The crowd bursts into laughter as minors at the Diourbel prison in Senegal present a skit, with interjections from local actor and comedian Sonokho. The young detainees are using humor to tell the somber story of a father who, abandoned by his wife is left to care for his two sons. The father, as selfish as he is absent-minded, fails to register his sons’ births or monitor their schooling. This negligence leads to the sons’ outrageous exploits as one ends up in prison and the other becomes a petty thief. As the play draws to a close, the sons realize how their father has failed them and call on others not to repeat his mistakes as they list the rights that were owed to them, but that they did not have the chance to enjoy.
This play was part of the celebration for the Day of the African Child on June 16, organized by Tostan’s Prison Project in partnership with the prison administration, UNFPA Senegal, and the Association of Women Doctors of Senegal (AWDS). It contextualized and underscored the importance of current efforts to provide positive support structures that enable detainees to reintegrate and become functional members of society.
This special day marked the start of an entire “Week of the African Child” in many African Union countries. In Senegal, specialists, government officials and local organizations, like Tostan, met across various forums to celebrate and raise awareness for children’s rights and child protection initiatives around the country. Most discussions focused on the importance of quality education and the implementation of national protection strategies as means to protect all children, especially those at high risk.
As a way to act upon some of these proposed initiatives, Tostan’s Peace and Security Project organized an opportunity for discussion and sharing on June 18 in Ziguinchor–a hub in southern Senegal.
Alassane Ndiaye, village chief of Niaguis, takes the stage. His voice booms from the microphone as he shares his community’s perspective on children at risk: “The notion of children’s rights has always been a problem at the community level—it’s nothing new. Many people think that when we talk about rights, we’re automatically referring to laws, even though children’s rights simply mean children’s needs. Children need health. They need education. They need an identity, a name, a nationality, a [healthy] environment.”
Partner communities came to the conclusion that there is a basic need that plays an important role in a child’s well-being—that is affection. A child—a human being—should and needs to be loved. Parents and caregivers demonstrate this love in many ways. Tostan works with community leaders and parents on honing peaceful mediation techniques, raising awareness about the effect of violence in the home, and improving care-giving skills to aid in children’s development, particularly in those critical first five years of life.
Mediation is also a cornerstone concept of the Prison Project. In addition to running non-formal human rights education classes with detainees and income-generating activity trainings in centers across six partner prisons, Project Coordinator Aissatou Kebe spearheads mediation sessions with family members to facilitate reintegration.
Minors at the prison walk to the center of the event, some with beaming faces, others with their eyes downcast in embarrassed pride. One by one, they claim their certificates marking their successful completion of a training in poultry farming. Ndeye Niang of UNFPA Senegal’s voice reverberates over the crowd: “Being in conflict with the law should not equal marginalization.” Echoing the Mayor of Diourbel, she affirms how this training initiative supports detainees in finding a place in society once released, and that this training could constitute the foundation of a new life after prison.
Meanwhile, young doctors from the AWDS are busy consulting with nearly 80 detainees. A key part of rehabilitation is improvement of prison conditions, so that detainees are not distracted from their personal development. The health and day-to-day life of each detainee is taken into account during these consultations, in some cases providing medicine, mattresses, fans and cleaning products donated by the Prison Project. In the background, Marie Sall, Assistant to the National Coordinator of Tostan Senegal, speaks out: “While incarceration necessitates the deprivation of liberty, its impact on other human rights must be minimized.”
Child protection starts in the home, but it is also our collective responsibility. Children have the burden and opportunity to meet the economic and social challenges of our time. We must do our part in ensuring their rights, their needs, and their happiness as they address those challenges and pave a path to a brighter future.
Contributions from Malick Gueye, Communications Manager for Tostan Senegal, and Daniel Newton, Assistant to the Prison Project