June 16th is the Day of the African Child – a date instituted in 1991 by the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the OAU. It is a day when the rights and welfare of children across our continent are highlighted. This year’s theme focuses on their rights in the digital environment, a topic of great importance to the GSMA and our mobile operator members.
Last November the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) dedicated a Day of General Discussion to this same theme. After hearing from a range of stakeholders – including, most importantly, children themselves – the Committee issued a clear Outcome Statement reiterating that “the increase in internet access and connection has provided invaluable opportunities for the realisation of children’s rights” but that simultaneously, “internet access and usage may result in the violation of children’s rights”.
When we celebrate the Day of the African Child we do well to remember this. The challenge, therefore, for us and all stakeholders in this space, is to enable all children – regardless of gender, socio-economic background, location, or other factors – to enjoy the benefits that come with access to connectivity and the digital environment, whilst taking steps in parallel to empower and safeguard children online. Balancing these dual imperatives might not always be easy, but if we are genuinely to serve the best interests of the child, it will be vital to navigate these issues.
Addressing the usage gap, gender gap and the rural connectivity gap provides significant benefits. Mobile and mobile internet can be life changing for children through providing access to critical information, services and opportunities from anywhere. Not finding a solution to these challenges will in the future impact access to connectivity for children.
When GSMA, with guidance from UNICEF, launched the mPowerYouth initiative at the end of 2019, mobile operators from across Africa shared case studies of initiatives they had undertaken to support children’s fundamental rights relating to Protection (for example, from online sexual abuse and exploitation), Provision (for example, of access to education or healthcare) and Participation (for example, young people using connectivity to raise their voices on matters of importance).
This work continues to gain momentum and initiatives to support children and young people stay safe and thrive in and through the digital environment have evolved and multiplied. To name just a few examples: Orange’s Digital Schools programme has helped over 500,000 children in schools across Africa to benefit from access to digital education tools; in partnership with the IWF, MTN has launched the Child Safety Online Africa portal to enable discoveries of online child sexual abuse material to be reported and actioned; Vodacom South Africa’s commitment to education includes, amongst other initiatives, offering free-of-cost access to e-learning materials; and Airtel Africa have partnered with UNICEF to scale up digital learning for children across Africa.
It is the GSMA’s firm belief that, working collaboratively and collectively, we can enhance children’s lives and enable their rights, development, and well-being in and through the digital environment. We stand ready to play our part.