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Located to the south of the Sahara desert in West Africa, Benin is a narrow country with a population that largely lives along the populous coast. With a strong civil society and numerous political parties, the country today is among Africa’s most stable democracies. Among the major violations of children’s rights that occur in the country are the poor conditions in the juvenile justice system and the ill-treatment of children in conflict with the law.
Formerly known as Dahomey, Benin takes it current name from the Bight of Benin, the large bay that dominates its Atlantic coast. A strip of land running from the Niger River in the north to the Atlantic ocean in the south, Benin borders Togo, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Niger. The country’s capital is Porto Novo, though the seat of government is the largest city Cotonou.
Population and Language
French is the official language, retained from the colonial period after independence. In addition, several indigenous languages are widely used - these vary by region, with Fon and Yoruba spoken predominantly in the south of the country and others, such Baantonum and Fula, largely found in the north.
History and Politics
After a period of military coups, Benin went through a period of one party rule under broadly Marxist-Leninist lines between 1972 and 1990. This period came to an end with the National Conference in 1990, where the former leader Major Mathieu Kérékou agreed to stand down and permit elections. The conference also brought in a new constitution. Kérékou stood in and subsequently lost the resulting election, though he would stand successfully again in 1996 and 2001. In 2006, Kérékou once more lost power and was replaced by Yayi Bone, who would go on to be re-elected in 2011. Presidential terms are five years, with direct election by absolute majority and no candidate allowed to server more than two terms. The president is advised and supported by the cabinet of ministers.
The legislature - the National Assembly of Benin - is elected on a four year cycle by proportional representation. The Beninese judiciary consists of the Constitutional Court, which is used by citizens to challenge the government, particularly over issues of rights and discrimination - it also arbitrates disputes over the constitutionality of laws between the National Assembly and the Presidency. The Supreme court has the higher judicial authority and can advise the executive on legal matters. Finally, the High Court of Justice, consisting of members of the other two courts alongside members of parliament, can be used to hold the President to account.
Benin’s legal system is based upon a combination of French civil law and local customary laws. Many of the current laws derive from the colonial era French legal system. The most recent constitution, adopted in 1990 explicitly references both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, the latter of which, theoretically, takes priority over domestic law and can be used to argue for the rights of citizens.
Benin’s economy is largely based upon subsistence agriculture alongside cotton growing and regional trade. The economy has strengthened somewhat since 1990 as the moves towards democracy were accompanied by economic liberalisation measures. Economically, Benin is heavily interlinked with its neighbours, particularly Nigeria, with its former colonial power France and increasingly also with China.
Media and Civil Society
Benin is home to numerous rights focussed NGOs, many of which emerged during the transition to democracy. These organisations have been quite effective at encouraging the government to move towards adopting international human rights standards, such as creating a human rights ombudsperson office. Concerns have been raised, however, about an overall lack of coordination between these organisations. Reporters without borders currently classifies the situation as “satisfactory” in terms of press freedom, ranking them 79th worldwide for 2013 - an improvement of twelve places from the previous year.
Human Rights and Children's Rights
Human rights standards in Benin are generally reckoned to be good for the region, though some areas of particular concern do remain, particularly around the rights of women and girls. Female genital mutilation, in particular, is a major issue despite a 2003 law banning the practice - this remains to be properly implemented and enforced. In addition to gender related issues, abuses by the security services and arbitrary detention are also commonly reported.
Major child rights issues in Benin include the low level of birth registration and the resulting lack of access to services,support and monitoring. High child mortality rates and the effects of widespread poverty and malnutrition are also serious problems. Infanticide and violence against children also persists, often inspired by harmful traditional practices. In addition, corporal punishment is legal in homes and, while discouraged in ministerial statements, not explicitly prohibited in schools or in alternative care settings. Culturally, corporal punishment is still widely accepted as a normal part of child rearing and its use is pervasive.
- UNDP Benin Human Development Indicators
- The Status of Human Rights Organizations in Sub-Saharan Africa: Benin
- Afrol News "Female mutilation Benin's main human rights problem"
- The Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children Benin Country Report