So what exactly is Child Rights Governance?
My friends asked me this before I took up a job in the field.
At the time, I didn't know the full answer, so I made something up, based on what I’d learnt from my Masters in Governance and Development at IDS. I said it was about strengthening the institutions that govern societies so that children's rights were better realised. I suggested this would include improving public service delivery for children, especially at the local levels of government that are 'closest to the people'.
Seven months on, I find I my educated guess was more or less correct although the reality of 'child rights governance' is far more complex and nuanced.
Child Rights Governance is like vitamins in fruit: it is one of the most wholesome elements but is mostly invisible to the eye. Its benefits are sometimes equally intangible or unglamourous. Because of this, some people question the value of Child Rights Governance.
Translating Rights into Realities
Nelson Mandela once referred to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as “that luminous, living document that enshrines the rights of every child, without exception, to a life of dignity and self-fulfillment”. His lyrical description hints at the lofty ideals that brought every member of the UN General Assembly together except two to ratify the Convention in 1989. Twenty-five years on, it is still the most widely and rapidly ratified treaty in history. It also includes a ground-breaking commitment by states to invest in children ‘to the maximum extent of resources available’.
Last week, we celebrated what a grand and visionary treaty the Convention is on its 25th Anniversary. Its 54 articles cover virtually every aspect of a child’s life from infancy through childhood to adolescence. But how much is the right to an education worth if the road to the school is constantly flooded during the monsoon season, preventing children from accessing that right? The state is the primary duty bearer of the rights under the Convention; yet without a commitment to mobilise public resources for child-friendly programmes, child rights mean very little.
This is where Child Rights Governance can add real value. It asks for budgets to be disaggregated to show how allocations benefit children, and then seeks to hold policymakers to account for the promises they make. These transparency and accountability initiatives are what translates rights into realities.
Decentralisation: Not Just for Grown-Ups
Decentralisation is crucial for enabling child-friendly governance at the local level. Localising decision-making processes increases opportunities for everyone, including children, to take part and for government officials to be more responsive to their community’s needs. Together these are believed to lead to better public service delivery and accountability.
The child’s right ‘to express opinions, to have them taken into account and to participate in decision-making processes that affect their lives’ (Article 12) reinvigorates this framework. It allows for one of the most practical realisations of the Convention’s revolutionary premise: a child is not just a passive object of care or subject of adult power but a citizen in his or her own right. Children who are capable of forming and expressing their views should have as much opportunity to contribute to their community’s development as adults. This could be through open budget sessions, dialogue with the mayor or other public consultations where they can speak and be heard.
Local government officials are also often the unwitting gatekeepers of child rights. They control budgets that can be used to build parks and playgrounds. They sometimes also hold the power to select families in their communities to benefit from national social protection programmes. Adult advocates can and should lobby for these child rights to be realised. But their advocacy pales in comparison to the power of children raising their voices and trying to claim their rights themselves.
Child Rights Governance can facilitate children’s empowerment by developing their knowledge and confidence for meaningful public participation. Equally, it can sensitise local actors so they are more aware and responsive to children’s needs and rights.
What Is Crucial Isn’t Always Cool
Child Rights Governance isn’t cool. It doesn’t tug at our heartstrings in the way that classic child protection issues like child marriage or child labour do. Nor does it pull the donors’ purse strings like the giants of health and education. It often takes place quietly behind closed doors. This could be at awareness-raising sessions for government officials or capacity building workshops for children. It could also be at high-level meetings with Ministry big wigs about improving investment in children.
But, as Eleanor Roosevelt said – "universal human rights begin in small places, close to the home, where they cannot be seen, and unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere."
Child Rights Governance doesn't have to be cool, but it does need to follow effective frameworks and be fit for the context. For me, personally, my work is also driven by the conviction that the principles of good governance should accommodate and benefit all citizens, including children. I think my MA in Governance and Development at IDS taught me to appreciate these distinctions more than anything.
Suralini Fernando is a lawyer, writer and MA Governance and Development 2012/13 alum. She now works as a child rights advocate in Dhaka, Bangladesh.