’s rights could be fully respected in a house were polygamy was being practiced; what plans were in place to help children of refugees and internally displaced persons stemming from the conflict in the North of Niger; what concrete measures were in place to protect children from economic exploitation; whether the Government had any partnership programmes with the International Labour Organization (ILO); whether there were care centres for street children; measures to help child drug addicts; what access poor people had to healthcare services; and how many children and adolescents were getting vocational training.

Response by Delegation

Responding to those and other questions, the delegation said, on health questions that they were running programmes for reproductive health, such as for contraception. Contraceptives were available in all healthcare centres and contraceptives were being distributed at the local level. Family planning services were free for adolescents. They also had a programme on reproduction and sexual adolescent health. Midwives were also providing information to adolescents.

On breastfeeding, the delegation said that it was still being practiced at a low level, but a very extensive programme had been rolled out to bring women to rely more and more on breastfeeding. With regard to HIV/AIDS, there were a number of information centres throughout the country.

Turning to the issue of malnourishment, the delegation noted that here had been a food crisis in 2005 in Niger. There was a political willingness to tackle the issue of malnourishment. A body inside the Ministry of Health was tasked with tackling this issue.

Addressing the reason why Doctors without Borders had had to cease its activities in Niger, the delegation said that Doctors without Borders needed to respect the agreement that had been reached between them and the Government. Many witnesses had testified that that agreement had been violated. Doctors without Borders had inflated figures of malnourishment in the area in which they had been operating and had thus been forced to cease their operations. However, an important number of other non-governmental organizations were still working in the country.

With regard to the violence against women and children, the Government was conducting a national plan to address that issue. Unfortunately they did not have a culture of denouncing and reporting crimes in Niger, said the delegation. This is why they where conducting awareness campaigns, to encourage people to bring such matters before the courts.

Spanking a child on the bottom was not considered as mistreatment in Niger, the delegation affirmed. However, all forms of corporal punishment were prohibited in schools. There was also the just-mentioned national partnership plan to fight violence against women and children. A committee, chaired by non-governmental organizations, was leading that initiative. There was a free phone number available for victims. But one needed to be able to respond to each individual case. That required appropriate financing and Intel Niger had expressed their willingness to help setting up such an operational line.

All children in need of specific protection received protection from Niger’s Governmental services. If children were identified as needing care, it was provided to them. If children were identified as needing to be protected fro their parents, the Government was helping them, the delegation insisted.

Turning to education, the delegation said that they were currently recruiting a further group of 6,000 teachers. To ensure good quality education, the Ministry of Education had drafted a document laying down various criteria for the hiring of school directors. On vocational training for children aged between 12 and 16, the Ministry had set up training centres. Handwashing, was being taught in the primary curriculum and in the family-education provided at schools. There were also handwashing facilities in schools.

A country could have as much willingness as it wanted, but could not be perfect without the adequate resources, the delegation stressed. On the contradiction between the increase of healthcare centres and the decrease in the health budget, the delegation indicated that salaries were not being paid by the relevant ministries. Special presidential programmes, which were for example aimed at building infrastructure, were being financed separately. Niger’s national budget was structured in such a way that expenditures for staff were separate from the running infrastructural and operational budget.

Turning to the different types of schools existing in the country, the delegation said that there were private, public, community and Koranic schools. Public schools were free and teachers were paid by the State. If parents wanted to send their children to a private school, they had to pay for it. However, the Government also paid a subsidy to private schools. Concerning Koranic schools, they would be reviewed by the Government. For the kindergartens, some were public and some were private community kindergartens.

There were 55,000 Koranic schools in Niger and they were currently being restructured. They had included science and maths in the curriculum at the primary school level. But the curricula could not be renewed at the stroke of a pen. There were also still a number of Koranic schools that were outside of the control of the State. The mandate of the Government was to safeguard the well-being of children. The Government had wanted to ensure that these schools were part of the system.

Turning to the multilateral agreement on child trafficking, the delegation indicated that it was an agreement between 10 countries of the region to address the issue of Talibes children. They had seen that those children were being economically exploited as street beggars and there was also an important cross-border movement of those children. The Government had trained police, and border officers, social workers and magistrates on this issue. The multilateral agreement furthered their work to fight that trafficking.

On Koranic schools, the delegation said that they had a long curriculum, which often went up to university level. In the human rights commission there was a division responsible for the rights of women and children. They had the right to carry out investigations of those schools.

With regard to sexual exploitation, there was an action plan to protect to children from it, but it was a problem which was not necessarily native to Niger. The country was rather a transit country.

Concerning the problem of juvenile justice, the delegation said that there had been reforms of the justice system, but the lack of human resources meant that certain things they had wanted to establish had not been set up. The Government was doing all it could to improve the quality of justice, as they considered it as the third power in Niger.

The delegation indicated that up to the age of 13 a child could not been given a criminal sentence. If a child under 13 committed a crime or broke the law it might be obliged to follow psychotherapy or other forms of counselling. Starting at age 14 a child could be sentenced to serve a prison sentence. Previously, there had not been any separate juvenile detention centres, but they had now had separate cells for children in prisons. Children received lower penalties than adults, and a draft plan for juvenile justice had been discussed in Niger at all levels to look at alternatives to prison sentences. The Government had also conducted training to ensure that magistrates were aware of the fact that the best place for a child was anywhere rather than in a prison.

On adoption, once a child had to be adopted, the Government made sure that the new parents were entirely eligible for adoption and that they were in a position to take care of the child. In the case of an international adoption a number of safeguards had been put in place. Even after the adoption, the Government reserved itself the right to regularly follow the development of the child and its situation in his new family. Full adoption related only to children who had no family. Niger had not ratified yet the Hague Convention on Inter-country Adoption.

With regard to nationality, any child born of foreign parents in Niger had the right to get nationality of Niger. Nationality could also been transmitted through the female line. Provisions for both full and simple adoption were covered in Niger’s legislation.

Turning to birth registration, it was true that the registration rate was low. To address that, the Government had launched a free registration campaign during the past week to ensure that each child that was born was registered. However, it should be remembered that Niger was three times as big as the territory of France; the amount of work entailed was huge and could not be achieved in one day. Concerning the issue that workers in registration centres that had not been paid, the delegation said that this had recently changed and the Government was now ensuring that everyone working in the chain of registrations was getting paid.

The delegation also noted that there was a deadline for birth registration. As in rural areas it could be difficult to find the right office or place to register a birth the deadline was 45 days and in urban areas it was only 3 days. Beyond that period, an additional declaration was needed to register a birth.

On sexual exploitation, the main problem in Niger was sex tourism. One of the measures that had been undertaken by the Government was to train hotel managers and people in the transport sector on those issues.

Regarding the relationship between the Ministries and non-governmental organizations, the delegation said that every time the Government was working on major texts and the drafting and approval of programmes civil society was involved. It had also been involved in lobbying in the Parliament and they were helping to get all these texts through.

The delegation said that Niger’s legislation had provisions for cases of child labour. Niger had also ratified ILO Conventions Nos. 138 (concerning the minimum age for admission to employment) and 182 (on the elimination of the worst forms of child labour). Niger’s Code of Employment also included special provisions on child labour. The minimum age for employment in Niger was 14. It was possible to employ children between the ages of 12 and 14, but only if it was for light work and did not interfere with the child’s schooling. Between ages of 16 and 18 there were also certain restrictions to ensure that the physical and moral integrity of the child were being respected. Niger was working with ILO to put in place a broad ranging collaboration on child labour.

Preliminary Remarks

KAMLA DEVI VARMAH, the Committee Expert serving as Rapporteur for the report of Niger, in preliminary concluding remarks, said that today’s dialogue had been excellent as the delegation had given very precise answers. The discussions had ensured that Niger would find the way to look at possible remedies to all the challenges. The Committee’s recommendations would particularly focus on putting in place a definition of children, as well as the minimum ages for marriage, labour and criminal responsibility. The recommendations would further also focus on, among other points, freedom of conscience and religion; the right not to be subjected to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; strengthened efforts for education, especially with regard to girls in rural areas; basic health care for children and families; access to drinking water; and the well-being of children with regard to HIV/AIDS and malnourishment.

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