Children’s rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child

May 04, 2021
Children’s rights are the same no matter where in the world those children live. Every girl and boy is born with a full set of rights. People might ignore, overlook or trample those rights, but they can never take them away. Children’s rights are inherent. They exist, no matter what.  

Children’s rights are enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the most widely ratified treaty in history. Every nation in the world but one has pledged to uphold the 54 articles in the Convention. Yet even wealthy countries – Canada among them – have yet to do their best to fulfill the rights of every child.  

Matters are much worse in the world’s toughest places. Globally, millions of children are forced into dangerous jobs, early marriage or service with armed militia. Of the world’s 2.2 billion children, 1 billion live in poverty, deprived of essentials like education, clean water and healthcare. And COVID-19 is creating situations where children’s rights violated today will impact them for a lifetime.

In this article, we’ll explore children’s rights, as outlined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. We’ll look at what happens when those rights are violated. And you’ll learn how to help the world’s girls and boys realize their full spectrum of children’s rights.
 
  1. What are children’s rights?
  2. What is the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child?
  3. What does the Convention say about children’s rights?
  4. What are the three Optional Protocols to the Convention?
  5. How are the Convention and Optional Protocols enforced?
  6. What is the history of the Convention of the Rights of the Child?
  7. What are some violations of children’s rights?
  8. How can I help protect and honour children’s rights?

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a young boy writes on a chalkboard.
You have the right to a good quality education,” reads the version of the Convention in child-friendly language. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a World Vision reading club is helping Alfred catch up on missed schooling. Photo: Didier Nagifi

1. What are children’s rights?

Children's rights are human rights specifically unique to children under 18 years of age. They reflect the vulnerability and potential of every child, along with their developmental needs. These rights are children’s universal entitlement to:
  • access essentials – e.g. food, education, clean water, a birth certificate
  • act in a certain way – e.g. express their opinions, choose their religion
  • develop as they grow – e.g. receive age-appropriate education and opportunities
  • receive protection – e.g. from physical, emotional and psychological harm
  • speak out – e.g. to form their own opinions, share them with adults, and be listened to
These rights are not special privileges which some children receive, and for which others must struggle. Each child has the same rights, whether or not they are acknowledged by their families, communities and governments.

A 17-year-old girl holds up a certificate celebrating her tailoring work in the community.
“You have the right to protection from work that harms you,” reads the child-friendly version of the Convention. In Bangladesh, World Vision helped 17-year-old Happy (in red) leave the dangerous job she worked in for so many years. While she has missed too much schooling to catch up, Happy enrolled in a World Vision program to qualify as a tailor. This offers her a safer, more rewarding, better-paid future ahead. Photo: Suborno Chisim

2. What is the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child?

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is an international agreement outlining children’s rights. The Convention is the most rapidly and widely ratified treaty in history. Here are the key details: Here are the four core principals of the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child:
  • non-discrimination
  • devotion to the best interests of the child
  • the right to life, survival and development
  • respect for the views of the child
A 16-year-old boy cries while talking with a World Vision worker, who is comforting him.
“You have the right to be protected from being hurt or mistreated, in body and mind,”
reads the child-friendly version of the Convention. Armando, a refugee from Venezuela, shares with a World Vision team member about the discrimination and emotional abuse he receives in Colombia. Photo: Chris Huber

3. What does the Convention say about children’s rights?

All 54 articles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child are available here. But while this document is perfect for laying out and upholding international agreements, it’s not easy for many children to understand. There is a version written in child-friendly language.

Here are a few examples of children’s rights, as written to be accessible to younger readers:
  • You have the right to the best healthcare possible, safe water to drink, nutritious food, a clean and safe environment, and information to help you stay well.
  • You have the right to food, clothing, a safe place to live and to have your basic needs met. You should not be disadvantaged so that you can’t do many of the things other kids can do.
  • You have the right to a good quality education. You should be encouraged to go to school to the highest level you can.
  • You have the right to give your opinion, and for adults to listen and take it seriously.
  • You have the right to be protected from being hurt and mistreated, in body or mind. You have the right to be free from sexual abuse.
  • You have the right to protection from any kind of exploitation (being taken advantage of).
You have the right to protection from work that harms you and is bad for your health and education. If you work, you have the right to be safe and paid fairly.

In South Sudan, a group of adolescent and teen girls plays in a circle, holding hands. Some are laughing.
“You have the right to protection and freedom from war,” reads the child-friendly version of the Convention. “Children under 15 cannot be forced to go into the army or take part in war.” Here, former child soldiers recover, at a rehabilitation centre on South Sudan. Photo: Oscar Durand

4. What are the three Optional Protocols to the Convention?

There are three Optional Protocol treaties to accompany the Convention on the Rights of the Child. These were created after the original CRC, as children’s needs changed or became more apparent. The three Protocols:
  • further address some aspect of the original Convention e.g. age of formal military service
  • address a concern in our world that is new or has emerged since the Convention was written e.g. child pornography online
  • add a procedure for the operation and enforcement of the Convention e.g. children themselves had no way of complaining to the UN, and receiving a resolution, if their rights were violated
The Protocols are optional as they introduce new obligations for countries that have already ratified the Convention itself. Protocol requirements can be more demanding than those agreed to in the original Convention. Nations need to consider whether they are willing and able to enforce a Protocol, before signing and ratifying.

The Optional Protocols are:
  1. Protecting children in armed conflict
           This Protocol is an effort to strengthen implementation of the Convention and increase the protection of children in armed conflict. As of April 2021, 170  countries – including Canada – have ratified. Here are the details.
 
  1. Protecting children from sale, prostitution and child pornography
           This Protocol draws extra attention to the criminalization of these serious violations of children’s rights. The Protocol emphasizes the importance of increased public awareness, as well as international cooperation in efforts to combat such violations. As of April 2021, 176 countries – including Canada – have ratified. Here are the details.
 
  1. Allowing children to submit complaints, appeals and petitions
          Children can use the treaty to seek justice if their country’s legal system has not been able to provide a remedy for the violation of their rights. This applies in countries which have ratified the Protocol. As of April 2021, 46 countries have ratified. Canada is not among them. Here are the details.

The campaign to create the third Optional Protocol was led by Canada’s Sara Austin, who was working with World Vision for much of that time. Sara is now the founder and CEO of Children First Canada.

A woman sits amongst a group of young children in school uniforms.
In her work with World Vision, Sara Austin saw firsthand how the violation of children’s rights can devastate their lives. Honouring those rights can transform their futures. Photo: World Vision

"Children have been largely powerless to direct their countries' policies, or to see them enforced,” said Sara in 2014, the day years of work became the third Optional Protocol. “As a result, millions of girls and boys around the world grow up abused, ignored or neglected.” Read about Sara’s journey with the Optional Protocol.

Children who have been most successful in submitting complaints have had access to technology and/or the support of adults like community leaders or aid workers. So far, 63 of the Committee’s decisions around cases filed by children have been adopted. Learn how the complaints procedure works.

5. How are the Convention and Optional Protocols enforced?

No international body can force countries to honour children’s rights in countries around the world. If it were that easy, organizations like World Vision would not need to advocate for children’s rights in countries and communities.

A small boy looks up his mother, who is teaching him to wash his hands with soap.
“You have the right to get information that is important to your well-being,” reads the child-friendly version of the Convention. In Bangladesh, Masrafi’s mother teaches him the right way to wash his hands, to stay safe from COVID-19. Photo: Lipy Mary Rodrigues

The main ‘teeth’ of the Convention is an independent body called the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. It’s made up of 18 experts in children’s rights from different countries and legal systems. Although these members are nominated by their countries, they act in personal capacities – not on behalf of their nations.

Governments that ratify the Convention must:
  • implement the provisions of the Convention into their domestic laws as is expected when any country ratifies any international convention like the CRC.
  • report back periodically to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (within two years of ratification and every five years after that).
  • outline the situation of children in their country, according to reporting guidelines provide by the Committee.
  • explain the measures taken by their nation to realize children’s rights.
Two school-age boys in Mali hold up their birth certificates, smiling broadly.
“You have the right to an identity – an official record of who you are,” reads the child-friendly version of the Convention. Birth certificates are typically needed for access to education and healthcare. Yet an estimated 237 million children under five worldwide do not have these documents. Photo: Amadou Baraze

Canada’s child rights report card

Every year, UNICEF Report Cards assesses how well the wealthiest countries are doing at fulfilling the rights of their children and youth. Even before COVID-19, Canada ranked in the bottom tier of wealthy countries: 30th out of the 38 nations measured.

Although Canada has some of the best economic, environmental and social conditions for growing up, notes UNICEF, we have some of the poorest outcomes for children and youth. Here are some reasons: 6. What is the history of Convention of the Rights of the Child?

One could argue that the world’s children have always had inherent rights. But in terms of formally recognizing, enshrining and pledging to uphold children’s rights, the most significant action has occurred over the past century.

Key dates from 1900 onward

Early 1900s – In industrial societies, children often worked alongside adults under dangerous conditions. Factories were threatening places for children, with many hazards and no standards of child protection.

As the century unfolded, experts and advocates began awakening societies to children’s special developmental needs. People began realizing the lasting impact hazardous labour – as well as child abuse and deprivation – could have on girls and boys.

A sepia-toned image of children working on an assembly line. They are not wearing shoes. A much taller man stands over the girl in the foreground.
In the early 20th century, factories in industrialized counties subjected children to physical, emotional and psychological harm. Here, an overseer ensures children keep up with their labour, at a factory in Mississippi. Photo: Lewis Hine (public domain)


1924 – The League of Nations adopts the Geneva Declaration on the Rights of the Child, stating that the world owes its children:
  • means for their development
  • special help in times of need
  • priority for relief
  • protection from exploitation
  • an upbringing instilling social consciousness and duty
1946 – The United Nations General Assembly establishes the International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). They emphasized the care and protection of children throughout the world.
 
1948 – The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is passed by the General Assembly. Within this declaration, mothers and children are entitled to ‘special care and assistance’ and ‘social protection’.
 
1959 – The Declaration on the Rights of the Child is adopted by the General Assembly. It recognizes children’s rights to education, play, health care and a supportive environment, among others.

1966 – UN Member States promise to uphold equal rights, including education and protection, for all children. This was part of the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

1973 – The International Labour Organization sets 18 as the minimum age for doing work that could be hazardous to a person’s safety, health or morals.

1974 – Declaration on the Protection of Women and Children in Emergency and Armed Conflict is introduced by the UN General Assembly. This prohibits attacks against or imprisonment of civilian women and children. It upholds the rights of children and women during armed conflict.

1989 – The Convention on the Rights of the Child is adopted by General Assembly, guaranteeing and setting minimum standards for children’s rights protection in all areas. It is hailed as a landmark achievement for human rights.

1999 – The Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention is adopted by the International Labour Organization. It calls for immediate prohibition and elimination of any work that is likely to hurt children’s safety, health or morals.

2000 – The UN General Assembly adopts the first two Optional Protocols to the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. They’re related to:
  • preventing children from partaking in hostilities during armed conflict
  • ending the sale, sexual exploitation and abuse of children
2002 Child delegates address the UN General Assembly for the first time. The World Fit for Children agenda was adopted, outlining specific goals for improving the prospects of children over the next decade.

In Indonesia, teen girls wearing head scarves sit in rows listening to a girl speak.
“You have the right to give your opinion, and for adults to listen and take it seriously,” reads the Convention. Here, girls in Indonesia attend a course in citizen journalism, so they can report news from their perspectives online. Photo: Sally Widyastuti

2011 – The UN General Assembly adopts the third Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It empowers the Committee on the Rights of the Child to field complaints about child rights violations and to undertake investigations. Children themselves can now complain to the Committee once all legal remedies in their nation have been exhausted.

2015 – Somalia and South Sudan ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The United States is the only country not to have done so.

7. What are some violations of children’s rights?

When children’s rights are trampled, they can suffer in a brutal spectrum of ways. Not only do trampled rights cause children pain in the here and now. Such violations can affect children for the rest of their lives. Here are three examples:

1.)Child rights violation – child labour
An estimated 152 million children around the world are engaged in child labour today. Nearly half of these children work in hazardous conditions. Some 30 million girls and boys live and work outside the nation of their birth. Here are just some of the rights child labour can violate, in child-friendly language:
  • No one is allowed to kidnap or sell you.
  • You have the right to protection from any kind of exploitation (being taken advantage of).
  • You have the right to a good quality education. You should be encouraged to go to school to the highest level you can.
  • If you live in a different country than your parents, you have the right to be together in the same place.
In Mozambique, an adolescent boy stands thigh-deep in muddy water, shoveling for glimmers of gold.
“You have the right to rest and play,”
 reads the child-friendly version of the Convention. But globally, millions of children are too busy with dangerous full-time jobs to laugh or learn with their friends. Photo: Antonia Massipa

2.)Child rights violation – child marriage
An estimated 12 million girls aged under 18 marry against their will. Here are just some of the rights child marriage can violate, in child-friendly language:
  • You have the right to give your opinion, and for adults to listen and take it seriously.
  • You have the right to be raised by your parent(s) if possible.
  • You have the right to a good quality education. You should be encouraged to go to school to the highest level you can.
  • You have the right to be protected from being hurt and mistreated, in body or mind.
  • You have the right to be free from sexual abuse.
  • You have the right to be protected from being hurt and mistreated, in body or mind.
3.)Child rights violation – Poverty of all kinds
An estimated 1 billion children globally are ‘multidimensionally poor’. They struggle to survive and thrive without necessities as basic as nutritious food, clean water, education, safe shelter and health. Here are just some of the rights poverty can violate, in child-friendly language:
  • You have the right to the best healthcare possible, safe water to drink, nutritious food, a clean and safe environment, and information to help you stay well.
  • You have the right to help from the government if you are poor or in need.
  • You have the right to protection from work that harms you and is bad for your health and education.
8. How can I help protect and honour children’s rights?

Many children around the world are unaware that they have rights, or that their countries have agreed to uphold these rights. International agencies and grassroots groups alike are committed to seeing the rights of every child fulfilled, in every country of the world.

A group of adolescent girls sits in a circle, looking toward a World Vision leader.
“You have the right to know your rights,”
reads the child-friendly version of the Convention. Groups like World Vision teach children around the world – like these girls in India – about violations like forced marriage, and how to speak out. Photo: Neola D’Souza
World Vision and other charities educate families, communities and governments about children’s rights. We support children in advocating for their own rights. And we partner with families and communities to provide better futures for every child.  

How to get involved in Canada

There are dozens of organizations in your community and country advocating with children for the realization of their rights. Groups partner with children to approach governments at every level, as well as organizations, schools and community groups.

In Canada, some child rights groups focus on issues like: To get involved in your community or across Canada, search for child rights organizations online, either by region or by sphere of protection. What issues bother you most, when it comes to the violation of children’s rights here at home?

How to get involved around the world

Perhaps your heart breaks for children in the world’s toughest places. If so, connect with one of the many organizations working to protect and uphold children’s rights globally. Here are some examples of ways to get involved with World Vision Canada:
  1. World Vision’s Raw Hope initiative provides help for children who’ve experienced some of the worst that life can offer. Many are facing a combination of threats like war, hunger, disease, neglect and abuse. In these situations, multiple children’s rights are often being violated at once. Help support children’s rights to protection, basic essentials or special care as refugees, through Raw Hope.
  2. World Vision’s advocacy teams press the Canadian government to create programs and policies meeting the needs and protecting the rights of children around the world. We have been paying special attention to the violations of children’s rights during COVID-19 – and the lasting impact this can have. Read our Aftershocks report
  3. World Vision’s Gift Catalogue offers numerous ways to support the rights of girls and boys around the world. In addition to meeting children’s rights for basic essentials, you can support girls’ education, help children living on the streets, or provide tools for children living with disabilities.