The voices of young people are at fever pitch. Technologically gifted, hungry for knowledge and with boundless energy, today’s children and youth adapt quickly. They are connected. This is the generation that ‘gets it’.
So global leaders should listen. But all too often, they don’t. Somehow, our planet’s future guardians – millions of them – continue to be underestimated, ignored and abused. Now, all that children are likely to see is a greedy world that denies them their right to equal opportunities and the chance to flourish.
Despite international laws designed to protect child rights, emergencies and protracted crises affected the education of an estimated 75 million children and young people 3 to 18 years of age. Many are living without proper access to food, shelter, health care and education. Many of them are victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation.
Around 150 million children under the age of 14 are engaged in child labour, often in hazardous conditions. Child trafficking is on the rise and 5.5 million children are engaged in forced labour, with thousands more subject to abuse, forced into marriage and coerced into militias despite the prohibition of such practices under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
For decades, civil rights and liberation movements have fought the worst of oppression – from Western colonialism to South African apartheid, discrimination against African Americans and centuries-old prejudice against gay and lesbian adults. By comparison, children’s rights have been neglected. They continue to be undermined even as world leaders commit to more ambitious targets for health, education and security under the newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
While the number of out-of-school boys and girls of primary school age rose from about 56.6 million in 2010 to 59 million in 2013, for example, aid to basic education has been cut – yet again. It is down nearly 10 per cent since 2010.
The world’s biggest challenge in the decade to come is bridging the gap between, on one hand, the opportunities young people have been promised, see others enjoying and expect, and on the other, the denial of those opportunities as doors are closed to them and the ladders of opportunity are kicked away.
The good news is that children across the world are participating in rights campaigns. In Bangladesh, young girls are forming child marriage-free zones. Child labourers have joined the Global March against Child Labour. And a girls’ rights movement pressing for access to education has been inspired by Malala Yousafzai, the more than 200 still-missing Chibok girls of Nigeria and 1,000 global youth ambassadors from A World at School, a campaign working to get all children into school.
It is time for progressive minds everywhere to support these freedom struggles. Here is a set of short-term, practical proposals that can not only advance the SDGs but also support a global civil rights movement for children and young people.
Invest in children
Making sure children have the opportunities they need to flourish and realize their rights will take resources. We must focus on getting every child into school and also ensure that quality of learning is consistently high.
Education Cannot Wait – A Fund for Education in Emergencies can address the needs of the estimated 75 million children affected by crises and protracted emergencies. The fund, launched in May 2016, would help offset an annual funding shortfall of US$8.5 billion needed to maintain access to education for these children.
In addition to greater international aid, countries should adopt child-focused budgeting of their available resources. Under Article 4 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, States parties are obligated to invest in children to the maximum extent of their available resources. As a result, increasing numbers of countries are designing budgets with children specifically in mind. The Committee on the Rights of the Child, with the support of child advocacy organizations, is already drafting a General Comment on public spending to realize children’s rights that will clarify the policy implications of Article 4.
Uphold child rights
But more resources, by themselves, will not suffice. What is to guarantee that children’s rights will be upheld or even taken seriously?
No United Nations convention has been ratified in as many countries as the CRC. But in too many areas, these rights are not being implemented. Similarly, the 1998 Rome Statute recognizes the need for special measures to protect children as victims and witnesses during judicial proceedings, and requires that judicial staff have expertise on children’s issues. Yet criminal acts affecting children and within the province of the ICC – rape, sexual violence, trafficking and the use of children as soldiers – are not being properly investigated. Impunity remains widespread.
The Third Optional Protocol to the Convention on a Communications Procedure, which entered into force in April 2014, allows children to bring complaints about rights violations directly to the Committee on the Rights of the Child – but only if no solution is found at the national level. As of February 2016, only 26 countries had ratified the Protocol, and those most likely to violate it are the least likely to sign on.
An International Children’s Court, along with a Children’s Commissioner appointed to each country, is therefore vital to address these outstanding issues.
Listen to young voices
There is at least one other prerequisite for mustering the necessary resources to secure opportunities for children and establishing legal mechanisms to protect their rights. Namely, children and young people need a political mechanism through which they can debate these important issues. Young people’s parliaments and other platforms for meaningful participation are a must.
An annual meeting of the United Nations Security Council as a Children’s Rights Council would have a huge impact. Over the course of the year, a children’s sub-council of the Security Council could examine the key issues that need to be raised.
To make this happen, the United Nations General Assembly should host a session for children and young people, preferably before its next session. Ideally, agreement on a United Nations Children’s Council that reports to the Security Council could be reached in time for the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 2018. And by the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 2019, we could see the establishment of a new International Children’s Court.
The long-term goal is much simpler: Give children a chance. Give children a voice. The future is theirs.
Gordon Brown, United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education
>> Three posts published today – from Gordon Brown, Angelique Kidjo and Kailash Satyarthi –represent three voices included in the new edition of UNICEF’s flagship publication The State of the World’s Children. You can read further in the digital version of the publication or in a PDF of the full report.