20 Years - The Convention on the Rights of the Child

Amihan Abueva

From Here to There: An advocate’s history with the Convention on the Rights of the Child
In the Philippines, there is immense disparity between the opportunities available to the wealthy and the poor. The cities have rapidly developed into cosmopolitan centres of commerce and culture, while many rural areas remain neglected and isolated. Even as the country has become more stable, fuelled by the remittances of overseas Filipino workers, there has also been an alarming rise in the number of children living on the streets. Twenty -three years after enduring and overthrowing a dictatorship, ongoing armed conflicts displace thousands of children and families each year.

In late 1988, I had just started my first job, working in the small non-governmental alliance - Salinlahi Alliance for Children’s Concerns - promoting children’s rights in the Philippines. At the time, my colleagues and I were eagerly anticipating the impending signing of the Convention on the Rights of the Child by the United Nations General Assembly. With its official definition and provisions for safeguarding childhood, the Convention presents a comprehensive array of rights for each and every child. The Convention’s inauguration challenges us to ensure that the rights it carved out for our children are realized.

First Encounter
At first, it was difficult to gather and analyse information related to children’s rights in the Philippines. Despite this hurdle, we were determined to change the complacent prevailing attitudes towards health and education services for children and began to vigorously promote children’s rights. Personally, I was sceptical about the reliability of democratic institutions, but it was important to see to what extent the Government of the Philippines would abide by this new international commitment to children. My first experience in lobbying was to accompany the chairperson of our organization, Mrs. Paula Carolina S. Malay, to participate in a Senate hearing that urged the ratification of the Convention, which the Government duly undertook on 21 August 1990.

As a young activist, I was particularly interested in advocating for domestic legislation to address children’s right to protection, especially for those affected by war and armed conflict, sexual exploitation and child labour. There was much agreement between government officials and activists on the need to protect children. Unfortunately, our ability to work together was hampered by the public nature of lobbying, which was perceived by government officials as an indictment of the inadequate implementation of laws and a potential source of political manipulation. This tension was eased by using the Convention as the impetus to carry out local research into the situation of children and to explore the relationship between domestic enforcement of children’s rights and the protection afforded under the Convention.

In the case of sexually exploited children, the Convention inspired us – and many groups across the world – to conduct research and investigations on the ties between the prostitution of children and tourism in different countries. We found that in some countries there was a strong link between the presence of foreign military troops and the establishment of a ‘rest and recreation’ sector that included child prostitution. The Convention provided the framework to examine these realities and to confront society’s neglect of the systematic and widespread abuses and exploitation of children that cuts across borders and nationalities.

Forging new partnerships
With increasing numbers of local and regional organizations directing resources towards child rights, exchanging information among organizations in various countries became imperative. By coordinating our advocacy efforts, we began to raise concerns about child protection violations and develop mechanisms to seek redress for children. Additionally, we urged governments to prioritize programmes to combat the exploitation of children. A sense of urgency for action propelled our small organization to participate in the formation of the End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism (ECPAT) Initiative in 1990, which rapidly expanded to other countries. After holding the first World Congress against the Sexual Exploitation of Children in Stockholm in 1996, ECPAT broadened its mandate to include ending child prostitution, child pornography and the trafficking of children for sexual purposes across the world.

In the Philippines, meanwhile, the Convention’s principles and provisions continued to take root. In 1991, Congress passed the Special Protection of Children Against Abuse, Exploitation and Discrimination Act, which had been championed by a partnership involving non-governmental organizations and government personnel. At that time, many legislators were unaware that those engaged in sex tourism involving children were simply deported from the Philippines and that local perpetrators were often not prosecuted. By raising awareness of the sexual and labour abuses children suffered, new collaborations between lawyers, legislators, prosecutors and judges were created. Innovative initiatives, including the use of extraterritorial jurisdiction and international cooperation in law enforcement, were employed to strengthen legal protections for children.

The road ahead
A greater understanding of the situation and the rights of children has made advocates realize our own individual limitations and inadequacies in protecting children. This knowledge spurs us to develop new alliances and coalitions working with the police, government personnel, the media, private businesses and others to promote comprehensive programmes to protect children’s rights.

The Convention also helps us look at children with fresh eyes, leading us to rethink our approaches and philosophy of how to work for and with children. Advocates for child rights have a duty to respect children’s views in all matters concerning them, according to their age and maturity. They are our partners and often our teachers as well. Understanding the Convention makes us more critical and appreciative of the urgency for policy reform, better governance and measures to counter corruption and inefficiency. We need to advocate for in-depth study and understanding of the interplay between the various rights of children, and to learn to analyse current and emerging challenges for children’s rights and well-being.

Under the guiding light the Convention provides, no street corner, sweatshop or hidden brothel will ever be dark or obscure enough to hide exploited children forever, or to deny them their rights to a childhood safe and secure from all forms of violence, abuse and exploitation

Amihan Abueva is a child rights activist and advocate from the Philippines. She has initiated local and international advocacy campaigns and lobbied extensively to fight against child sexual exploitation and child trafficking and for the protection of children affected by armed conflict and trafficking in human organs. She is the Regional Coordinator of Asia Against Child Trafficking (ACTS) and a former president of ECPAT International. She is the first recipient of the Wilberforce Leadership Award in 2008 by the Free the Slaves organization of the USA. 

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