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Africa Has Become The First Region in The World to Implement a Child Online Safety and Empowerment Policy | #childsafety | #kids | #chldern | #parents | #schoolsafey

Access to the digital space in Africa is increasingly expanding, and many of those coming online are children –defined as ‘all those under the age of 18’. It is estimated that worldwide 1 in 3 internet users is a child, and more than 175,000 children go online for the first time every day – a new child every half second.

In Africa, it is estimated that 40% of youth aged between 15-24 years can access the internet. With children getting connected to the digital world so too the risks that the online world brings to children have grown. The COVID-19 pandemic increasingly drew African children to the online world, with some accessing the internet for the first time. Online risks are present 24/7 through devices that enable access to the internet. The situation is exacerbated for children with special needs and disabilities. The international child rights community categorises online risks to children into 4 categories – content, contact, conduct and consumer/contract risks (4Cs).

The African Union Child Online Safety and Empowerment Policy assesses the opportunities and risks related to digital access for children in Africa, as well as the factors influencing child online safety. The Policy then sets out the key cross-cutting issues to deliver on children’s rights in the digital environment and identifies 10 policy goals for the Continent, ranging from developing institutional capacity and reviewing legal and regulatory frameworks to ensuring corporate responsibility and investing in education and training.

Marking the endorsement of the African Child Online Safety and Empowerment Policy by the Executive Council of the African Union during its Forty-Fourth Ordinary Session from 14 – 15 February 2024 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, H.E. Dr Amani Abou Zeid, AU Commissioner Infrastructure and Energy lauded the policy saying, “Africa pioneers in being the first region in the world to devise policy for protecting, empowering and ensuring the safety of children online.

In addition, the ongoing work on a strategy for Artificial Intelligence means this technology could transform development in every sector across the continent. We aim to ensure these new technologies serve the needs of our children and harness their incredible potential for the benefit of our continent.”

Context of The African Union Child Online Safety and Empowerment Policy

The AU Child Online Safety (COS) and Empowerment Policy seek to identify gaps and areas where harmonisation is needed to implement children’s rights and address cross-border challenges. It will provide national policy-makers and regulators with a framework that ensures ICT providers respect children’s rights; and equip children, parents/guardians, educators, social service agencies/organizations, industry, and law enforcement officials in Africa with the right tools and skillsets to ensure children’s safety in the online environment; and lay the groundwork for ongoing research and evidence-gathering to ensure the contextualisation of implementation to the African context. This Policy provides:

  1. A common set of principles, goals and assessment criteria for COS, based on international best practices;
  2. A multi-stakeholder framework4 for national policy-makers to implement COS policies;
  3. A set of priority actions for implementation at the AU level.

The Policy calls for a whole society approach to be employed for implementation due to the cross-sectoral, cross-border and transnational nature of the digital environment necessitating strong national, regional, and international cooperation to mitigate the risks arising from the misuse of digital technologies, to ensure that all stakeholders, including States, businesses, and other actors, effectively respect, protect and fulfil children’s rights concerning the digital environment. The need for gathering rigorous data would lead to the development of future evidence-based interventions that strengthen online safety for children with proper attention to all aspects of child rights that are impacted in this digital age. The policy, and its proposed implementation plan, have been designed to assist African Member States with the development of national child online safety and empowerment policies as well as paving the way for a safer and nurturing online environment for children to ensure an inclusive digital society and economy with active participation of Africa’s future generation, the children.

Amongst the key recommendations of the policy is the need to affirm strong commitments to child online safety at the highest level in government; strengthening criminal justice frameworks to enable law enforcement and the judiciary to effectively tackle child online safety-related offences including child online sexual exploitation and abuse (CSEA); promoting and supporting accessible digital education in schools and for parents, guardians and community leaders; developing and maintaining databases to pool resources and information exchange including hotlines for reporting and victim support; and establishing an African child online resource fund and program.

Factors Influencing Child Online Safety

Many factors combine to influence child safety online.

  1. The global nature of the digital environment brings with it shared challenges and opportunities for action. The tech sector operates simultaneously across many different legal jurisdictions. The development of shared international approaches to the regulation of the private sector and a cross-border community of best practices for education, enforcement and victim support amongst others, can provide effective responses.
  2. The design of ICT products and services is critical, as commercial interests, if not adequately adjusted in view of the rights of the child, can create or reinforce risks to children’s safety. Safety by design strategies backed up by law is a fundamental driver toward tech sector product safety – particularly in relation to children.
  3. Children’s overall well-being affects how they engage with the internet. Evidence shows that children who are vulnerable offline are also more likely to be vulnerable online, hence protective offline factors can also reduce exposure to online risks. Offline factors that create vulnerability or protection influence how children engage with the online environment. Local, offline interventions are therefore also required as part of a holistic strategy.
  4. Similarly, knowledge and support from parents/guardians, educators and peers can help children to become more confident internet users. Some exploratory studies suggest that social support and children’s positive relationships with the people around them can act as protective factors, arguing that protecting children online is more efficient when combined with supportive parenting offline.

Existing Frameworks and Tools For Child Online Protection in Africa

There are national, regional and continental initiatives, frameworks and tools relevant to child online safety in Africa. They are however focused largely on the most heinous of abuses, notably child sexual exploitation and abuse, and in particular on victims’ rights. The wider context and in particular the role of companies and system design is a prominent gap.

  1. National

While roughly 52% of African countries have some sort of data and privacy protection legislation in place (including limited protection in other laws), the majority of those legislations are either limited in scope and applicability to children’s online environment or yet to be fully enforced. Child-focused data protection regulation has strong potential to address many of the risks faced by children online.

Many countries broadly address sexual exploitation or ban pornography in general; however, these laws are not enough as they do not specifically address the criminal aspects of various forms of online child sexual exploitation and abuse. Furthermore, the lack of harmonized definitions, approaches and legislative measures among Member States, poses a considerable challenge in making sure offences are identified as well as offenders tracked – including outside national borders – and eventually brought to justice.

There are already several examples of child online safety initiatives across Africa to draw inspiration from. Some countries have documented safety initiatives such as Kenya, Ghana, Uganda and Zambia. Expert organizations exist across Africa to guide thought on online safety, including the Africa Digital Rights Hub, CIPESA and Research ICT Africa. Finally, there are examples of legislation within Africa to guide policy-making: Ghana’s Cybersecurity Act criminalized online sexual conduct with children and imposed obligations on telecommunications services; and Rwanda has a well-developed policy on child online protection, together with a detailed five-year action plan.

  1. Regional

At the regional level, several child protection policies and legal frameworks are in place, inter alia: EAC Child Policy & Framework for Strengthening Child Protection Systems in the East African Community, SADC’s Model Law on Eradicating Child Marriage and in 2019 ECOWAS adopted a Child Policy and its Strategic Action Plan (2019-2023). Once again, the lack of harmonized regional frameworks is a major stumbling block for a coherent approach to child online safety on the continent and ultimately across the globe.

Once again, these laws reflect pre-digital safety concerns and do not extend to a more holistic and systemic approach to child online safety.

  1. Continental

At the continental level, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child was adopted in 1990 and entered into force in 1999. An African Union Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) was established. The Committee’s functions include the promotion and protection of the rights enshrined in the Charter. The Committee in 2019 adopted a declaration on preventing and ending online Child Sexual Exploitation in Africa.

The African Union Convention on Cybersecurity and Personal Data Protection (Malabo Convention), has content-related offences on child pornography incorporated in its articles. As such, there will be a looming requirement to introduce an amendment to the Convention to support the full realization of the rights of the child in the digital environment and protect children against all forms of online violence and harm.

African Union Child Online Safety And Empowerment Policy Areas

Taking children’s rights and cross-cutting issues on board, the African Union’s Child Online Safety and Empowerment Policy establishes the following goals across ten policy action areas:

  1. Institutional capacity: To identify and mobilise the institutional actors (at continental, regional and national levels) to lead and contribute to a Child Online Safety Steering Committee and a stakeholder group of experts to cover all areas of the child online safety policy. To provide adequate resourcing, leadership, and institutional capacity to ensure effective action and cooperation.
  2. Legal and regulatory frameworks: To strengthen and re-align the continental, regional and national legal and regulatory regimes related to child online safety, and to strengthen the capacity and capability of law enforcement agencies and regulatory bodies in the child online safety field including their capacity to collaborate with other sectors, in particular the ICT sector.
  3. Personal data and identity: To recognise the benefits of and respond to the current and emerging threats to privacy, identity and the agency of children in the digital world posed by the use of data including personal data, biometrics and automated decision making.
  4. Response and support systems: To establish a coordinated multi-stakeholder framework to tackle risks for children online, in particular child exploitation and abuse (CSEA): including effective legal and regulatory enforcement mechanisms, prevention, remedies and access to expert advice on child online safety.
  5. Business and children’s rights: To promote child-centred design, minimum standards, industry agreements, adoption of best practices and cultural awareness and resourcing of child online safety through regulation and frameworks that relate to corporate responsibility.
  6. Training: To ensure that all those involved with services relating to children, including government, law enforcement, justice, health and wellbeing, politicians, and civil servants, as well as those designing technology, have a good understanding of child online safety and children’s best interests.
  7. Education: To promote the positive use of digital technology as a source of entertainment, information and learning for children in a safe environment.
  8. Public awareness and communications: To raise awareness of all child online safety issues across all sectors of the community, to prevent likely harms and promote positive internet use.
  9. Research and development: To ensure a holistic, evidence-based and up-to-date approach to child online safety.
  10. International cooperation: To ensure strong collaboration between stakeholders, at the continental level, as well as with other external national, regional, and global organisations and players to share best practices.

Resources and Reference Materials

  1. African Union Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection
  2. African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child
  3. The Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa (2020-2030)
  4. Africa’s Agenda for Children 2040 Fostering an Africa Fit for Children

For further information contact:

Mr. Gamal Eldin Ahmed A. Karrar | Senior Communication Officer | Information and Communication Directorate (ICD), African Union Commission | E-mail: [email protected]

Mrs Bezayit Eyoel| Department of Infrastructure and Energy| African Union Commission| E-mail: [email protected]

Information and CommunicationDirectorate, African Union Commission I E-mail: [email protected]
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