For the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, 2019 marks its 30th year of existence. But how much progress has really been made for the children of the world and what does the convention have to offer future generations?
The UN Children’s Fund UNICEF held a press conference at its regional office in Amman in Jordan last week to report on progress under this well-known UN convention as well as the steps that lie ahead. After the conference, UNICEF Regional Director Ted Chaiban told Al-Ahram Weekly his views on a convention that saw world leaders make a commitment to the children of the world to ensure their protection and their rights.
The first aspect of the convention’s progress lies in its existence in the first place, he said, as a foundation on which future generations can place their hopes.
“The whole notion of children’s rights is now universally accepted. Thirty years ago, they might not have been part of the discourse,” Chaiban said. “But now most countries will track children’s rights in one form or another and clearly identify where they are doing well and where they are not doing so well,” he added.
Some remarkable changes have taken place over the past 30 years. According to UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore, despite the growth in the world’s population, the number of children going without even primary education has been reduced by 40 per cent. There have also been improvements in vaccinations, healthcare, nutrition and sanitation.
However, in today’s world where crises have formed a dark cloud over several regions, such developments have in some cases been reversed. Although decreasing the percentage of children without primary education is a very good accomplishment, more needs to be done to meet the goals of the Convention and for it to serve its purpose.
The issue not only lies with the amount of people who have access to education, but with the quality of that education itself. One of the first concerns that Chaiban mentioned was that more efforts were needed to ensure that what was being taught at educational institutions worldwide was of relevance to the new generations in terms of knowledge and skills.
“Some 50 per cent of the world’s children and adolescents are still leaving education systems without the necessary skills… and we need to do something to upgrade those systems,” he said.
The solution is more than just amending the curriculum, as children and adolescents need to be more empowered and taught to make their own decisions. This is about more than just learning words and symbols. It is about being able to transition into adult life with the right qualifications and skills.
Improvements also need to be made and problems addressed in terms of climate-change. Children need to be more aware of their environment and must be taught to care for it. Chaiban emphasised that our responsibility towards the environment reflects upon our responsibility for children around the world. Care for the environment is one of the biggest contributors to children’s rights, since bringing children up in a clean and healthy environment is as crucial for them as it is for us.
Violence due to conflict is another issue that can take over many children’s lives and constrain them in many ways. According to UNICEF, three-quarters of children in need of humanitarian assistance live in conflict-affected countries.
In Middle Eastern countries such as Yemen, Syria, Libya and others, violations against children’s rights are still seen every day. Some 1,910 children living in conflict areas have been killed and 4,842 injured, according to UNICEF. Six million of those children are internally displaced and 6.3 million are refugees.
Ensuring children’s rights worldwide
CHILDREN’S SUFFERING: With so many children in refugee camps in the region, it has become uncertain whether these children should be reintegrated into their countries or whether they should be sent to others.
Chaiban stressed that each individual child should be assessed as an individual in order to determine what is in his or her best interest. He emphasised that even when sometimes it is not a universally positive thing, taking the child back to the country of origin is of great significance if that child has a family there.
“What is true is that for most children the best place to be is with the family. If the immediate family has either been killed or detained so the child is unable to go home, there is often an extended family member, such as a grandmother, an aunt, or an uncle, who wants that child back and who will take care of that child with all the love and affection that a family environment can give,” he said.
In war-torn countries there may be an absence of government and therefore confusion about who is responsible for children who are wards of the state. UNICEF as an organisation will then try to ensure that an agreement to protect such children can be made.
Negotiations are carried out with those able to affect children’s rights positively or who can try to diminish risks. Local authorities, whether recognised or not recognised, have a responsibility to care for the population of areas they control. According to Chaiban, civil society organisations, faith-based organisations, non-governmental organisations, local imams and local priests are also partners that UNICEF can work with, so that children are supported to the right standards nationally and internationally.
“For UNICEF, it’s about making sure that children have access to healthcare and nutrition, that they have access to safe water, that they have access to quality learning, and that they’re free from violence. If you get those basics in place, the children can also contribute to society,” he said.
Chaiban was a UNICEF representative before becoming regional director for the Middle East last October. When he was a representative in Sri Lanka in 2005, a tsunami struck, and he explained how UNICEF could respond to such disasters and help vulnerable children.
“The first step in terms of how we address such events is what we call ‘disaster risk reduction’, which means the work we do before an event happens, so that people are prepared and society is prepared. For us at UNICEF, it’s about working with schools, for example, so that they have evacuation plans. It is also about working with the health system, so that we can invest in the system to make it more resilient, finding flush water points and things of that nature, for example.”
After the tsunami in Sri Lanka, “the most urgent thing was to make sure that health services were re-established and be able to provide first aid, water purification, and medicine against cholera. We also needed to reunify children that had been separated from their families and ensure people could get access to clean water. Lastly, when children go through such a traumatic experience they need to re-establish a sense of normalcy, and they need to get a sense that life will continue even if they’ve lost loved ones,” he said.
For 30 years the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child has tried to ensure that children worldwide get to fulfil their potential and live with dignity and respect, as well as good healthcare and good education.
The question now is what progress towards these goals the convention will be able to make over the next 30 years.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.