Children’s rights milestone should inspire more action

Posted on November 17, 2014 in Governance Debates – Opinion/Commentary – The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which turns 25 this week, has done much good and has the potential to do much more.
Nov 17 2014.   By: David Morley

A generation ago I walked up a dusty road to a small Canadian-funded project for street children in rural Costa Rica. Much to my surprise, those children changed my perspective on life. Despite all they had gone through as the poorest outcasts of a poor society, living by begging or in Dickensian institutions, their ability to form friendships, to welcome a stranger and to build their life anew was a lesson I have never forgotten. What was supposed to be a three-month stint as a volunteer turned into a lifetime in international development.

As I ran after-school programs and worked on special education, the UN and its seemingly endless discussions and debates seemed far away and irrelevant from the lives of these children and their daily struggles for survival. So when I heard that discussions about children’s rights were taking place, I didn’t think they would have any real impact on the lives of these children and the countless millions more like them — poor and marginalized girls and boys; the most forgotten and vulnerable people in the world.

I was wrong.

Those discussions led to the Convention on the Rights of the Child — the most ratified convention in human history — and it has become a powerful catalyst to make things better for the world’s children.

I first saw this in Brazil just two years after the convention came into force. People were marching in the streets, demanding that children’s rights be respected — that the wanton killing of street children, poor public schooling and widespread child hunger were simply unacceptable in a country which had ratified the convention. The convention has been passed, they said, now let’s make it real. And things started to get better for Brazil’s children.

It was not only in Brazil where ripple effects of the convention could be seen. It had global impact in helping ensure children’s issues were central to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) — another UN agreement about which I was initially skeptical. I was wrong again. The MDGs gave new impetus and focus to the struggle for children’s basic rights to health, education, safety and security. Since then, in a remarkably short time, we have seen strong advances in the lives of children around the world.

Fewer children are dying from preventable causes and more children are going to school today than at any other time in human history. More children have access to safe drinking water than ever before. We are in the midst of a child survival revolution and most of us don’t even realize it — probably because bad news travels so much faster than good.

But, we still have far to go. It is unacceptable that 17,000 children still die every day from preventable causes and that 57 million children are out of school and another 200 million still can’t read and write by grade four. The scourge of early forced marriage still condemns too many girls to a life of exploitation and ignorance and puts their lives and their children at risk. And far too many children still work in hazardous conditions that damage their bodies and minds and steal their futures.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child turns 25 years old this week, and discussions are underway for the next set of MDGs, known as the Sustainable Development Goals. We need to be sure that the progress we have seen over this last generation continues and accelerates for the world’s children. We know we can afford it — in Canada we spend a meagre 0.27 per cent of our GDP on foreign aid — it is just a matter of political and societal will, and a commitment to invest in the world’s poorest people.

Over these past 25 years the Convention on the Rights of the Child has galvanized action that has improved the lives of hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest children. As we recognize this important milestone we must reignite the demand for a better world for children, recognize the remarkable steps we have taken, and use the convention to spur us to do even better for the world’s children in the years to come.

David Morley is the president and CEO of UNICEF Canada.

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