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Keynote Address “LISTEN TO ME”

Keynote Address  “LISTEN TO ME”

Marta Maurás, member of the International Committee of the Rights of the Child (2009-2013), delivered the following speech at the commemoration by Save the Children Fund in London of the XXth Anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

London, 16 November, 2009 - Listen to Me is a compelling phrase. It contains in three words the power of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is a demand, it is a request, it is an expression of –what in the lingo we call- the exigibility of their rights by children themselves, and it is a vision of human relations.

Listen to me or the right to be heard is a principle as much as it is a right unto itself, captured in the two paragraphs of Article 12 of the Convention. It permeates all 54 articles (and the two Optional Protocols), along with the other three key ideas or principles that are the jewels of the crown of the Convention:

-          Non-discrimination or universality of rights i.e. all rights for all girls and boys at all times everywhere

-          The right to survival and development or the right to be alive and lead a life of evolving and growing capacities

-          The best interests of the child which is the obligation of all to do the utmost –or as the Convention states, to the maximum extent possible- to realize children’s rights starting today and doing it progressively. To us it is the most pristine test of governance by the State.

The right to be heard
With the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989, a radical new status of the child as an independent rights-holder was introduced. Challenging traditional conceptions of children as recipients of charitable acts and goodwill, Article 12 provides that children who are capable of forming their own views must be assured of the right to freely express those views (or not if they so choose) in matters affecting them, in accordance with their age and level of maturity. It is unique because it deals with the legal and social status of children who, on the one hand, lack the full autonomy of adults but, on the other, are subjects of rights.

The Unicorn Theater and the play we saw today are perfect examples of what we mean. This space of culture is for and by young people, even the building was designed and built with the collaboration of young assistants to the architect. On the other hand, we woke up today to the apologies by the Australian government to the many English boys and girls who in the 50s and 60s were sent to Australia allegedly in pursuit of a better life, with no consultation, preventing them from finding their families of origin and subjected to cheap labour and ill treatment. Hopefully the English government will not only apologyze but set in place appropriate reparations to the victims.

Article 12 establishes a new social contract and implies long-term change in political, social, institutional and cultural structures and practices at the same time that it is a powerful symbol of the recognition of children as rights-holders. We want to stress the importance of “dialogue” between children and adults, in both the public and private spheres. Dialogue implies an equality of position between two protagonists when they are discussing a specific topic and entails that both parties are effective participants in the two components of the dialogue.

While some progress has been achieved in increasing the participation of children in the public sphere, inside families there continues to be strong resistance to this recognition of the right of the child to express her or his views, frequently because the idea of equality challenges traditional notions of the role of children in a family. In fact, the agency of children is often overlooked or flatly rejected based on beliefs that children are undeveloped and lack the basic capacities for understanding, communicating and making choices, and that parents have the inalienable right to decide over them. Let us not be wrong, this does not mean that parents are not responsible. In fact, the Convention is very strong in establishing that the best environment for children as they grow and exercise their rights is a loving and caring family.

In the public sphere, to include children as permanent protagonists States need to move beyond tokenism to actual consultation with children. This entails their legally-protected, systematic inclusion in legislative and policy making processes, and in the development and implementation of plans, indicators and child-centered standards, in relation, for example, to alternative care, health, education, labour, community development, data collection, the allocation of financial resources and preventive strategies to address all forms of violence and exploitation. This applies too at municipal and community level where the participation of children in public affairs assures that resources and decisions are applied in a child-friendly way, for example, on urban space or transportation.

But are the mechanisms created, such as children’s parliaments, youth fora, councils and committees at the national, regional and municipal levels, really working? The picture is very mixed and mostly showing little progress. It is fair to say that, both in the public and private sphere, the right of children to be heard is probably the area where we least have progressed.

Progress in the realization of rights
UNICEF in its State of the World Children Report 2009 –which is embargoed until 3 days from now-, makes a very comprehensive review of progress in the application of the Convention of the Rights of the Child in its 20th birthday. Just to give you a glimpse, the Convention has taken root in national law and influenced the legislative agenda so much so that since 1990, more than 70 countries have incorporated children’s codes into national legislation as part of law reform efforts based on the Convention’s provisions.

It has also influenced public institutions denoted by increased use of children’s rights language and a stronger focus in national and international targets (like the MDGs), policies, programmes and advocacy resulting in some remarkable improvements in children’s lives all over the world, such as the reduction in the annual number of under-five deaths from 12.5 million children in 1990 to 9 million in 2008. Also, in some countries national and local governments have begun to adopt child-friendly budget initiatives, municipal level participatory planning and monitoring mechanism and child focused social protection mechanisms such as conditional cash transfer programmes for the most vulnerable families, resulting in for example an estimated 84% of children in primary school age currently attending school, 90% actually completing the primary cycle and a diminishing gender gap, which in average shows 9 out of 10 girls of the appropriate age going to school.

Child protection has also moved from what used to be protection against “especially difficult circumstances” to a more holistic concept offering children the right to be safeguarded against a broad spectrum of violence, exploitation, abuse, discrimination and neglect within the family and in society. UN special representatives have been appointed on key issues such as children in armed conflicts and violence against children, ILO Convention No. 138 -which is the basic standard for the abolition of child labour- has been ratified by more than 85% of the ILO member States, more pregnant women than ever before have access to and use services to prevent transmission of HIV to their babies.

Much remains to be done in the realization, protection and promotion of child rights. The challenges are big and I don’t intend to decrease their importance in health, nutrition, education, sanitation, birth registration, child marriages, juvenile justice and many others areas. Suffice it to say that one billion children are still deprived of one or more services essential to survival and development and between 500 million to 1.5 billion are estimated to experience violence annually.

One area of primary importance is the development of the right of the child to be heard. As UNICEF states, “Child participation is in its infancy and has yet to receive widespread adoption in industrialized and developing countries”.

Children as citizens
The UNICEF Innocenti Center[2] reported that a number of Governments have taken steps to engage children in promoting the realization of their rights in local and national contexts. For instance, child parliaments have been established in many countries, like for example in Mozambique, while in others, children have been granted representation on national and regional bodies responsible for children's rights. More frequently, children participate in specially created municipal advisory councils and local mechanisms that in some cases have been legally established. For example, the city of Barra Mansa in Brazil has since 1998 a participatory budget council comprising 18 girls and 18 boys, elected to office, who monitor the wider municipal council’s performance. Other examples of participatory budgets can be found in Sao Paulo and Porto Alegre, also Brazil, and Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the UK. These bodies have given children opportunities to identify priority issues and to contribute their particular perspectives, knowledge and skills to decision-making processes, although the number of children who may actually participate is limited. Information technology has been used as a tool to develop alternative channels of participation, such as the Internet-based system of consultation with children organized by a number of Children's Ombudspersons. 

In a fascinating study commissioned by the Organization of American States[3], the knowledge, attitudes and civic activities of 14 and 17 year-old students were examined in Chile, Colombia, United States and Portugal. The data was taken from a larger cross-national study in 44 countries with over 170.000 children to examine the ways in which young people are prepared for their rights as citizens in democratic societies. A primary purpose was to obtain a picture of how young people are initiated into the political communities of which they are members, including in and out of school experience. Some findings to illustrate the point: the level of civic knowledge among students could be traced to the inclusion or absence of issues related to political institutions and the ideals of democracy in the curriculum; the everyday experience of students with real politics in the community appeared to influence their knowledge; an open classroom climate for discussion, confidence in school participation and learning in school to solve community problems were related to students’ expectations that they would participate in political and social movements as adults, and female students were more supportive of women’s rights than males. Clearly teachers, community leaders, the media, fellow students, parents have an important role to play in forming the expectations and the actions of students’ involvement in public issues and politics.

Fulfilling the obligations related to the right of the child to be heard undoubtedly presents challenges for States parties. The issue is how to translate the right to be heard into effective and participative dialogue between Governments, civil society, the families and children themselves, and to encourage child participation, not only during single events or through symbolic gestures, but in all decisions undertaken at the local, national, regional and global levels, leading not only to better lives for children but also to better societies.

The way forward
The conclusion is that more needs to be done and business as usual is not enough. Listen to Me is a call that needs to be answered with enforcement mechanisms and accountability, locally, nationally and at the international level.

On the normative side, much more needs to be done to ensure that all signatories reform their legislation and apply regulations that take in fully the Convention. Examples like the Child Friendly cities in the UK, France, South Africa, the Philippines and Ecuador among others need to be extended, evaluated and improved as best practices in public policy.

The learning and practice of democratic rules of the game where children are protagonists in all environments, especially the family, the school and the immediate community, should be pursued with the help, among others, of the media, using such resources as the portal dedicated by BBC to children’s rights and issues in its website.

Even the business sector has an important role to play not only ensuring the respect to child and all human rights individually in their sector but also forming global partnerships such as the Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Tourism which proactively seek ways to prevent children’s exploitation.

At the international level, it is high time for the States to agree to establish a complaints procedure - as all other human rights treaties have- to receive and act upon individual communications from children or groups of children who have not had satisfactory remedies to breaches of their rights in their countries, The Convention on the Rights of the Children is not a compendium of moral aspirations, it is an obligation acquired by State parties to respect and guarantee rights, to prevent and investigate violations, to sanction effectively the perpetrators of violations and to provide reparations to the victims, boys, girls or adolescents but it is incomplete without a third Optional Protocol on individual communications. Such Optional Protocol does not replace national justice, it strengthens it by establishing standards to be incorporated at national level in decisions of the courts and in public policies and resource allocation. We welcome the fact that a procedure has begun to be discussed by a working group of the Human Rights Council. It is incumbent on all of us that it is done in an open and participatory way including with children, so as to contribute effectively to the enforcement of children’s rights as a legal obligation of all States.

[2] UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, “The General Measures of the Convention on the Rights of the Child: The Process in Europe and Central Asia”, Florence: Innocenti Publications, 2006

[3] Strengthening Democracy in the Americas through Civic Education: an empirical analysis highlighting the views of students and teachers. Judith Turney-Porta and Jo-Ann Amadeo, University of Maryland, College Park. Washington D.C. January 2004 (from the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement Civic Education Study).

 

 
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