BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT
It is an undeniable fact that the digital age and access to the Internet offers children and young people unprecedented opportunities to learn, communicate and have fun. The Internet offers a gateway to social and economic inclusion. Research has shown the increased use of the Internet by young people worldwide and the increasing amounts of time they spend ‘surfing’ and being ‘online’. Studies have also shown the negative side to digital communications as unguided access to the Internet poses huge risks to children’s health, safety and well-being including bad posture, eye strain, obesity, isolation, poor social skills and a decline in social interaction, addictions and compulsions.
Many children are still unaware of the threats the Internet poses to their personal security. The networks on which we now rely for our daily lives transcend organizational and national boundaries. Some young people become exposed to the pernicious effects of online interactions such as bullying (cyber-bullying), sharing inappropriate content, grooming, plagiarism, sexting, tribalism, and anti-social or illegal behaviours while using digital technologies. Receiving email, chat or text messages that make young people feel embarrassed, upset, depressed or afraid can damage their self-esteem and pose a threat to their psychological wellbeing. There is also some evidence to suggest that young people have become involved in the viewing, possession, making and distribution of indecent and/or child abuse/pornographic imagery.
In order to fully utilize the vast opportunities the Internet offers, it is important that children and young people feel confident that they are safe online and know how to protect themselves against potential threats. Imagine what will happen if children and young people who form about 50% of the population of Ghana are not catered for in policies that will regulate the deployment of this network called the Internet. J Initiative (JI), a child- and family- focused NGO, having assessed the situation and realized the basic things children require in order to make their online experiences safe and fun, initiated a children and ICTs campaign in February 2013, which later in the same year integrated the International Telecommunication Union Child Online Protection (COP) Initiative’s broad framework that addresses the five pillars of COP (legal measures, technical and procedural measures, organizational structure, capacity building, and international cooperation).
Our focus is the child and our approach must, therefore, be one, which is easy to adopt by all stakeholders in any future attempt to protect children, hence the incorporation of the ITU Initiative framework in our COP advocacy efforts. This initiative like JI’s objective, is aimed at protecting children and young people, empowering them to use the cyberspace wisely and making sure predators do not take advantage of children and young people in their quest to learn within the digital space.
CHALLENGES OF ADVOCATING FOR AN EFFICIENT SYSTEM TO PROTECT CHILDREN?
There have been many challenges as far as our campaign to ensure children and young people have a safe online environment is concerned, but most of these obstacles stemmed from a lack of understanding of the issues at stake. For instance, we held some public discussions in 2014 on COP, the major feedback we received was that since the situation was already out of hand, it was not worth pursuing. This feedback made us re-think our strategies for identifying and approaching the various stakeholders.
Also, J Initiative does not have funds to run an office with a permanent team to conduct a campaign as huge as the COP initiative campaign in Ghana. Our organization still does not have sufficient financial resources; however, due to the benevolence of a few, we are continuing to make a noticeable impact.
There was also the initial lack of political will, which has changed mainly due to our consistent advocacy, and we are happy to report that three different ministries – Ministry of Communications, Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection, and Ministry of Interior – have taken significant steps and shown interest in addressing COP issues with JI’s involvement and participation.
WHAT WILL CONSTITUTE AN EFFICIENT CHILD ONLINE PROTECTION SYSTEM?
JI had indicated in its August 2015 update that an effective COP framework that addresses existing gaps requires a blend of approaches that include legislative, self- and co-regulatory, technical, awareness-raising, and educational measures as well as positive content provision and child safety zones. In practice, each country operates its own policy mix of characteristics and priorities, which reflects its perception of priorities as well as its culture and style of government. Moreover, policy measures that address different risks and initiatives from various stakeholders at different levels co-exist. This creates policy complexity at national level and policy heterogeneity across countries requiring international cooperation.
Therefore, to enhance the coherence of existing policy measures and tools, multi-stakeholder engagement is crucial. Public-private partnerships, thus, have proven to be a successful way to encourage self- and co-regulation. Policies to protect children online would especially benefit from such efforts to ensure consistency with other important policy objectives and laws such as the ICT for Accelerated Development Policy, the Children’s Act and the recently launched Child and Family Welfare policy. Review of these documents which focus on the fundamental rights of children and maintenance of the framework conditions from bodies like the ITU that have enabled the Internet to become a global open platform for innovation, economic growth and social progress will help in ensuring a secure future for any nation. This is to say that it is also important to harmonize all cross -ministerial initiatives on child online/offline protections so we have a well-coordinated effort, which will facilitate international cooperation.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE OUTCOME OF J INITIATIVE’S ADVOCACY SO FAR?
J Initiative has been able to create enough awareness across Ghana and Africa on Child Online Protection (COP) and is proud to say that the Government of Ghana had on the 1st of August, 2016 inaugurated a multi-stakeholder steering committee, of which JI is a member, to put in place a framework for ensuring an effective system where children have access to basic child online protection mechanisms. Also, J Initiative has held and/or participated in a number of stakeholder engagements to raise awareness on COP issues in Ghana on various national, regional and international platforms such as the Ghana Internet Governance Forums (IGF), Africa Mobil Expos (Mobex), USSTI Training, RISE Learning Network, Media Foundation for West Africa, 3rd Gender Dialogue Series of the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection, among others. Furthermore, JI has carried out awareness and capacity-building sessions in a number of schools in Greater Accra region for 88 ICT teachers, the Civil and Local Government Workers Association of Ghana Ladies Club (CLOSAGLAC), and churches, mainly on the social media platforms.
Additionally, in 2015 and 2016, J Initiative observed Safer Internet Day (SID) with huge success. Also, in order to keep our followers informed about safety issues, we have instituted a weekly broadcast and a safer Internet month in November of every year to continue to raise awareness among all stakeholders.
Furthermore, JI regularly publishes articles, posters, flyers and safety guides (for parents, educators, children, and young people) solely and in partnership with some stakeholders who believe in our vision of speaking up for children and the young people of Ghana.
Finally, JI has secured the licence for a one-year Cyber Civics course from Cyberwise for teachers, parents and young people to empower them about online issues and has been participating in strategic discussions aimed at influencing schools’ ICT curriculum to include Digital Literacy. This, we believe, will go a long way to prepare children and young people in Ghana in anticipation of the Internet of Things (IoT).
WHICH INSTITUTIONS HAVE PLAYED MAJOR ROLES IN THE ADVOCACY WORK OF JI?
We give God the glory for giving us the fortitude to work for the children and young people of Ghana with the support of our cherished partners. Our vision of encouraging children and young people to use technology effectively, creatively and wisely in the interest of learning and community could not be achieved without the support of our major partners.
J Initiative would like to seize the opportunity to acknowledge and thank the following valued contributors to our work: World Vision International, Ghana for providing the resources for the first stakeholders meeting in 2014; the National Communications Authority for its financial contributions in 2015 and 2016 towards Safer Internet Day (SID); Facebook UK for supporting the SID 2016 campaign with a safety video, 10,000 safety information guides and promotional materials for parents, educators, children and young people; Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) for providing JI with resources to develop a policy brief on COP in Ghana and engaging targeted stakeholders to discuss the issue, with resulting recommendations shared with relevant institutions for action; and Tigo Ghana and Millicom Global Foundation for donating funds used to secure a licence for a one year free online course for parents, teachers and children; safety posters in two major Ghanaian languages aside from English; capacity building of ICT Teachers; and Internet Safety awareness sessions in twenty schools and some churches.
We will continue to work hard, in collaboration with partners, to ensure that children are guaranteed of their safety while they have fun online.