In Eritrea, any child is the child of every household. Hence, child care is the responsibility of every Eritrean citizen. Much like the popular proverb noting that “it takes a village to raise a child,” Eritrean children have always been nurtured with love and care of their parents, neighbors, and the surrounding communities.
Traditional wisdom and custom within the ethnic groups of Eritrea place utmost significance upon children’s’ well-being. At the same time, there have also been traditional practices that, while intending to benefit children, have often led to negative physical or physiological effects (frequently carrying over into adulthood). It is within this context that the need for a national childhood policy arises, as made clear during the release of the newly drafted Comprehensive National Child Policy on 1st October 2015 at the National Confederation of Eritrean Workers conference hall.
During the discussion, the importance of the new policy was underscored through noting how traditionally, members of Eritrean society were not accustomed to birth registration, and could thus expose children to violations of child labor, underage marriage, or other areas of potential child exploitation. Kahsay Ghebrehiwet, Minister of Labor and Human Welfare, also noted how “Eritrean society has a civilized culture and a farsighted vision as regards proper upbringing and protection of children,” and that the new policy would help to protect and nurture children.
Generally, Eritrean society has had shrewd, farsighted traditional practices in childcare. The cultural tolerance exhibited within Eritrean society is uniquely represented by a harmonious coexistence of different ethnic groups. In this regard, the policy will prove extremely significant.
A well nurtured child often stands for the good of the people to whom he or she belongs, and is frequently very hospitable, respectful, and welcoming towards others. In this sense, it is not a surprise to hear that foreigners who have visited Eritrea often cherish memories and experiences of a country known for its abundant peace and stability. It should be reiterated that all members of society play a role in socialization of a child, and that if foreigners and travelers feel safe and comfortable within Eritrea, it is often a result of, or influenced by, a proper upbringing of children. Simply, it is a tribute and recognition of the ceaseless efforts of Eritrean societies.
The child who receives proper nurturing from parents, relatives, and communities frequently becomes a responsible citizen who makes commendable efforts towards fulfilling the admirable goal of building a nation for that welcomes people from all walks of life.
Eritreans have long adhered to the principle that child care is a collective responsibility of communities. Such a cultural asset, therefore, encourages members of family and surrounding community to share in the responsibilities of caring and protecting children (and the aged). The introduction of a Comprehensive National Child Policy stems from this unique collective outlook of Eritrean society. Importantly, the introduction of the policy is not a substitute, but an addition or augmentation of, long standing social and cultural practices that aim to nurture children. Specifically, the policy will help to fill existent gaps, while firmly working against harmful practices.
The Female Circumcision Abolition Proclamation No 158/2007, for instance, bans all forms of female circumcision. The proclamation, which criminalizes female genital mutilation and holds accountable the practitioners or those who assisted or witnessed but failed to report to law enforcement bodies, is a useful example of protecting the rights of a child from harmful traditional practices.
Other traditional practices addressed as focal points in the new Comprehensive National Childhood Policy are underage marriage, burning of gums, cuts over the eyebrow, rupturing the tonsils, and corporal punishment. Eritrea’s people, particularly its children, are its greatest resource; in that context, securing their safety and rights is of critical and far-reaching significance.
Notably, Eritrea has displayed an unwavering commitment towards respecting, promoting and protecting the rights of children, even during the challenging, difficult times within the decades-long struggle for independence. Likewise in the post-independence period, the country has attested its commitment to important youth or children’s issues, by prioritizing and investing in education, health, nutrition, and various other youth or children’s related areas.
For example, owing to remarkably high immunization levels against childhood illnesses, child mortality rates have dramatically declined. Furthermore, a range of communicable diseases that were once causes for disabilities or death, have now been largely eradicated or significantly reduced. As well, the national commitment to literacy and “education for all” has led to remarkable changes and progress.
Child care is a multifaceted issue which involves families, communities, and various levels of government or administration. One important player has been Eritrea’s Ministry of Labor and Human Welfare, particularly through its extensive efforts to promote the survival and development of children. For example, the ministry has undertook different activities aimed at empowering families through community-based interventions such as the reunification program for orphans, street children, and other vulnerable members of the Eritrean society. Importantly, adoption and orphanages, as well as improving rehabilitation and support systems for street children, disabled children, or children from families with meager income are areas of increasing discussion and focus.
Children with disabilities (CWD) are also a key part of the new child care policy. With the Association of the Blind, the Association of the Deaf, the Association of Autism and Down’s Syndrome, and the Association of War Disabled Veterans having played key roles in addressing the needs of CWD, the new policy will be useful component to improving the lives of CWD and advocating for their rights. Such cooperation and partnerships illustrate how, even though the Ministry of Labor and Human Welfare is playing a leading role, child care is a moral obligation of all Eritreans – individuals, families, communities, ministries, and associations.