A recent article titled What We Want Our Parents to Know was a poignant reminder of the difference between what adults think they know about children, and how children perceived adults. Written by a child psychologist, with specific reference to the impact that the corona-imposed lockdown is having on the mental health of children, it reflected some of the (often unheard) pleas of children to be heard and respected.
The profound idea that children are not just objects who belong to their parents and for whom decisions are made, or adults in training; rather, they are human beings and individuals with their own rights got international recognition when world leaders came together and made a promise to every child to protect and fulfil their rights. This was by adopting an international legal framework that laid down that children have their unique set of rights, and that these need to be articulated, advocated, protected, and implemented.
On 20 November 1989 this commitment was officially endorsed when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
The Convention says that childhood is separate from adulthood, and lasts until the age of 18 years. This is a special, protected time, in which children must be allowed to grow, learn, play, develop and flourish with dignity.
The Convention views children not as objects of compassion or pity, but as subjects of human rights under international law. It protects children’s rights by setting standards in health care, education, and legal, civil and social services. It sees children as active participants in their own development and agents of change.
The four core principles of the Convention are: Non-discrimination; devotion to the best interests of the child; the right to life, survival and development, and respect for the views of the child.
The UNCRC is a detailed document with an explicit list of 54 articles covering a wide variety of rights all children automatically enjoy, regardless of where or when they are born. Broadly these rights fall under four main categories–rights to:
- Life, survival and development
- Protection from violence, abuse or neglect
- An education that enables children to fulfil their potential
- Be raised by, or have a relationship with, their parents
- Express their opinions and be listened to.
The Convention provides a universal set of non-negotiable standards to be adhered to by all countries. These were negotiated by governments, non-governmental organizations, human rights advocates, lawyers, health specialists, social workers, educators, child development experts and religious leaders from all over the world, over a 10-year period. The standards set minimum entitlements and freedoms that should be respected by governments. They are founded on respect for the dignity and worth of each individual, regardless of race, colour, gender, language, religion, opinions, or origins.
The Convention obliges the State and other responsibility holders (parents, guardians, care-givers, civil society, etc.) to address the needs and interests of children as entitlements or rights.
The UNCRC has become the most ratified international human rights treaty in history, now signed by 196 countries. But as with most international treaties, while the intentions are noble, there is often a wide gap between intent and implementation. It has been thirty-one years since the Convention came into force, yet every day one hears and reads of children in tragic situations—from the home to the school; from the homeless to those deprived of education; from those who are suppressed and exploited in so many ways–from the local to the global.
The time is well past the Victorian norm of “children should be seen and not heard.” It is the time when children should be heard. And while governments and non-government organisations continue efforts towards protecting and ensuring these rights, it is the family, as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members, where children should experience the empowerment of having rights, and not just the onus of having duties. And it is for every parent to remember that these rights need to be respected.
India celebrates Children’s Day on 14 November, and November 20 is marked across the globe as World Children’s Day. A good week to remind ourselves of the UNCRC.