Protecting children’s rights in the digital era

Laylee Moshiri Correspondent
Our world is increasingly connected. According to UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children Report 2017 “Children in a Digital World”, children and adolescents below the age of 18 years constitute one third of internet users worldwide.

Digital connectivity is providing people with opportunities like never before and cyberspace has become the new way in which children interact with each other and the world around them. Social media sites, online games and various applications on smartphones and tablets are a common feature in the lives of our children.

Connectivity offers a huge opportunity to some of the world’s most marginalised children to break the intergenerational cycles of poverty. For children, digitalisation provides unprecedented opportunities to learn and be informed, to recreate and share. Thanks to the rapidly expanding network coverage in the country, Zimbabwean children, like children elsewhere in the world, are regularly engaging with others through mobile phones and the internet.

On the other hand, violence and abuse are no longer restricted to homes, schools and communities but also happen in the online environment. Children face various cyber-specific risks and dangers when being online. These include cyberbullying, which is children using phones to harass, shame or hurt other children verbally; exposure to inappropriate content such as violence, pornography, xenophobia; the sexual grooming of children by adults; production and sharing of child sexual abuse material (“child pornography”’) online; and children sharing highly personal information including sexualised images/videos. These risks are exacerbated by the fact that children oftentimes cannot assess the cyber-specific risks such as worldwide audience, non-retrievable record, and replicability of content.

Globally, UNICEF partners with many organisations and companies, such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Twitter, GSMA, Child Helpline International, the Internet Watch Foundation and InHope to make the Internet a safer place for children. Further, governments, companies and development partners from around the world have united their efforts in the WePROTECT Global Alliance, which supports global action to identify and protect victims, remove child sexual abuse material from the internet and strengthen co-operation across the world to track down perpetrators.

States worldwide have signed the WePROTECT Commitment of Action, which aims to establish a coordinated national response to online child sexual abuse. I would like to encourage Zimbabwe to join this global movement, and to pledge their commitment to create an Internet safe for children.

Undoubtably, Zimbabwe has already taken considerable steps towards ending violence against children online. With the launch of the Zimbabwe Child Online Protection Task Force (ZICOP) under the auspices of the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, Postal and Courier Services, Zimbabwe has made child online safety a national priority.

This national commitment is also reflected in the decision to dedicate a whole week to child online safety during cybersecurity awareness month in October 2019. The Child Online Safety Week, which will run from October 7 to 13, 2019, offers the opportunity to highlight positive uses of technology and to explore the role we all play in helping to create a better and safer online community. It calls upon young people, parents, teachers, social workers, law enforcement, industry stakeholders, policymakers, and wider, to join together in helping to create a better, safer internet.

Ending online violence against children is nothing Zimbabwe can do alone. The Internet spans across country borders, and hence affects communities worldwide. Online child sexual abuse is a global problem, and it demands a global answer. We are celebrating the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child’s 30th anniversary this year, and the Convention plays a crucial role in setting the global standard in this emerging field. Interpreting the Convention in the light of today’s realities of the digital world, the CRC Committee, the independent body of experts which monitors the implementation of the Convention, is currently drafting a General Comment on Children’s Rights in Relation to the Digital Environment. This General Comment will assist member states to the Convention, such as Zimbabwe, in ensuring the rights enshrined in the Convention, such as the right to dignity, expression, privacy and protection, are equally upheld in the digital world.

Let us use the Child Online Safety Week to join forces in protecting the rights of Zimbabwe’s children online. It is our collective responsibility to create an environment in which all children in Zimbabwe can live a life free from abuse and violence, enjoy and demand equal rights and opportunities, and grow up as informed digital citizens reaching their full potential.

Laylee Moshiri, Country Representative, UNICEF Zimbabwe

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