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Are children's rights effective?

Children's rights are crucial – but they are only effective if children know what they are and how they can act on them
Children's rights are crucial – but they are only effective if children know what they are and how they can act on them

Every child has fundamental rights, and this year's UN Family Day seeks to raise awareness of their importance. But how can the young be expected to put those rights into practice – or even to know what they are? Here, we examine how children's rights can be communicated, protected, and enacted, and what needs to happen to ensure that they serve their original purpose – to keep every child safe, even the most vulnerable.

“The family, as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members and particularly children, should be afforded the necessary protection and assistance so that it can fully assume its responsibilities within the community.”
—UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

In modern society, family units are becoming increasingly fragmented: two-parent families are less common, marriage rates are declining, and poverty and war are tearing families apart. This instability can affect a child’s health by putting unnecessary stress on them, disrupting any networks of support, and making it difficult for guardians to give children the care and attention that they need to thrive. Furthermore, challenges persist in many traditional household dynamics, where the patriarchs maintain control and determine the rights and futures of children in the families.

Friday 15th May marks the 21st International Day of Families; this year’s theme is “Men in Charge? Gender Equality and Children’s Rights in Contemporary Families”. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, highlights the issue of children’s rights in the context of this day:

In too many countries, discrimination against women and disregard for children’s rights remain built into family laws and Government policies, and prevailing social norms often condone and justify many discriminatory practices. The social and economic costs are felt by all. Discrimination and neglect often lead to violence, threatening women’s and children’s health and limiting their chances to complete education and fulfil their potential. The cycle tends to continue into the next generation, as children experiencing violence are more likely to resort to violence in their adult lives.

Children’s rights and family ties

SOS team members provide one-to-one counselling for children living through hard times, such as the war in Syria
At times of conflict, children's rights are at risk, so children need supportive infrastructure if their well-being is to be maintained

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is an international human rights treaty specifically concerned with children – people under 18 years of age. Naturally, the treaty sets out to protect children from violence, sexual abuse, and child labour exploitation, as well their entitlement to education and healthcare. It also establishes global standards for families. According to a youth-friendly version of the UNCRC, children’s family-related rights include the following:

  • [The government] must help your family to protect your rights and create an environment where you can grow and reach your potential
  • Your family has the responsibility to help you learn to exercise your rights, and to ensure that your rights are protected
  • You have the right to live with a family that cares for you
  • You have the right to special care and help if you cannot live with your parents
  • You have the right to care and protection if you are adopted or in foster care
  • If you live in care or in other situations away from home, you have the right to have these living arrangements looked at regularly to see if they are the most appropriate

Safeguarding security

Many children struggle even to conceive that they have rights – that they can challenge violence or discrimination directed toward them. Similarly, orphaned children or young people who have been separated from their families – due to armed conflict, immigrant detention, and so forth – feel lost and abandoned without any support system.

When children know their rights, they are able to recognise when those rights are being violated, and are more likely to defend themselves by speaking up, reporting incidents to the relevant authorities, and so on. Additionally, they will be able to more effectively participate in policy-making processes that specifically impact their lives.

The UNCRC has enabled countries to strengthen/implement legislation and policies to improve the lives of children. As a result, there is more attention on children’s health and educational needs, child labour rates have dropped, and so has corporal punishment. However, issues like forced early marriages are still widespread.

So how can we ensure that children not only have access to information about their rights, but are also able to understand it?

Getting through

These young learners are receiving individual care and attention from the teacher at Basse Village in the Gambia
Before they can act on their rights, children need to be taught what those rights are

Children should be taught and know their rights in order to be able to lawfully claim them if their rights have been abused. UNICEF has established a glossary that provides non-specialists with an understanding of child rights terminology. Similarly, the organisation offers a multilingual international child rights thesaurus, making it easier to locate resources.

Another example is the Youth-Friendly Version of the Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children (a document drawn up by the UN in collaboration with SOS Children), which translates the original document into simpler, clearer, and easier-to-read language.

It is of course beneficial if children are aware of their rights, but they also need an effective channel to report any violation of them. In 2000, the UN General Assembly adopted two optional protocols regarding children’s rights. The first is concerned with children’s involvement in armed conflict, and the second deals with the sale of children, child prostitution, and child pornography. In April 2014, a third one entered into force: the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on a Communications Procedure (OP3 CRC).

From awareness to action

The OP3 CRC enables children (or their representatives) to submit complaints – to the UN Committee on the Right of the Child – about any violation of their rights. This allows their voices to be heard, which have until now been silent. Children or their representatives can challenge abuse of their rights through the communication procedure, and use an inquiry procedure for serious violations. Several requirements form a part of the OP3 CRC, including a time-bound procedure as well as a child-sensitive management of cases. Unfortunately, there are limitations to the OP3 CRC: children can only file complaints if their government has ratified the treaty and only if they exhausted legal avenues in their country of origin.

One of the main objectives here is to move away from the dangerously archaic notion that children are to be treated as commodities, and to acknowledge that they are legitimate right-holders. This allows society to progress in a way that ensures equality for all human beings.

The UN Secretary-General emphasises this point: “Equitable social and economic development depends on fair legal frameworks and social norms that support the rights of women and children. Discriminatory laws and practices that do not give equal rights to all, and that suppress women’s and children’s rights, have no place in contemporary families, communities, societies and nations.”

Want the lowdown on children's rights? Download our free child-friendly guide...