25 Years Later, Children's Rights Still Lacking

Anniversaries provide important milestones for taking stock, and on this one, it's clear that there is still much work to be done - that in many places around the world, the promises have turned out to be empty ones. At least, so far.
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This fall marks the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, a quarter century since world governments officially pronounced that the globe's youngest citizens were, in fact, people who deserved to be treated as such. With that recognition came a set of broad protections - from violence, dangerous labor, forced marriage -- as well as a commitment to give children access to a primary education upon which they can build their future.

Anniversaries provide important milestones for taking stock, and on this one, it's clear that there is still much work to be done -- that in many places around the world, the promises have turned out to be empty ones. At least, so far.

It is worth noting that all but two countries worldwide have ratified the Convention. One of them, Somalia, where I worked for several years, has no recognized government and thus no legitimate platform on which to formally make promises. The other is the United States, which has a recent history of being apprehensive and slow about endorsing global treaties not of our making. Although the U.S. has signed the Convention, we should not put too fine a point on the fact that we have not formally ratified it. After all, current domestic laws offer a set of protections that go beyond what is called for in the Convention. While the impact may be seen as more symbolic than practical, our delay in ratifying the Convention denies the U.S. an important opportunity to exert its moral leadership on matters of such global priority, and for that reason alone, the delay is as embarrassing as it is disappointing.

More disturbing, however, has been the incrementally slow pace of change within many of the signatories to the Convention. Millions of children around the world continue to be subjected to widespread forms of violence. Abuse in the home - both physical and emotional, from parents, family members, caregivers and others - is often a daily part of young children's lives. According to UNICEF, two in three children in 190 countries surveyed suffer regular physical punishment at home. Bullying also is common.

Sexual violence is widespread as well. Estimates suggest that some 120 million girls around the world have been subjected to sexual violence. And violence can come in the form of cultural traditions. Between 100 and 140 million girls and women have endured some form of genital mutilation.

Violence against children not only inflicts physical and emotional suffering, but even fatal consequences. Every five minutes, a child is killed by violence - not by armed conflict, but by personal violence. In 2013, close to 100,000 children and teens were victims of homicide. The murder of children is the leading cause of preventable death.

On the child labor front, we have seen some heartening though inadequate progress. The International Labour Organization estimates that there are 168 million children around the world involved in child labor, more than half of whom (85 million) are doing hazardous work. As alarming as those statistics may be, they represent a significant decline over the past decade and a half. Since 2000, child labor has dropped by an encouraging 40 percent.

The news is less encouraging on the issue of forced marriages. Currently, one in three girls in the developing world will be married by age 18, one in nine by age 15 and some as young as 8 years old. If current trends continue, more than 220 million girls under age 18 will be married by 2030. Studies tell us that girls who marry before adulthood are more likely to be the victims of domestic violence and are often expected to begin bearing children immediately. And, almost always, they are forced to drop out of school.

Twenty-five years after the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it's clear that the promises made to the world's children have gone largely unmet. But compare these promises to another set of commitments. In 2000, the nations of the world rallied behind the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals, a blueprint that set out a clear set of objectives in eight critical areas - among them, reducing extreme poverty and childhood mortality, increasing access to primary education and improving maternal health. There is much work to be done to fulfill these goals, and yet the across-the-board progress that has been achieved in the past decade and a half is notable, and in some cases, impressive.

Children's welfare and safety merit an equally robust and comprehensive commitment. The 25th anniversary of the Convention reminds us that words without action are insufficient, that commitments without the force of law behind them are inadequate and that promises to the world's children are promises worth keeping.

Children who were born in 1989, the year of the Convention, now may have children of their own. Let's see to it that this next generation of children experiences the rights that have been denied to generations before them.


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