Sunday, October 24, 2010

UN’s effort to preserve the Rights of the Child

By Pushpi Weerakoon

On a global basis almost 11 million children die annually because of child poverty. Over the last ten years, two million children have been killed in conflict, a million have been orphaned, over six million have been seriously injured or permanently disabled, and over ten million have been left with serious psychological trauma. Despite international legislation, child trafficking, prostitution, and abuse are still widespread. 75 million children of primary school age in South Asia alone go without education. And an estimated 158 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 – one in six children in the world – are forced into child labour.

In the light of these harrowing statistics, the opening session of the sixty-fifth UN General Assembly was focused on the Rights of the Child. Anthony Lake, Head of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), told the Assembly that in order to “truly universalize child rights,” the world community must reach the neediest children in their early years, with nutrition, education and protection. It is this early investment that leads to the best long-term outcomes, and ensures a more equitable world. Moreover, an “integrated approach” is required, focusing on preserving the spectrum of child rights, and engaging directly at a community level.

In countries engaged in armed conflict, Millennium Goals indicators reveal that children are particularly vulnerable, according to Marta Santos Pais, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence against Children. With over 70 countries in the world currently engaged in some form of conflict, a concerted response is required by the international community to identify and protect these children. The United Nations is currently campaigning to achieve universal ratification of the Optional Protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child by 2012, in recognition of the indelible scars that violence and conflict can have – arresting a child’s development and education, in addition to provoking low self-esteem, emotional distress and aggressive behaviour. This call was echoed by Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, who argued for “Zero under Eighteen” involvement of children in armed conflict, whether as soldiers, or as innocent victims of conflict.

Whilst the scale of the task cannot be under-estimated, the international community can take heart from examples of good practice that exist. Though subjected to a bitter 30 year conflict, which resulted in more than 100,000 deaths, Sri Lanka has demonstrated the benefits of comprehensive and long term investment in children, enshrined in legislation and embedded in local communities. Dr Palitha Kohona, UN Ambassador to Sri Lanka, explained how sustained investment in education – from kindergarten to university – had resulted in a primary school attendance rate of 97.5%, and a literacy rate of 95%, with equality of access to education regardless of gender. A similar investment in state-funded healthcare has resulted in a reduction of the child mortality rate to 11.3 per 1,000 births. And whilst the government were powerless to prevent the forcible recruitment of child soldiers by the LTTE during the decades of conflict, the recent end of the war has seen the initiation of a rehabilitation programme entitled “Bring Back the Child”, that focuses on educating former child soldiers, and reintegrating them back into society.

The Sri Lankan example shows what can be done to protect child rights in the developing world – even in the midst of violent conflict – through a concerted effort and long term investment. It is the same determination which must be shown by governments around the world, supported globally by local communities, in order to ensure child rights are universally protected, and that children are nurtured with dignity and respect, so that they can realise their potential without suffering or fear.

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