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Why are children’s rights not just like any other human right?

12 July 2017

By all accounts, children’s rights are the least contested of all human rights.If you were to walk into a crowded room anywhere in the world and proclaim, ‘All children should have the same protection and human rights as adults!’ Few would disagree with you. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child[1], with its almost universal ratification,[2] has been heralded by many as the triumph of the major UN Human Rights Conventions.

Yet, the state of children in the world remains deplorable.An estimated 500 million to 1.5 billion children fall victim to some form of violence every year.[3]Approximately 168 million children are working with 85 million engaged in hazardous, exploitative or life-threatening labour.[4]It is estimated that between 2011 and 2020, more than 140 million girls will become child brides, of which 50 million will be under the age of 15 years.

So, what are we doing wrong?If everyone agrees that children should have rights, why are so many children being subjected to rights abuses every day around the world?

The answer is less straightforward than it seems.Unlike a victim of torture who is empowered to seek redress directly from their duty-bearer, a child is not recognized as having capacity (actual or legal) to make decisions or act on their own behalf.A child is embedded within a system, in most cases their family (parents, legal guardians, extended family) who are entrusted to act on their behalf and in their interests. In this respect, a child’s family and community wields enormous power in the implementation and realisation of their rights.

What children’s rights seeks to do is challenge the authority and power structures within families and communities: it uses the framework of human rights to confer on children the status of individual rights-holders within the family, making parents and family members duty-bearers to their children in the exercise of their rights.And it is here that we see the resolve for children’s rights begin to unravel.Fear creeps into the back of parents’ eyes; and families and communities raise their fists at the idea of States interfering with the parenting and upbringing of their children.While no one disputes the idea that children should be protected and afforded rights, there is little agreement on how wide the scope of a child’s right should be[5]; and suspicion or in some cases disdain over the idea of a child having the status of a ‘rights holder’ within the family.

The significance of the role of families and communities in the implementation and realisation of children’s rights cannot be overstated.An effective response to children’s rights must start from the systems in which the child lives and the role that the child plays within that community.Yet, sadly, all too often, child rights’ interventions focus almost exclusively on government policies and reforming laws with almost no attention given to familial and community systems.Significant resources are expended on reforming laws, developing child-friendly initiatives, training the judiciary and government stakeholders on children’s rights and enhancing children’s participation in the administrative and judicial processes.While each of these measures is important, without more attention placed on families and the community systems directly surrounding the child, policy responses, even if robust, will achieve only tepid results.Only in placing ‘children at the heart’ and working with the systems directly surrounding the child will we be able to empower children to take up their role as rights-holders under international law.

Sheila Varadan is a Senior Associate at Embode.Sheila is currently pursuing a doctorate in Child Rights Law at Leiden University in the Netherlands. For further information, please contact sheila@embode.co



[1] UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted 20 November 1989, entered into force 2 September 1990, 1577 U.N.T.S. 3.

[2] There are currently 196 parties to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the only State which has not ratified or acceded to the UN Convention is the United States of America, as of 26 June 2017, see https://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=IV-11&chapter=4&clang=_en

[3] The UN Special Representative to the Secretary General on Violence against Children, Toward a World Free from Violence: Global Survey on Violence against Children, 17 October 2013, http://srsg.violenceagainstchildren.org/page/920

[4] International Labour Organization, ‘Facts and Figures,’ Marking progress against child labour – Global estimates and trends 2000 – 2012, ILO-IPEC, 2013, http://www.ilo.org/global/topics/child-labour/lang--en/index.htm

[5] For example, under Article 14 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a child has a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, which includes the right to oppose the religion of their family and community.More than 20 States have reserved on Article 14, claiming that they do not accept that children have a right to refuse or abide by the religion of their family or community.