Building a World Fit for Children
Twenty years after the launch of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, we must do more to listen to vulnerable children
To 13-year-old Mumo Katumo, the anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is an utter irrelevance. For the past year Mumo and her family have been struggling to stay alive in the drought-ridden Masinga district of eastern Kenya with little food or water and with no hope of going to school.
Mumo describes the pain of her hunger: "You go numb. You lose the ability to do anything. Sometimes I think it is like the feeling of dying."
Yet the convention was introduced to help children like Mumo, boys and girls who face a daily battle for survival in the face of extreme poverty. Twenty years ago, as director of Amnesty UK, I remember attending the London launch of the CRC and making a grand speech about this first binding piece of international law meant to help and protect children such as Mumo. Two decades later there is still much work to do.
The good news is that the widespread treatment of simple infant illnesses means three million more children survive each year than was the case in the 1980s. Huge advances made in the battle against debilitating diseases such as polio prove what can be done by a concerted worldwide effort, yet still a child under the age of five dies every three seconds from a largely preventable death. That's nine million children - 98% of whom live in the developing world. Young people are on the front line of climate change, their small bodies more vulnerable to the floods, typhoons and droughts that have all increased in intensity and number during the last 20 years.
An estimated 160 million of the next generation of children will also be at risk of catching malaria and about 900 million will be affected by increasing water shortages. Meanwhile the global financial crisis has hit the poorest countries worst, the World Bank estimates that 50,000 more babies will die in sub-Saharan Africa this year, the majority of them girls. Where are their rights? It's true to say that 28 million more children go to school now than did 20 years ago, but children with disabilities and secondary school girls are too often unable to access a full education and realise their potential.
And defending the rights of our youngest citizens isn't just a developing world issue, in parts of Europe Roma children are labelled as mentally deficient and banished from mainstream school.
Here in the UK, in the recession, the number of children with both parents out of work has gone up 18% and there is real pressure on the parents of the 2.3 million children living in poverty.
Over the last two decades the world has turned from being largely rural to being mostly urban with the rise of the sprawling mega cities. A new city the size of Birmingham is created every week, makeshift slums spring up overnight with no thought for the needs and rights of children. Dirty drinking water, poor sanitation, few schools and dangerous street work all put children at risk.
Participation - letting children have a say in decisions made about them - was always the most controversial part of the convention, but I believe this is actually the key to ending child neglect, cruelty and abandonment.
Practising as a children's lawyer I found that children have a view and experience very different from that of adults. They have a valuable and much-needed opinion to add to debates about the development of their communities and they should be heard. Several years ago I met a group of young people from Honduras who were so distressed by their fathers' drinking and violence that they successfully campaigned to close their local bars. In Albania the children's parliament successfully got the state drinking age raised.
But sadly in the UK, and despite the excellent work of youth parliaments and similar group, we have increasingly demonised children as "feral youths", criminalised their behaviour and ignored their views on lack of safe public spaces to congregate. So in this patchwork of progress and setbacks, has the Convention on the Rights of the Child been useful? Undoubtedly.
Children in countries that have emerged from conflict in the last two decades, from South Africa to most recently Montenegro, are better protected because new constitutions include the CRC framework.
Child soldiers, although tragically they still exist, are no longer invisible and there is now a duty for every country to ensure every child survives, is protected and can develop and have a say in decisions made about them - although sometimes honoured more in the breach than the observance.
Admittedly the weaknesses for which the convention was criticised 20 years ago, the lack of a remedy for an individual and the wide-ranging reservations of some states have hampered its implementation. If we are serious about building a world fit for children, now is the time to create a way for them to take complaints to the convention's monitoring body, the Committee on the Rights of the Child.
Children are not mini human beings with mini human rights, they need proper remedies. It is time for the CRC to make rights a reality for children such as Mumo Katumo.
© 2009 Guardian News and Media Limited