Every child has the right to a happy childhood. Unfortunately, one billion children worldwide lack the basics of life: enough food to grow healthy, decent housing, and access to education. They are at risk from emotional and physical violence, teenage pregnancy, child labour, and sexual exploitation. They are living in poverty, and many suffer from malnutrition, stunting their physical and mental growth.
This is unacceptable. Every country has a responsibility to ensure that children are protected and given the opportunity to live their lives to their full potential. Children have rights that are set out in international treaties and conventions, which the majority of countries – but not the United States – have signed up to. The most important of these is the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was first agreed in 1989 and has 54 articles that spell out all the things that children are entitled to.
The Convention states that children should be treated with dignity and respect, and their best interests are the primary consideration in all decisions that affect them. It also outlines that children should have the right to family, friends, and community; the right to rest and leisure, and to participate in cultural life and arts. They should not be subjected to arbitrary interference with their privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on their honour and reputation.
Parents have the primary responsibility for the upbringing and care of their children, but governments should support and assist them in this. They should not separate families unless it is in the best interest of the child – for example, if they are being abused or neglected. Children who cannot be cared for by their parents should be looked after by people who respect their religion, culture and language. They should have the right to travel with their parents abroad unless this is harmful, and they should not be forced into adoption against their will.
The Convention also lays down that countries must provide all children with a minimum standard of living. This includes the right to adequate food, universal state-paid education, health care, and a safe environment. Children should be provided with these basic human rights irrespective of their parents’ ability to afford them, gender, race, ethnicity or social class.
Children also have the right to freedom of expression and association. They have the right to protest peacefully and demand justice if they feel it is necessary for their well-being. This is a powerful tool that has been used by young people and children around the world to call for climate justice, gender equality, and a number of other social issues that affect their lives.
The United Nations has dedicated over half a century to fighting for children’s rights. In 1949, UNICEF was founded after the Holocaust to help European children get food and clothing, while in 1954 it led a successful global campaign against yaws, a disfiguring disease that caused millions of children to lose their teeth. In 1989, the UN adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a universal agreement that all countries should sign up to.