A fairer world: Child rights

Introduction

Children are entitled to the same human rights as everyone else. Special protections exist for children because their rights are more likely to be abused than those of adults and because children are less likely to be able to protect themselves from these abuses.

This page introduces two aspects of children’s rights: the law that has helped to create those rights and some of the events and circumstances that can really prevent children from enjoying their rights.

International Law

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is the treaty that was designed to specifically protect the rights of children. Almost every country in the world has signed the CRC and agreed to protect the rights of children. Only Somalia, which has not had a government that works well enough to sign-up to or ‘ratify’ the treaty, and the United States, which traditionally does not ratify human rights treaties and has concerns about the compatibility of its values with the CRC, have not become members.

The CRC also has two Optional Protocols, agreements that were written after the original treaty and which deal with specific problems. The First Optional Protocol is aimed at ending the practice of using children as soldiers and the Second Optional Protocol prohibits the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography.

The CRC is structured around four main ideas. It asks governments, individuals, and communities to:

  • protect children without any discrimination;
  • put priority on serving the best interests of the child;
  • set standards for survival and development needs (e.g. health care and education); and
  • respect the views of the child.

It also created the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors how well states have lived up to the terms of the CRC and evaluates reports that states must submit on their efforts to fulfil the terms of the treaty.

Specific Rights

While the CRC protects all of the same human rights that adults have, it also makes a special effort to protect rights that are only guaranteed to children. All treaties place obligations on governments to do things, but the CRC places an obligation on those governments to protect children, which is larger than the obligations regarding adults imposed by other human rights treaties.

One of the most innovative components of the CRC is its emphasis on giving children a chance to speak out and be listened to on decisions that affect them directly. Equally as important, adults must always act in ways that are in the best interests of the affected children.

The CRC also specifically notes the rights to which disabled children are entitled and prohibits children from performing dangerous work. In general, it charges governments with the responsibility to protect children’s rights if their parents are unable to do so or have been violating their rights. It also charges all people (including children) with the responsibility to respect and protect the rights of others.

Unlike some of the other international human rights treaties, the CRC has an equal impact upon the lives of people in the developing world and in the developed world. In part, this is because children have traditionally been denied certain rights, like the opportunity to be consulted and express an opinion, all over the world, not just in less-developed countries.

However, the rights can be interpreted as having different meanings in different contexts, depending on the specific obstacles that each state faces in achieving the goals of the CRC. In one country, working toward non-discrimination might mean focusing on providing equal opportunities to receive government aid, regardless of religion or ethnic group. In another, it might mean that the government works especially hard to protect children from bullying based on race, religion, appearance, etc.

Gender

The CRC protects all children, but recognises that it may take a special effort to ensure that the rights of girls are protected. This is because girls and women are at a much higher risk than men and boys of discrimination and mistreatment around the world. It will take extra work, for example, to make sure that girls receive education in a society where far fewer girls go to school than boys. Statistics also show that girls are much more likely to be sexually abused, trafficked and end up working in the sex industry. Because of this, governments must take actions that are specifically aimed at ending girls’ vulnerability, as well as taking actions to help boys. Women and girls also receive extra protection under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

Children & War

During war, starvation and illness kill far more people than actual fighting. In Somalia, for example, half of the country’s children under five died during 1992. In Uganda in the 1970s, 78 per cent of the war deaths were due to starvation, 20 per cent from disease and only 2 per cent from violence. In any wartime situation, children are especially vulnerable because they are especially prone to malnutrition which can stunt growth and development and are more likely to contract diseases than adults. Children may also be separated from their parents and are very unlikely to continue to receive an education.

Around the world, children are recruited to serve in armies. Some countries, like the United States and the United Kingdom, will allow 16-year-olds to enlist in the armed services. In other places, children as young as six are kidnapped, sold, or recruited into armies, resistance groups, and guerrilla forces. Some will take part in actual fighting; others will serve as support for grown-ups by cooking, cleaning, carrying water, delivering messages and being used for sexual purposes. Many children are desensitised to the violence in which they take part and do not receive an education. Because children have needs that differ from those of adults, special care must be taken when helping former child soldiers.

Children and Development

Children are disproportionately affected by poverty because deprivation has an especially detrimental effect on growth and development (mental, physical and emotional). Poor living conditions can stunt growth, be major obstacles to school attendance and learning and cause serious illness or even death. Childhood mortality continues to represent a serious problem: some 10 million children die every year before the age of five. More than 70 per cent of these can be traced to six causes: diarrhoea, malaria, neonatal infection, pneumonia, premature births, and oxygen deficiency at birth. With adequate health care facilities, better access to clean water and sanitation, food, and improved hygiene, many of these deaths could be prevented, as they have been in the developed world.

Many anti-poverty strategies talk about ‘breaking the cycle of poverty,’ or making childhood health and education a priority to help children grow up to achieve better employment, greater income, a higher quality of life and to escape from absolute poverty. This is one reason why several of the Millennium Development Goals specifically address children’s issues as well as seeking to eliminate poverty in general.

Issues to Consider  

  • Has my country signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child? Has it lodged any reservations to the treaty and what are the possible implications of those reservations?  
  • What is life like for the children of my country? How many of them go to school and for how many years? Is there enough food and water to meet their needs? How many children die before their fifth birthday? Do children work? Are the girls circumcised? What other information do I need to understand the life of a child in my country?  
  • Are my country’s children affected by any particular problems that could prevent them from having their rights? For example, are there high levels of poverty, low levels of education, conflicts in which children are serving as soldiers, etc.? Are children in my country likely to be trafficked?  
  • Are there problems or situations that have a different effect on children of different genders? Is the girl child more vulnerable to abuse?  
  • What solutions have been proposed or implemented, even on a small scale, in my country, or similar countries, that have improved the lives of children? Which problems do they address? Do they affect girls differently than boys? How?
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