Focus on the rights of children

Published : Jan 31, 2003 00:00 IST

The Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, Kul Gautam, presents the report at a press conference in Brussels on December 11, while Noella Simbi Banza, a 15-year-old girl from the Democratic Republic of Congo, looks on. - THIERRY CHARLIER/AP

The Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, Kul Gautam, presents the report at a press conference in Brussels on December 11, while Noella Simbi Banza, a 15-year-old girl from the Democratic Republic of Congo, looks on. - THIERRY CHARLIER/AP

THE priorities of children are not very different from those of adults; they require access to opportunities, redress of their economic situations, and, above all, an enabling environment to develop as individuals. Unfortunately, with drastic socio-economic and political changes happening the world over, just as the economic rights of people have got eroded, the rights of children have also been affected. Being a vulnerable age group, children get more and more marginalised. The lives of children are linked inextricably to the lives of adults and to the environment they live in. Therefore, it is a matter of significance that the State of the World's Children Report, 2003, brought out by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), focusses on participation by children in processes that concern their lives as children and as adults.

The process of highlighting this aspect was initiated quite some time ago, although it was only in May last that the U.N. General Assembly's Special Session on Children discussed exclusively issues relating to children. Some 400 children from 150 countries travelled to New York City to attend the session. They spoke of their concerns, fears, challenges and expectations of being young in a world where unprecedented wealth coexisted with extreme poverty. At the close of the session, the U.N. pledged to build a world fit for children. Leaders declared their commitment to change the world not only for children, but with their participation.

There is this general understanding that a child whose active engagement with the world has been encouraged from the outset will be a child with the competence to develop through early childhood, respond to educational opportunities and move into adolescence with confidence, assertiveness and the capacity to contribute to democratic dialogue and practices within the home, school, community and country. But an active engagement with the world can mean several things. A child who has had no opportunities is also actively engaging with the world, as a member of a large disenfranchised section. He/she is a victim of that context where unprecedented wealth coexists with extreme poverty. How he/she relates to the world and vice-versa is dependent on this uncomfortable reality. Presumably, this is one key issue that does not get adequate emphasis. Besides, statements like "the hope for democracy lies in the children who have been prepared to succeed in school throughout their early childhood and whose opinions and perspectives are valued in their families, school community and in society and who have learnt about the diversity of human experience and the value of discussion, and who have had multiple opportunities to acquire and develop their competencies. Such children enhance civil society both in the present, as children, and in the future, as adults" are a little problematic.

Success can be an individual endeavour and most often is an individual pursuit, not necessarily leading to notions of social responsibility and larger democracy. The societal notion of success is also important. If the priorities of a society include mainly the acquisition of material wealth and individual success, then the notion of the larger good or public good may not feature at all unless it is made a priority by governments in their educational systems.

One very interesting but worrying aspect that the report mentions is the growing disenchantment of voters across the world, including those of industrialised countries while perceiving themselves as mature democracies. The percentage of people of voting age who actually cast their ballot had declined steadily during the 1990s in most Western countries. The report states that people in devel<147,1,7>oping countries are disenchanted with domestic politics and with the international political process, and that this causes grave concern. But this disenchantment persists in similar and in an even more vocal fashion in the neo-liberal world. Of late, people's protests on unfair economic and trade issues or on foreign policy interventions by their governments only indicate the cynicism and mistrust within the developed world. The solutions, therefore, cannot emerge from that end for developing countries.

Several mechanisms to optimise child participation have emerged within countries where solutions to their pressing problems have been addressed. But it was at the Special Session that the real needs were articulated by children's representatives. World leaders were asked to ensure some fundamental things, such as the child's right to health care, education and a healthy environment.

The factsheet concerning the status of the majority of children in the world continues to be miserable. Nearly 120 million children in the primary-school-going age, 53 per cent of them girls, are not in school. Millions of children under five die each year from diseases that are preventable by vaccines.

The children told world leaders that they wanted an end to poverty, war and exploitation. With 150 million children in developing countries being underweight, increasing the risk of death and inhibiting mental and physical development, poverty emerged as a major factor. Since 1990, over two million children have been killed and six million seriously injured in wars. It is here that some political questions emerge. It is evident that the arms and ammunition for these wars do not emanate from the war-torn nations themselves; the sponsors lie elsewhere. The global war against terrorism will certainly take its toll of more children. Child labour also continues to be a major scourge, with 180 million children worldwide engaged in the worst forms of child labour.

Undoubtedly, there is genuine economic distress and it has become more visible now than ever before. This has been borne out by both figures and the demands articulated by the children at the special session. Meaningful interventions on a large scale are only possible by governments that have the infrastructure and the political will to deal with such problems. Cuba's long-standing national system of early childhood and pre-school education programmes covering 98.3 per cent of children in the 0-6 age group by the end of 2000 finds mention in the UNICEF report. This system was successful in increasing the development and educational achievements of Cuban children. Cuban children were found to score significantly higher marks in mathematics and Spanish than their counterparts in other Latin American countries. This could not have been achieved by ad hoc, short-term or small-scale interventions and certainly not by well-sounding platitudes.

The UNICEF report, by bringing the rights of children into sharp focus, has sought to draw attention to a segment that could well decide the future of the world. The conditions for children to participate have to change and this can happen only if current policies within nations undergo a drastic change.

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