Universal Children’s Day is an important global event that focuses on the rights and welfare of children worldwide. It is celebrated on the 20th of November in commemoration of two significant milestones in the history of children’s rights. On November 20, 1959, the General Assembly approved the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which established the importance of protecting and promoting children’s rights on a global scale. Then, on this day in 1989, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), a comprehensive treaty that outlines the fundamental rights of children. Universal Children’s Day serves as a reminder of our collective responsibility to safeguard and enhance the well-being of children everywhere. The significance of Universal Children’s Day lies in its emphasis on providing children with a nurturing and secure environment in which they can flourish, learn, and develop.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child
In order to discuss about Universal Children’s Day it is important to acknowledge the significance of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is an international human rights treaty that sets out the civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights of children. Sri Lanka is a signatory to the CRC, and as such, it is obligated to protect and promote the rights of all children within its jurisdiction.
The UNCRC comprise 54 articles. The first article defines a child. It states that a child is any individual under the age of 18 unless the laws in a particular country stipulate an earlier age of majority.
Child Labour, the State violates the UNCRC
Sri Lanka has made some progress in addressing the issue of child labour, particularly through amendments to the Children and Young Persons Ordinance. These amendments have raised the age of majority to 18, aligning with international standards. However, child labour remains a significant problem in the country, with a large number of children still involved in exploitative work.
According to the International Labour Organization, there were 4,571,442 children in Sri Lanka in 2016, and approximately 2.3% of them were engaged in some form of work. Most child labourers are found in the agricultural sector, followed by the service and manufacturing industries. The situation is particularly severe in rural and plantation areas, where poverty and a lack of opportunities push children into working.
Efforts have been made to combat child labour, including the implementation of laws and regulations. Failing to address this issue violates Article 32 of the UNCRC, which focuses on protecting children from economic exploitation and hazardous work. It also goes against Article 28, which states that all children should have access to education without discrimination and that education should be aimed at developing their full potential. Article 24 highlights protecting the right of children to the highest attainable standard of health and access to medical services.
Healthcare, Nutrition, Education and Social Protection: Fundamental Rights
Sri Lanka has made significant progress in improving children’s access to healthcare and education. But many children in Sri Lanka live in poverty, with limited access to basic necessities such as nutrition, healthcare, and education. Poverty affects their overall well-being and limits their opportunities for a better future.
A UNICEF report states that child malnutrition in Sri Lanka increased in 2022 amidst the economic crisis. A report by the Health Ministry’s Family Health Bureau indicated that all forms of malnutrition in children increased in 2022 after a steady drop since 2016. According to the Bureau, more than 43.4 percent of children under five years are suffering from nutrition problems (Reuters). The economic crisis in Sri Lanka, its worst since 1948, is causing food prices to soar. As a result, families are struggling to afford the cost of food and feed their children adequately (UNICEF).
Apart from that children also face several challenges within the education system, which does not align with the principles outlined by the UNCRC.One major challenge is accessibility, as many children, particularly those from marginalised and disadvantaged backgrounds, struggle to access quality education. This can be due to factors such as poverty, discrimination or a lack of infrastructure and resources. Furthermore, children with disabilities often face significant barriers to accessing inclusive education that caters to their individual needs. These challenges pose a threat to children’s right to education, hindering their overall development and future prospects.
Challenges in implementing the UNCRC
In the Sri Lankan context, there are several challenges and issues that need to be addressed to fully implement the CRC. One of the main challenges is poverty and its impact on children’s rights. The government implements poverty alleviation programmes to reduce poverty, but there are still pockets of extreme poverty, especially in rural areas and urban settings. Poverty further increases children’s vulnerability to exploitation, trafficking and child labour. The unequal distribution of wealth in the country further exacerbates these challenges.
Gender inequality is another issue that affects the implementation of children’s rights, particularly for girls. Discrimination and harmful traditional practices, such as child marriage, forced marriage and gender-based violence, undermine the rights and well-being of girls. There is also a lack of awareness among parents, caregivers, and communities about children’s rights and the government’s obligations under the UNCRC which can hinder the effective implementation of children’s rights laws and policies.
The UNCRC emphasises the importance of involving children in decision-making processes that have an impact on them. However, in Sri Lanka, children have limited or no opportunities to participate in decision-making at home, in their communities and in policy and programme development. This limitation restricts their ability to influence and shape the implementation of children’s rights.
How can the Sri Lankan Government uphold the UNCRC?
The Sri Lankan government should take several steps to effectively implement the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) as stated below:
- Review and update existing legislation to align with the UNCRC. This entails incorporating all provisions of the UNCRC into national law and ensuring their harmonization with other relevant laws and policies.
- Conduct awareness campaigns to educate the public, including parents, teachers, and children about children’s rights as outlined in the UNCRC. Utilise schools, community centres, media channels, and other platforms to achieve this task.
- Actively encourage and facilitate children’s participation in decision-making processes that affect them. Establishing forums for children to express their opinions on issues affecting their rights and well-being can help achieve this.
- Establish robust child protection mechanisms to ensure the prevention of abuse, violence, exploitation, and neglect of children. There should be effective reporting mechanisms, such as actively functioning helplines and child-friendly spaces and providing necessary support and services to child victims.
- Prioritise the provision of free, inclusive, quality education to all children, ensuring equal access without discrimination. This includes addressing barriers such as poverty, gender inequality, and disabilities and providing necessary resources and infrastructure.
- Prioritise children’s health and well-being by ensuring access to essential healthcare services, nutrition, sanitation, and clean water. This can be achieved by providing adequate funding, trained healthcare professionals, and awareness campaigns on preventive measures.
- Take steps to eliminate child labour by enforcing and strengthening laws and regulations that prohibit child labour. It should go hand in hand with providing livelihood opportunities and social protection for families to alleviate poverty, which often drives children into labour.
- Ensure a fair and child-friendly justice system that prioritises the rights and protection of children. Establishing specialised courts, training professionals on child-friendly procedures, and providing necessary support and rehabilitation services for children in conflict with the law.
- Establish a robust data collection and monitoring system to track the progress of children’s rights and well-being. Collecting disaggregated data, conducting regular surveys, and utilising the data to inform policies and interventions.
The government should collaborate with international organisations, NGOs, and civil society to exchange knowledge and best practices, receive technical assistance, and mobilise resources for the effective implementation of the UNCRC.
On Universal Children’s Day, let us reflect on the progress made in advancing children’s rights and recognise the challenges that still exist. Let us commit ourselves to creating inclusive societies where all children can thrive, regardless of their background or circumstances. Together, we can make a difference in the lives of children and build a brighter future for every child. Another world is possible!
Authored by PEaCE/ECPAT Sri Lanka