The International Day of the African Child has been celebrated on June 16 – today – each year since 1991. The day commemorates the schoolchildren in Soweto, South Africa who marched for education and language rights in 1976. Police fired on the demonstrating students, and more than a hundred people were killed in the weeks of protests that followed.
This morning, Senator Clare Jah, one of three female senators in Liberia’s 30-person chamber, wanted to celebrate in the plenary session by discussing a bill she wrote that seeks to carve out greater rights for children and women in Liberia. Among other things, the bill would impose stricter penalties for violence against children and the failure to send one’s children to school, as well as mandate that 30% of seats in government be reserved for women. The discussion, though, did not go as planned.
To be debated on the floor of the senate, a bill must first be reviewed by the appropriate committee, in this case the Judiciary, Claims and Petitions committee. Last Tuesday, Senator Joseph Nagable, the chairman of that committee, apparently announced that the bill would be fully reviewed and ready to be discussed by today, in honor of the Day of the African Child. But when Jah brought the bill up for discussion, Nagable claimed his committee had not finished looking over the bill.
“They’re delaying us!” Jah shouted over Nagable’s words, outraged. “They’re delaying it!”
Jah and Nagable volleyed heated words back and forth. After several minutes, Hon. Cleatu Wotoson, the president pro tempore of the senate session, rapped his gavel on the table to conclude the senate session. Jah protested, but it was too late – the other senators had already begun filing out.
Jah’s bill is the type that NGOs and the UN would love to see implemented effectively in Liberia. According to a 2008 IMF report, 67% of children under the age of 20 live in families earning less than USD 360 per year, more than 10% of children die before turning 5, and only 37% of children ever attend school. Rather than pay for their children to attend school, many parents instead send them out to the street to sell everything from donuts to flip flops and, ironically, books. According to Madeline, a woman who works at a Liberian community building NGO, several years ago the government tried to crack down on truancy, rounding up children they saw on the street and sending them to school. But, she said, the initiative was not successful.
On a side street in Monrovia, two boys play a makeshift game of soccer with bottle caps, batteries, and sidewalk chalk. On a Thursday afternoon, they were not in school.
Nagable has stated that he opposes Jah’s bill because many families can’t afford to send all their children to school – the average family in Liberia has five children, and school supplies are expensive. But when I caught up with Jah in her office after the senate session, she saw it differently.
“The women’s rights aspect of the bill will never pass,” she explained. “They have no interest in passing it. Simply no interest at all. The children’s part might pass, maybe as a gift before the elections, but they want to delay our rights.”
After speaking to Jah, I returned to the senate chamber. One of the secretaries still sat at her desk, and I asked her about the bill.
“I don’t know what he’s talking about, delaying the bill. Its all finished,” she explained, opening a folder on her desk to reveal the printed bill. “They gave us the copies already.”
So, why hadn’t it been discussed?
“Its all politics,” she quipped. “Its alllll politics.”