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World Children’s Day: Child rights and the aftershocks of the Covid-19 pandemic


Professor Mark Tomlinson is co-director of the Institute for Life Course Health Research in the Department of Global Health at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Stellenbosch University. These are his personal views.

As we now know, children are spared the worst ravages of the direct impact of Covid-19. Unfortunately, they are experiencing some of the most extreme effects of the indirect consequences of the pandemic and, in terms of the longer-term aftershocks, they are likely to carry the heaviest burden of all.

World Children’s Day is commemorated in November of each year (countries differ on the specific day). The day aims to promote children’s welfare and it is possible to trace its roots back to the 19th century. In its current form, the focus is on achieving and securing child rights. On 20 November 1959, the UN General Assembly formally adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child 20 November was also the day when, in 1989, the General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

In South Africa, we celebrate National Children’s Day on the first Saturday in November each year to highlight progress towards the promotion and realisation of the rights of children. The CRC codifies both the involvement of children in decisions that affect them but also sets standards for health, education and social services.

At first blush it would appear that a convention on the rights of children is simple and easy to support – after all, who does not love and support children? But as is the case with most things, it is somewhat more complicated than that. The complexity is exemplified by the refusal of the United States to ratify the CRC. 

For a long time, the only three countries that had not ratified the CRC were Somalia, South Sudan and the US. But even here it is more complicated than it might first seem. The US has in fact signed the Convention (an endorsement of its principles), but has refused to ratify it (thus committing themselves to being legally bound to its provisions). 

It is not the only treaty that the US has not ratified others include the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the Convention on Biological Diversity. The refusal to ratify is largely based on a fear among conservative Republicans that this would signal the giving up of American sovereignty, thus opening up the US to lawsuits to pay for its provisions.

What about World Children’s Day in 2020? A pandemic year with over a million deaths, eight million infections, and a global economy brought to its knees. As we now know, children are spared the worst ravages of the direct impact of Covid-19. Unfortunately, they are experiencing some of the most extreme effects of the indirect consequences of Covid-19 and, in terms of the longer-term aftershocks of the pandemic, they are likely to carry the heaviest burden of all. It has been estimated that in the worst-case scenario, reductions in coverage of maternal and child health interventions due to the pandemic might result in an additional 1million child deaths and more than 50,000 additional maternal deaths.

As economies continue to struggle, it will be the poor (in rich countries) and poor countries where the impacts are going to be felt most. One area that is impacted most quickly (and the impacts are already being felt) is that of food. Globally, millions of children and families are food insufficient. One of the more insidious effects of chronic undernutrition is child stunting, which is implicated in a host of difficulties across the life course not least of which is the capacity of children to benefit from schooling. 

It is estimated (and this was before the pandemic) that globally, 250 million children (43%) younger than five are at risk of not reaching their developmental potential due to the impact of stunting and poverty. Most children in South Africa have lost at least half a school year or more. This is likely to lead to devastating consequences across a number of cognitive and social domains. 

For children in Grade R and Grade 1-2, who are learning the basic skills of numeracy and literacy, interruptions to laying down the foundations of these skills will be profound. And this will be in addition to the already shocking figure of 78% of Grade 4 learners being unable to read for meaning in 2016.

But as important as numeracy and literacy are, education is also about learning how the world works, about peer engagement, about friendships and learning about self-control and reciprocity in relationships. School closures, lockdown, and teacher absenteeism due to Covid-19 illness is likely to pose significant challenges for years to come.

But what does this somewhat bleak picture have to do with children’s rights? I would suggest that we pay lip service to the notion of child rights, but routinely fail to act in concrete ways to ensure that we achieve them. We write songs about how “children are our future”, we produce memes of “cute children” but given our treatment of children in so many places, it would not be far-fetched to say that for many there is some ambivalence about children.

In most countries of the world (and South Africa is one of the worst), more than 70% of children will be violently disciplined by caregivers. Children are beaten at home and at school and witness high levels of interpersonal violence in their communities and homes. But, instead of widespread condemnation of corporal punishment in homes and schools, what we routinely hear is statements like “my father beat me” and “I turned out okay”.

How do we ensure that Children’s Day and children’s rights do not simply remain a glorious set of principles that we speak about fervently once a year, but continue to inflict violence on vast swathes of the world’s children? I would suggest that one way to ensure that child rights stand a chance of becoming realised is to put children and adolescents at the centre of all planning, across all ministries, all of the time.

This may appear absurd at first. What does legislation governing mining rights have to do with children? What does planning of new roads have to do with children? But when a government puts children at the forefront of how they structure their budgets and at the core of how they plan their programmes, there is a meaningful and profound shift in almost everything. 

When roads are planned with children in mind, then roads become connectors connectors of people to one another, of children to their schools, of families and communities to places of work and health seeking. The roads are still built and are still available for commerce.

And when the damage to children of familial alcohol abuse and junk food are placed at the core of our decisions about legislation to limit harmful advertising, then banning alcohol advertising becomes a no-brainer and limits on fizzy drinks and junk food advertising is a natural next step.

Decisions about mining rights and fracking will be informed by their potential impact on children, families and communities and not simply the profit motive of multinational conglomerates and lobbyists.

In February 2020, in the early days of the pandemic, we launched “A Future for the World’s Children?” – a World Health Organisation–UNICEF–Lancet Commission. In it, the case was made for a global movement for change, one that placed children and adolescents at the centre of all that we do and invited children to become meaningful stakeholders in decisions about their lives. Covid-19 has only made this more urgent. What is good for children is good for societies. 

If we do not do this, and urgently, we will carry a burden across the coming generations, and the notion of “child rights” will remain a platitude rolled out for its emotional resonance once a year and at UN commemorative days, but will stubbornly remain out of reach. DM


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