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Convention on the Rights of the Child: 30 years on

In her letter to children of the world UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore says in 1989 the Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted amidst a real sense of hope for a different world for the next generation.

The Berlin wall had fallen, apartheid was in decline and the birth of the internet ushered in a new world. Gusts of many inspirational winds of change were blowing across the world at the time.

The principles of the convention are widely accepted internationally. When Somalia and newly founded South Sudan ratified the treaty in 2015 the US became the only country yet put its signature on the most widely ratified human rights treaty in the world.

In many respects children are better off in 2019 than they were 30 years ago. The world now sees them as holders of inalienable and indivisible rights regardless of their background or circumstances at birth.

The past three decades have also been marked by good momentum. Ten years after the convention was adopted the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention was also adopted in 1999 by the World Labour Organisation. This has meant disadvantaged children can no longer be seen as objects of charity to be given the barest minimum and forced into work to earn their keep.

Strides made in the past 30 years

On 20 November 1989 at U N Headquarters, (left-right) UNICEF Executive Director James Grant, boy scout Brian, Under-Secretary-General Jan Martensen, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Audrey Hepburn and boy scout Michael make a collective telephone call to children at UN offices in Geneva, Switzerland, to announce the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child that day. Image: John Isaac/UN Photo

The past 30 years has been a period of great progress for children's rights and the chances of them fulfilling their fullest potential.

A lot more children make into adulthood. For instance, the total number of deaths annually among children and young adolescents under the age of 15 has dropped by 56 per cent since 1990.

Nevertheless, the real figures are still staggering. While the number has dropped dramatically from 14.2 million in 1990, about 6.2 million children still died each year as of 2018.

According to the UN Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation 2019 report this means one child or young adolescent died every five seconds in 2018. Based on current trends close to 10 million 5 to 14-year-olds and 52 million children under 5 years of age will die between 2019 and 2030.

Impressive progress has been made in education as well. More than 90% of primary school-age children are enrolled. The gender disparity in access to primary education has also more or less disappeared.

In Lesotho the enrollment rate at primary schools has been above 90% for both males and females since 2016.

The past three decades have also been the worst

The past three decades should have eliminated many categories of horrid statistics about the plight of children.

If the international community was true to its commitments a quarter of the worlds children would not still be embroiled in contemporary forms of modern slavery.

It also means that the 159% increase in the number of child soldiers globally from 2012 to 2017 since 2012 should have been met with tangible outrage.

In 2017 children as young as nine were still recruited into groups like the Lord’s Resistance and 22 schools were used by armed groups in the conflict in Central African Republic.

When armed groups involved in the South Sudan civil released 300 child soldiers in 2018 there were still 19 000 children enlisted in their ranks according to Unicef. Image: UN

Conflict takes away more than just a safe space for children to have a happy childhood. Thousands of children around the world become refugees as a result of conflicts they had no hand in engineering.

Violence and war also plunges children into statelessness. While article 7 of the convention says a child has the right to acquire a nationality at birth an estimated 70 000 children are born into statelessness each year in 2017.

According to the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion the number of children born into statelessness in 2017 was higher than the number of resolved cases of statelessness.

While Unicef’s considers birth registration a precursor to children’s access to essential services stateless relegates children to a life of invisibility.

Abhorrent customs still exist: child marriage and ukuthwala

The custom of ukuthwala still exists in South Africa’s rural hinterlands. Ukuthwala is a form of abduction that involves the kidnapping a girl or a young woman by a man and his peers with the intention of compelling her family to marry her off.

The Statistics South Africa Community Survey of 2016 recorded more than 91 000 cases of child marriage. Girls between the ages of 12 and 17 were either married, divorced, separated, widowed, or living with a partner as husband and wife according to the survey.

South Africa’s Department of Justice says in provinces like the Eastern Cape ukuthwala involves the rape of girls as young as twelve years by men old enough to be their grandfathers.

Source: Unicef

Unicef says these marriages can lead to a lifetime of suffering for girls. Girls who marry before they turn 18 are less likely to remain in school and more likely to be victims of gender-based violence. And this violence is likely continue well into their married lives as adults.

While 25 million child marriages were prevented over the last decade Unicef says an additional 150 million girls will marry before they reach the age of 18 by the year 2030 if no urgent action is taken.

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