20 Years - The Convention on the Rights of the Child

Kerry Kennedy

Children and Advocates: The future is us
It’s so painful to know
That my brother is working barefooted
At the cattle post for no pay.
As for my sister,
The thought of it floods my eyes with water.
Those who are heartless take advantage of her
Because of her family background
Enslaving her for nothing.

Yet the Future is us.

This simple and heartfelt poem was written by a boy in Botswana as he reflected on the scourge of child labour. Unfortunately, his story and the fate of his family members are neither unique nor rare. Time and time again, as I have travelled throughout the world, I have met young people like this boy and seen first-hand the ways they and their families struggle against injustice, poverty and the world’s apathy to their plight.

At an early age I was introduced to the same ideas and principles that drove the creation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its mission to ensure that all children, everywhere, are able to realize their rights. Despite growing up surrounded by people in elective office, early in my career I was drawn to finding and using other medium to agitate for change and justice. In the early 1980s, I began visiting communities that faced human rights and development challenges. A couple of years before the Convention was signed, I founded the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights as a forum for working towards the realization of the rights identified in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Working to promote and protect the rights included in the Convention was a natural outgrowth of the Center’s work. Through the Center – and, later, through my work with the RFK Speak Truth to Power project, highlighting the lives and struggles of a courageous group of men and women from around the world – I have found that the work of an advocate is just as important, and often more powerful, than the work of large institutions or governments.

Diverse stakeholders from around the globe share the goal of creating a world in which children are nurtured, loved and prepared to use all the gifts with which they have been endowed to live full lives. But this goal will never be achieved as long as children are enslaved or their parents languish without needed jobs and fair wages, as long as mandatory education remains a dream deferred, as long as millions of girls are denied an education and instead forced to work as domestic servants – and as long as those with the power to effect change avert their gaze.

Setting the wheels in motion
In an effort to address the real needs that remain in implementing the Convention and other international agreements on human rights and development, on 25 September 2008 the United Nations Secretary-General and the President of the General Assembly convened a high-level meeting of world leaders to renew commitments to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. This meeting identified concrete plans and practical steps for action, and concluded that the MDGs are still attainable, if the wealthiest nations untie their purse strings. They need only spend 70 cents in official development assistance for every US$100 in national income to alleviate poverty for 1 billion people. Likewise, the MDGs are attainable if developing countries follow the lead of Bangladesh and Brazil and refuse to wait for the wealthiest nations to act and instead take decisive action today to alleviate poverty.

Now is the time to invest in schools for children and jobs for parents. It is a crime to force children into bonded labour, and those who do so should be prosecuted and punished. It is also a waste. Countries around the world are beginning to realize that their futures depend on the investments they make in the next generation. Leaders are beginning to ask communities what would happen if they sent their children to school instead of crippling their hands at a weaving loom or sapping their spirits in a brothel. They are beginning to wonder who among these exploited children might, with a decent education, cure a disease, stop a war or free a people. At the same time, children themselves are beginning to understand that they must be agents of change in their own destinies and, through education, are embracing the responsibility of being party to the realization of their rights.

A few years ago I joined Kailash Setyarthi – and many emancipated former child slaves – in India for the Global March on Child Labour. The march started at the site of Gandhi's cremation. There, etched in stone, was a quote from the Mahatma that read: "Consider how your next action will impact the poorest person you have ever met. And if your next step helps relieve that person's suffering, you will walk pure and straight and true."

All who work to abolish the scourge of child labour, which affects around 158 million children aged 5 to 14, walk straight and true. All who work to emancipate the nearly 100 million child labourers in India walk straight and true. All who work to make universal education a reality – so that the roughly 100 million children aged 6 to 11 who are now out of school – over half of whom are girls – receive a decent education – walk straight and true. All who work to free the 1.8 million children around the world abused through prostitution or pornography and the 1.2 million exploited through trafficking – the vast majority of whom are girls – walk straight and true. To all who work to stop the devastating impact of war on children, – which over the last decade has killed more than 2 million children, disabled 6 million children, left 20 million children homeless and created 1 million orphans – walk straight and true.

The future is us.

Kerry Kennedy is the mother of three daughters, Cara, Mariah and Michaela. She is the best-selling author of Being Catholic Now: Prominent Americans Talk about Change in the Church and the Quest for Meaning. Her life has been devoted to the vindication of equal justice, the promotion and protection of basic rights and the preservation of the rule of law. She established the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Justice and Human Rights in 1987 and has worked on diverse human rights issues. Ms. Kennedy has led over 40 human rights delegations across the globe.

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