20 Years - The Convention on the Rights of the Child

Hanna Polak

Life on the streets:  millions of children remain homeless, without care and protection
The fight for the rights of children, for their protection and well-being, is of the utmost necessity. Whenever this fight is lost – as it is when a homeless child dies on the street — we must question how much is being done, by nations, legislators, communities and individuals, to protect children from the saddest fate of all.

For those working with abused or homeless children, and for these children themselves, the vision of the Convention on the Rights of the Child can seem light years away. ‘Street’ children are usually deprived of almost all the rights embodied in the Convention. Having escaped homes and orphanages fraught with violence and neglect, they continue to experience a cruel reality. Many are forced into child labour, and nearly all become victims of sexual exploitation.

Empty bellies: dangers of a homeless childhood
These children often experience violent abuse from the very people and authorities entrusted with their care and protection. They suffer from various medical afflictions, many of which require hospitalization. To curb their hunger and loneliness, they sniff ‘glue’ and soon become addicted to hard drugs. All they see is brutality and exploitation. Short-term relationships — with homeless children and pets — are used as a substitute for long-term, caring, sustained relationships. In this harsh environment, where every day is a fight for survival, homeless children invariably commit crimes and often end up in prison. Death regularly crosses their path; they see the passing of homeless friends or are brutally murdered themselves, they die of drug overdoses or disease.
Homeless children live in inhumane conditions. They sleep in stairways, garbage containers and underground tunnels. In the winter they take comfort from hot water pipes, whose steam provides them with much needed warmth. They scour for food in garbage bins and dumps. They are forced to live an adult life on the margins of society while they are still children. Yet, despite the uncertainties of their lives, they sing, they dance and they dream.

The appalling situations these children experience demand an urgent response. It is our duty to ensure their rights under the Convention are realized, to get them off the streets and out of the garbage dumps. This does not mean that nothing has been done — but rather that not enough is being done, at all levels. Governments must honour their obligations and do much more to assist abused, abandoned, and homeless children. Communities should play a part in caring for their children. Individual actions can also be powerful catalysts of social change.

Joining hands: advocating for increased awareness and action
We can raise awareness of the problem of child poverty and homelessness. We can influence public opinion by delivering messages to politicians and authorities who have the resources and the opportunities to improve the situation. We can attract the attention of the media, which has tremendous power to influence public opinion and spark change for the better. Through minor efforts, we can be major advocates for change.

An example of this can be seen in Moscow, where in recent years members of the media have begun to examine the problem of homeless youth. Their efforts prompted the then president and current prime minister, Vladimir Putin, to address the issue of child homelessness. He enacted policies that resulted in the building of new orphanages in the Moscow region and the expansion of programmes to prevent children from living on the streets.

Even when the majority of people and politicians in a society agree on the necessity of a code of rights for children, and that everyone has equal value and should be treated with respect, implementation of human rights for children remains far from universal. Disparities in income, living conditions, access to essential services, and struggles between different societal groups often result in many children missing out on having their basic rights to survival and development, protection and participation. This is why raising awareness on the fundamental imperative of fulfilling child rights must be an ongoing process.

I believe all government leaders have a responsibility to implement essential and abiding human rights, backed by legislation appropriate for their respective countries. A sign of an evolved society is when its vulnerable groups – including children, the elderly, and those living with disability — are treated with respect. The transition countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States are experiencing special challenges with regard to the issue of human rights for the vulnerable, owing to the fact that some population groups in these nations have been suppressed and denied equal opportunities. Furthermore, the non-government sector is still nascent, as the solutions to prevalent social problems previously lay exclusively in the hands of state-run agencies and organizations. This will only change with time, as individuals and non-governmental organizations become more active in their respective societies.

Manifold Platforms: film, academic and individual calls for help
The Children of Leningradsky, a documentary film I made in 2005, is an intimate portrait of homeless children in Russia. The project originated from a desire to examine the situation of the neglected child from many different angles. The documentary depicts the tragic fate of children who have been left behind, who have not been protected, and who are being denied their rights. At the time the movie was made, Russian authorities estimated there were approximately 30,000 homeless children living on the streets and in the railway stations of Moscow.

This documentary was a cry for help for these children, and it has been heard. Internationally, and in Russia, media coverage and screenings, university lectures, panel discussions, and other well-attended events have raised awareness about homeless youth. My film and others like it offer tangible contributions to the discussion of child rights, while also making people aware of the ongoing tragedy of homeless and neglected children the world over.

Even the smallest effort can bring about the greatest victory – saving the life of one of these beautiful children. They want nothing more than to actually be children, with all of the fun, freedom and security that childhood should entail – and that countries acknowledge in the Convention on the Rights of the Child

Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Hanna Polak graduated from the Cinematography Institute of the Russian Federation. In connection with her moviemaking, she has been involved in charitable activities in Russia and founded, and later collaborated with, Active Child Aid to help underprivileged children all over the world.

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