Twenty-five years ago this month, the countries that compose the United Nations reached a landmark agreement that laid the foundation for much-needed strengthening of children’s rights and protections in nearly every country around the world.
Today, the Convention on the Rights of the Child remains the only formal global effort to improve children’s rights and the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history. Only three U.N. member nations have not ratified the treaty: Somalia, South Sudan and, shockingly, the United States.
“The Convention on the Rights of the Child is a promise from our global community to all children,” said Dr. Jody Heymann, founding director of the World Policy Analysis Center and dean of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. “Everyone deserves to know whether their country is fulfilling that promise and how it compares to other countries facing similar opportunities and constraints.”
To mark the 25th anniversary of the CRC this week, the center assessed 190 U.N. countries’ progress toward fulfilling the CRC’s commitment to children in critical areas such as the right to education, protection from child labor and child marriage, and discrimination of children with disabilities.
How are the world’s children faring?
Despite commitments to protect children from labor, some 168 million children around the world are still engaged in some form of child labor, 85 million of whom are engaged in hazardous work that endangers their health and safety. When children are forced to work, their education often suffers as a result. According to the World Policy Analysis Center, data from over 60 countries show that school attendance decreases as working hours increase.
While 74 percent of the countries that ratified the CRC no longer allow children to engage in hazardous work, once legal exceptions are taken into account, nearly half of CRC countries still allow children to work in jobs that endanger their health and safety, including mining and factory work.
Worldwide, approximately 57 million children are not enrolled in primary school and another 69 million are not enrolled in secondary school. Education has a significant impact on heath and economic opportunity: higher education levels are associated with greater longevity in adulthood, lower morbidity rates, and higher earnings.
Twenty-four percent of the countries that ratified the CRC charge tuition before the end of secondary education. Tuition fees create barriers to education, particularly for girls and poor and marginalized children, and there are still large gaps in secondary enrollment.
Child marriage disproportionately affects girls, with nearly 700 million girls worldwide estimated to be married before the age of 18. Early marriage jeopardizes girls’ health due to abuse, limited control over their own bodies and their sexual and reproductive health decisions, and early pregnancy and childbearing. Additionally, cultural, legal, and family- related barriers often lead to education interruption for married girls. Evidence from several countries in Africa indicates that early marriage accounts for up to a quarter of school dropouts among girls.
Currently, 88 percent of countries that ratified the CRC have set a minimum age for marriage of 18 or older. But when exceptions with parental consent are included, only 49 percent of these countries protect girls from early marriage.
Children with disabilities
Despite comprising one of the world’s largest minority populations, children and adults with disabilities still face serious discrimination in all aspects of life. Children — particularly girls — frequently lack access to formal education: In low-income countries, less than one-third of young females with disabilities complete primary school.
Currently, only 19 percent of countries that ratified the CRC explicitly protect the right to education for children with disabilities or prohibit discrimination in education based on disability.
Evidence confirms that maternal and paternal leave policies significantly improve infant and child health. According to data from the World Policy Analysis Center, paid maternity and parental leave significantly reduce infant and child mortality, increase rates of breastfeeding (identified as the single-most effective child survival intervention), improve compliance with vaccinations, and facilitate involvement of the father in child-rearing.
Nearly all countries that have ratified the CRC (96 percent) guarantee mothers of infants paid leave from work through maternity leave reserved for mothers, or parental leave that is available to both mothers and fathers. Many countries (81 percent) provide maternal leave wage replacement rates at 75 percent or above; when wage replacements are high, more families can afford to use it. The U.S. is the only high-income country in the world that doesn’t guarantee mothers paid leave after the birth of a child.
Heymann noted that the welfare of children is dependent on social conditions. “Working parents need paid leave so they can afford to care for their newborns,” she said. “Financially feasible education shapes which children have a chance to attend school and for how long. Wages that enable families to exit poverty shape the conditions under which children live.”
The U.S., which signed but has not ratified the convention, has passed and enforced a number of laws to protect children. But it remains the only high-income nation in the world without national paid maternity or parental leave. Parental leave, both maternal and paternal, is critical to a child’s health, development and wellness.
“With the passage of the CRC, the rights of the world’s youngest citizens were recognized,” Heymann added. “Yet we still lag far behind on the implementation of universal protections important to children’s healthy development.
The global community has made important progress toward fulfilling the promises of the CRC over the past 25 years, but — as this new report shows — significant challenges remain, and the future of millions of children depends on how fast the world acts.
“The Convention on the Rights of the Child laid the foundation 25 years ago for all children to have a chance at healthy development, so they can thrive now and grow up to lead healthy and productive adult lives,” Heymann said. “But this will only come to fruition if we are as focused on the CRC’s full implementation as on its passage.”
The Convention on the Rights of the Child states that in all actions concerning children, “the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”
If we put those interests at the heart of our agenda for the future, we not only serve the rights of children, but we also constructively shape our own future.