20 Years - The Convention on the Rights of the Child

Ela Bhatt

Our Children’s World
You were given to me by God,
Oh, you are the one I asked for.
And now that you have arrived,
I pray you stay forever.

This is how we all begin, in the arms of a mother, soothed by the sounds of her lullaby as she welcomes us into this world and prays that we be given a long life on earth. This universal desire to ‘give every child a better future’ was embedded into international law with the signing of the Convention on the Rights of the Child on 20 November 1989 and further consolidated, on 30 September 1990, in the World Declaration on the Survival, Protection and Development of Children. I had the privilege of signing the latter document on behalf of the Government of India. Since the adoption of these documents, an entire generation of children has been born and become adults.

I recently spoke to children in one of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) childcare centres in working-class neighbourhoods of Ahmedabad in the western state of Gujarat. I also talked to a group of women who are SEWA members about their lives. Their concerns – for the health, education and human dignity for their families – echo those expressed by women and children prior to the Convention’s adoption more than 20 years ago.

These children are full of potential and energy, but their young lives overflow with hardship, including poverty, labour and instability. A 10-year-old girl helps to collect scrap metal and junk to sell. Her mother relies on her and her physically handicapped older sister, who rolls bidis – cigarettes – to earn money. The sixth daughter of a migrant construction worker mother is growing up without seeing her parents. Her mother is gone all day, working, and she has not known the whereabouts of her husband since they divorced.

The heartbreak of these children’s lives is mirrored in the furrowed brows of mothers struggling to provide for their families. Geetaben spends long days feeding a factory furnace. She brings her infant to work because there is no one to look after the child at home. Her husband works two shifts in the factory. Girijaben, a vegetable vendor, says her neighbourhood is infested with all sorts of criminals. The police raided a house in the middle of the night, seized weapons and illicit liquor and arrested the local bully. The next morning, on her way to work, she noticed the scoundrel was back, sitting on his porch.

Vitals needs remain out of reach
When basic human rights like sufficiently nutritious food, clean water, adequate shelter and clothing, quality education and healthcare are not accessible – not just to children, but to entire families – it is difficult to plan for a future. Of the women I spoke with, almost all had lost children to illness or experienced poor conditions and treatment in hospitals. All the children in their households worked, as their labour was critical to the survival of the family. Home-based piece-rate workers such as bidi rollers depend on their children’s help to meet production quotas. Among the poor, children usually consume little, and by age 14 they have often already joined the workforce. In many cases, by 18 the ‘child’ is already a parent.

The fruits of education take too long to ripen. Even when education is free, poor families often cannot afford to invest in 12 years of schooling. To save on transportation costs, many send children to school on alternate days. Functional literacy and occupational training for children could serve many families needs better, but the current view of education is too narrow to consider working-class realities.

Without shelter, a family cannot survive; without a home the family breaks down. Life on the sidewalk is in an unrelenting state of vulnerability. For the poor, the home is also a workplace. Their capacity to earn increases exponentially if they have a roof over their heads. Having a home also makes them less vulnerable to criminal elements that prey on the weak.

The bigger picture: protecting children as a holistic process
The rights of children cannot be isolated from those of the family. The mother-child unit is indivisible, and the well-being of one affects the other. These realities call for a new way of thinking, with policies informed by holistic approaches to caring for children – ones that consider housing, employment, food and water security as children’s rights issues.

The development of communities – where government means more than just ‘police’, where a country builds institutions that reflect the needs of the people rather than subscribing to systems that marginalize them, and where the people are invested in their community’s well-being – is the only sure path to a better future for our children, our families, our communities and our world. Twenty years ago the Convention on the Rights of the Child initiated these efforts in governments and in the global community. I hope the next 20 years will see even greater progress for families and children.

Ela Bhatt is the founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), an organization committed to the development of enterprise for women, with the aim of lifting women and children out of poverty. Ms. Bhatt is a lawyer by training and a distinguished advocate and leader in international development and policy. She lives in the city of Ahmedabad, India, with her family.

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