In 1976, thousands of black school children took to the streets of Soweto, South Africa. In a march more than half a mile long, they protested the inferior quality of their education and demanded their right to be taught in their own language. Hundreds of young boys and girls were shot down by security forces. In the two weeks of protest that followed, more than a hundred people were killed and more than a thousand were injured.
To honour the memory of those killed and the courage of all those who marched, the Day of the African Child has been celebrated on 16 June every year since 1991, when it was first initiated by the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union). The Day also draws attention to the lives of African children today. This year, the Day focuses on the plight of the estimated 30 million “street children” across the continent under the theme of “All Together for Urgent Actions in Favour of Street Children”.
While the definition of a “street child” is much debated, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has suggested that the term applies to children who a) live in urban areas; b) have family ties that are weak or non-existent; c) are forced to develop survival strategies; d) rely on the street as their main place of stay and for whom the street has replaced the family as a place for socialisation; and e) face specific major risks. Street children are among the most vulnerable children on earth and are often subject to violence, abuse and exploitation. The 2011 observance of this Day seeks to contribute to widespread awareness of the dangers street children face, promote the taking of urgent steps to protect them and determine strategies for providing effective child protection and care.
School fees are another major barrier for many African children. A significant gap exists between law and practice. Summarizing the problem, former Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education Katarina Tomasevski wrote that “Constitutional guarantees reflect the requirements of international human rights law. They mandate primary education to be free and compulsory and oblige governments to ensure that this is so immediately or, at least, progressively.
Making education free and compulsory requires public funding, but governmental and intergovernmental policies for financing education do not follow what the law mandates” (Tomasevski, 2006, p.6). According to the Right to Education Project, many African countries lack legal guarantees of free education and have policies that charge fees for schooling. Some countries do have constitutional guarantees of free education, but laws are not implemented in government policy. Charging fees excludes the poorest children from formal education.