Why spelling out children’s rights is important
Opinion: UN Convention on the Rights of the Child paved way for Ombudsman for Children
The goal of the Convention on the Rights of the Child is that all children should grow up in a family environment, “in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding”. Photograph: Getty Images
When looking at how the relationship between children, family and the state has changed internationally since the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), let us start with the obvious: the convention recognised the child as a rights holder.
The basic idea of the convention is that children are entitled to rights of their own. Children had rights before the CRC: the child is a human being with rights under all human rights conventions. However, the CRC gave children specific rights because of their young age and dependency.
Key aspects of the role of the state are obligations to respect, protect and fulfil children’s rights. This indirectly gives the state a responsibility for the acts of others towards children, including acts of the family. The state must put in place measures to make the family respect children’s rights, to protect children from violations of their rights within the family and to facilitate good family life.
Right to family life
Children have a right to family life under the CRC. An underlying idea is that the family should be given “the necessary protection and assistance so that it can fully assume its responsibilities”. The idealistic goal is that all children should grow up in a family environment, “in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding”. Parents have a right to family life as well. However, the CRC gives the child a right to protection from all forms of violence, including corporal punishment, abuse and neglect.
This may in some instances run counter to the right of the child and the parents to family life. Where necessary the state has an obligation to intervene in the family to protect the child, and may even place the child outside the family. This should be a measure of last resort only. Far more important is the obligation of the state to put in place an integrated system to prevent violence against children within the family. A cornerstone is the obligation to support its citizens, including families, to manage their lives economically and socially to provide children with a good environment for their upbringing.
This should be done through poverty reduction strategies and policies in the areas of public health, housing, employment and education. The state has an obligation to ensure access to services for vulnerable groups, such as ethnic minorities and families with children with disabilities. A rather different measure is to give children the opportunity to express their views and expectations in the media. There should also be specific social programmes directed at optimal positive child-rearing. The state should establish programmes for early childhood education and care as well as afterschool care programmes also.
For caregivers the state needs to put in place community-based mutual help groups, counselling support and therapeutic programmes on violence, alcohol, drugs and mental health.
In order to address attitudes, traditions, customs and behavioural practices that condone and promote violence against children, several measures are needed. Awareness-raising campaigns should promote positive child-rearing and combat negative societal attitudes. Through information children should be empowered to develop their life skills, to participate in society and to protect themselves. Training of teachers, doctors, social workers, police, community workers and others working with and for children is another central measure to combat negative attitudes. These measures ought to create a more child-friendly society with less risk of violence to children within the family. If violence still occurs there is a need for reporting mechanisms; protection of the child from further violations; and investigation, treatment and redress.
Another significant aspect of the CRC concerns children’s right to express their views. Children have this right in all matters affecting them, including in the family. This right perhaps more than any other recognises the child as a subject of rights. Respecting this right within the family will contribute greatly to the reduction of violence, because if parents really listen to the child they will see the situation from his or her point of view and see the child as a human being worthy of respect.
The state has a responsibility for raising awareness in society for the right of the child to have a say, and should encourage families to be a role model in that regard. The position of the child has been remarkably strengthened through the CRC. This does not mean the position of the family has been weakened. Rather it is the state that has an increased responsibility for facilitating a family life where children can enjoy their rights.
Prof Kirsten Sandberg is c hairwoman of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child . This article is published to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the Office of Ombudsman for Children.