International Day of the Girl Child: 11 October 2014
“The female soldiers did everything we did. In addition they were forced to cook for the commanders, wash their clothes, and some were forced to have sex with them.” – Khalid al-Amin on life as a conscript, Aljazeera interview – Escaping Eritrea’s ‘open prison’ (3 October 2014)
The legal age at which a girl can get married in Eritrea is 18 years, however many marry earlier as an act of great desperation.
Child marriage is prohibited in numerous international human rights instruments, namely; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC) and in the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa. That said, child marriage is nevertheless rampant on the African continent. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) figures (2013), out of the 20 countries most affected by child marriage, Africa hosts 15. ‘Typical’ drivers of child marriage include customary/traditional beliefs, desire for economic gain or to provide security. I hesitated at the mention of ‘security’ because how does a minor gain security from being forced to engage in sexual reproduction, childbearing and birth within a completely unprepared body and mind?
The freedom to form opinions and express them without fear of repression is a fundamental tenet for the development of a pluralistic, tolerant, and democratic society. This right represents not only the right to privacy of individuals to hold opinions and formulate thoughts, but also to express them in a public forum, especially as part of exercising the right to political participation. In addition, the right to access information, that is the right to seek and receive information, which also forms an important component of this right and which has added significance in the current age of information technology, is intrinsic to the transparent functioning of a democratic government and the effective and well-informed participation of civil society. In this context, freedom of opinion, expression and information is one of the core civil and political rights as it is essential for the exercise of all other human rights.
The right to freedom of opinion, expression and information is well-established and protected at both international and regional levels both legally and institutionally. The right is enshrined in various international instruments, namely: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 19), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 19), the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (Article 5(d)(viii)), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 13) and the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (Article 6). The main international human rights body within the United Nations system, the Human Rights Council, also provides through its system of special procedures for a Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, which was established in 1993.
One of the most critical ways that individuals can influence governmental decision-making is through voting. Voting is a formal expression of preference for a candidate for office or for a proposed resolution of an issue. Voting generally takes place in the context of a large-scale national or regional election, however, local and small-scale community elections can be just as critical to individual participation in government.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, recognizes the integral role that transparent and open elections play in ensuring the fundamental right to participatory government. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly stipulates under Article 21:
Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his/her country, directly or through freely chosen representatives. Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country. The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot or by equivalent free voting procedures. (Emphasis mine)
In fact just five years after the end of the reign of the apartheid government of South Africa, the country’s constitutional court addressed one of the most profound issues facing the new democracy. The case involved a challenge to the denial of voting rights for citizens incarcerated in South African prisons and raised the fundamental issue of the meaning of democracy, one that was particularly poignant in a society in which such questions had been restricted from public debate. In his written decision for the Constitutional Court of South Africa, Justice Albie Sachs declared, “Rights may not be limited without justification and legislation dealing with the franchise must be interpreted in favor of enfranchisement rather than disenfranchisement.”