It Takes More Than a Village

The International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family, December 2000, Oxford In her 1996 book It Takes a Village, Hillary Rodham Clinton mused that the African proverb inspiring the book’s title provides "a timeless reminder that children will thrive only if their families thrive and if the whole of society cares enough to provide ...

By , a political analyst and policy fellow at the Century Foundation.

The International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family, December 2000, Oxford

In her 1996 book It Takes a Village, Hillary Rodham Clinton mused that the African proverb inspiring the book's title provides "a timeless reminder that children will thrive only if their families thrive and if the whole of society cares enough to provide for them." A noble sentiment, but it diverges with reality in parts of contemporary Africa. With forces of modernization eroding traditional social structures throughout the continent, families, and particularly children, have come under severe stress. Against a backdrop of rising divorce rates and an ongoing AIDS epidemic, can international conventions aimed at protecting children make a difference?

Bart Rwezaura, associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, tackles this question in a recent issue of The International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family, a 15-year-old triannual publication that takes a comparative approach to legal issues affecting families worldwide. In a case study titled "The Value of a Child: Marginal Children and the Law in Contemporary Tanzania," Rwezaura reveals systemic neglect and abuse of certain children in this East African nation. Neither constitutional protections nor Tanzania's signing of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1991 has addressed this problem adequately.

The International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family, December 2000, Oxford

In her 1996 book It Takes a Village, Hillary Rodham Clinton mused that the African proverb inspiring the book’s title provides "a timeless reminder that children will thrive only if their families thrive and if the whole of society cares enough to provide for them." A noble sentiment, but it diverges with reality in parts of contemporary Africa. With forces of modernization eroding traditional social structures throughout the continent, families, and particularly children, have come under severe stress. Against a backdrop of rising divorce rates and an ongoing AIDS epidemic, can international conventions aimed at protecting children make a difference?

Bart Rwezaura, associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, tackles this question in a recent issue of The International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family, a 15-year-old triannual publication that takes a comparative approach to legal issues affecting families worldwide. In a case study titled "The Value of a Child: Marginal Children and the Law in Contemporary Tanzania," Rwezaura reveals systemic neglect and abuse of certain children in this East African nation. Neither constitutional protections nor Tanzania’s signing of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1991 has addressed this problem adequately.

In Tanzania, legal tenets clash with deeply embedded cultural norms. Certain groups, such as foster children, are marginalized, while disabled children and those born out of wedlock are given even lower status. Children in these categories (boys and girls alike) are often denied already scarce food, education, and other resources; they may also be abused or abandoned. Meanwhile, the conditions that create the need for foster families — AIDS, divorce, and subsequent remarriage — are on the rise. By 2010, Tanzania will have an estimated 4.2 million orphans.

Government policy on protecting children is typically non-interventionist, predicated on the assumption that the "widely known African ideals" of collective responsibility for children are working. Since international law is binding on states but not individuals, the U.N. convention needs the backing of domestic law. Yet Tanzanian children of unmarried parents have almost no protection under the convention, including the right to "know and be cared for by his or her parents." Tanzanian law does protect disabled youngsters, but it relies on communities and extended family networks to care for these children. In practice, relatives often cannot or do not take responsibility. Technically, courts can force relatives to provide financial support, but Rwezaura points out that such practice is quite rare.

The author notes that the Tanzanian government and courts have taken steps toward legal reform to meet the convention’s standards. For example, officials have amended laws to ensure that fathers take greater financial responsibility for children born out of wedlock. But such nascent and sometimes abstract measures have not gone far enough to meet international standards, Rwezaura argues.

Such localized efforts notwithstanding, social disintegration is a problem throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Tanzania actually rates among the more stable countries in the region: The International Monetary Fund estimates that the Tanzanian economy will grow by more than 5 percent in 2001 with relatively low inflation. How, then, will states with weaker economies, even less developed institutions, and highly volatile politics be able to refine their legal systems and transform underlying social mores in order to protect children and families?

Dahlia Scheindlin is a political analyst and policy fellow at The Century Foundation. She has advised political campaigns in Israel, the Balkans, and other countries. Twitter: @dahliasc

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