Happy Universal Children’s Day!!! Yes, that’s right, November 20th is Universal Children’s Day; a day the UN General Assembly declared in 1954 as a day to “promote international togetherness, awareness among children worldwide, and improving child welfare.” November 20 also has added meaning because on this date the UN adopted two critical documents that promote and define children’s rights throughout the world: The Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1959) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)(1989). The Declaration on the Rights of the Child promotes the basic principles for children’s rights while the CRC is a human rights treaty that defines the civil, political, social, cultural, and health rights for all young people under the age of majority, which in most countries is eighteen. As of today, all nations have ratified the CRC except for one nation, the United States.
Our failure to ratify the CRC should not come as a surprise considering that a significant portion of the electorate is cynical and, perhaps, fearful of the CRC, as they are with other international agreements that set expectations for our nation (see Paris Climate Accord). Also, it is highly unlikely (think miracle!) that the U.S. will ratify the CRC anytime soon because ratification requires both the President and two-thirds of the U.S. Senate to support it.
Until the United States joins the rest of the international community and ratifies the CRC, we can still advocate for applying a rights-based approach – one that embodies the spirit of the CRC and holds government accountable for protecting children from harm and promoting the right of all children to full and healthy development – in the laws and decisions that impact children. Doing so will change how we think about children, their needs, and the responsibility of government and others to address these needs.
An example of this are how we think about migrant children. The rights of migrant children are often overlooked in the countries where they live and, as a result, they are particularly vulnerable to harm and exploitation. UNICEF estimates that nearly 50 million children across the globe have been uprooted from their homes because of violence, extreme poverty, and/or ecological disaster and migrated to foreign lands in search of a better life.
While many children migrate with a parent or other primary caregiver, many others make the dangerous journeys alone. In 2016, an estimated 300,000 unaccompanied immigrant children (UIC) crossed borders worldwide to perceived safety. This number, however, is believed to be much higher. In the United States, the Department of Homeland Security apprehended approximately 59,000 UIC primarily from Mexico and the Central American countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Many others also enter the United States undetected.
Because UIC have few if any protections throughout their travels, they are at increased risk of trafficking/exploitation, rape, physical and emotional abuse and injury, and death. These traumatic experiences, along with those experiences before their journey, place them at increased risk of negative health and well-being outcomes that will impact them the rest of their life.
Like other vulnerable children who experience trauma, they need specialized supports and services to mitigate harms and promote opportunities full and healthy development. They require trauma-informed mental health and educational services in the child’s preferred language and that are culturally appropriate. In the United States, these services are often difficult, if not impossible, for some children to access, especially if they or their family do not have the necessary resources to obtain them or live in a community where they are not available.
When considered from a rights-based approach, unaccompanied immigrant children’s rights travel with them no matter their location. ALL children, no matter their citizenship or legal status, will benefit from both the rights and supports available to other children living in the country. Also, a rights-based approach raises the baseline for services and supports. Instead of providing supports to address children’s basic needs, government is responsible for providing services and supports that promote children’s healthy development. Thus, instead of providing just food or shelter, government needs to provide a stable source of healthy food and safe, healthy, and stable housing.
Undoubtedly, ratifying the CRC is important to advancing and protecting the rights of children. We must continue educating our community about the CRC and the importance of clearly defining children’s rights both in the United States and throughout the world. Until we do, however, we need to advocate for a rights-based approach that embodies the CRC and promotes the rights of ALL children to full and healthy development.