Children Rights and the Law in the 21st Century

Children bring a lot of joy into the lives of their parents and families, but raising them comes with a big price tag. Whether or not to have kids is one of the most important decisions people will ever make in life, and it’s crucial to weigh up all the pros and cons.

Ideally, the principles of international agreements on children rights would guide each country’s systems of education, health care and law enforcement. They include the tenets of peace, dignity, tolerance, equality and solidarity. Children must be able to live free from violence, discrimination and exploitation. They must be able to receive adequate nutrition, shelter and healthcare, and have the right to freedom of expression, assembly and association, as well as to education and services for their personal development. They should also be able to play and take part in cultural activities.

But this ideal is far from reality in many countries. In fact, more than a billion children are living in extreme poverty and millions are victims of serious abuse or neglect. Some children are deprived of their basic needs, such as food, water and clean air, and many have no access to schooling. Others are deprived by being forced into ill-advised marriages or to work for their families. Millions are displaced by conflict or natural disaster and at risk of grave violations in camps, schools and other areas where they have sought refuge.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) sets out a set of rights that all governments should respect and promote for their citizens. It was adopted in 1959, but it took several decades of advocacy and activism to shape a favourable attitude toward the children of the world, and encourage positive action.

This is evidenced in the fact that the first countries to achieve high scores are primarily those that have committed to the CRC and have a track record of implementing its provisions, including national plans of action for combating devastating emergencies, such as natural disasters and armed conflicts, in which children are particularly vulnerable. Those with the lowest scoring records in the protection category include those that are failing to protect their own citizens, including the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea and Sierra Leone.

But changing views about children are effecting legal change in a number of jurisdictions. In particular, the movement towards a rights-based approach to family law has influenced attitudes to parental obligations and to traditional forms of child rearing, such as corporal punishment. This has given rise to debates over the extent to which traditional ways of relating to children can be justified by the broader notion of their rights as human beings. This is an ongoing struggle as new concepts of rights are developed and contested. Children’s rights are still being defended and improved by activists. But it is a long road ahead of us until all children have the protection and the opportunities they deserve.