ODVV Interview: Universal Education Should Not...
Children are regarded as changemakers who will be defining and recalibrating the future of our world, and as the inheritors of resources, assets and opportunities available to us today, deserve to be protected, educated, have access to the means of wellbeing, and be defended against every social or economic adversity that puts their mental and physical health at risk.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, signed by 196 world countries, is dubbed the most widely-adopted human rights treaty in history, signaling that the international community, notwithstanding the geopolitical and ideological divides, is unanimous in being committed, at least nominally, to safeguarding the rights of children.
But despite the political capital invested in upholding children rights and the leaders’ unfaltering rhetoric reaffirming that these rights are imperative, the state of the world, particularly after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic upended family lives, destabilized social fabric, contorted lifestyles and exposed the vulnerabilities of healthcare systems globally, is a testimony that children continue to be fragile, and in certain geographical contexts, are overly discriminated against.
Nearly every two seconds, an incident of child marriage occurs, and annually, 12 million girls are married before they turn 18. In the most impoverished nations, almost one in every four children is engaged in hazardous and exploitative child labor detrimental to their health, which means they are literally robbed of their childhood. These practices include sex trafficking and domestic servitude. It is estimated that some 263 million children across the globe are currently out of school, and the COVID-19 crisis has only worsened the numbers. And alarmingly, over 800 children perish everyday as a result of preventable diseases arising from poor water and lack of access to sanitation.
Jonathan Todres is a professor of law at Georgia State University College of Law. His research and scholarship are centered on children’s rights and wellbeing. A former Fulbright Scholar in Ireland, he is the co-author of the 2019 book “Preventing Child Trafficking: A Public Health Approach” and currently serves on the Board on Children, Youth, and Families of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has talked to Prof. Todres on the most pressing challenges facing children worldwide, the achievements and failures of the international community in advancing children rights, the implications of the COVID-19 health emergency for children’s educational prospects, and online threats to the wellbeing of children and young people.
Q: As we speak, more countries in the Global South and even some developed nations continue violating the rights of children and get away with the consequences. At least 152 million children are engaged in child labor across the world and 41 percent of girls in least-developed countries are married before they reach the age of 18. Do you think it is possible to abolish these practices, or are structural, social reforms needed which the international law is incapable of enforcing?
A: First, no country has reached full realization of all rights of all children. Every country has work to do. I think it is important to recognize that law is necessary but not sufficient. Law is only as strong as the will to implement and enforce it. And when we develop law, we need to ensure it accounts for structural issues, customs, and local context. Take child labor, for example. The reality is that there are children in every country who need to work to contribute to their families so their families can survive. Adopting a law prohibiting all child labor is not enough and may well have unintended consequences, pushing children into riskier forms of employment. If we want to prevent children from working in harmful settings and other work situations that adversely affect their education and wellbeing, then we need more comprehensive policies and programs that enable families to meet their basic needs and thrive, without requiring the work of children. So, we need law, but we also need to understand context and structural issues that heighten vulnerability, and develop law and programs that are responsive to the challenges children and their families are facing.
Q: The provision of affordable and equitable education opportunities is one of the basic responsibilities of governments. But there are hurdles that keep millions of children across the globe out of school. For example, according to the World Bank, as many as three in 10 children with disabilities have never been in school. Or in many conservative societies, families don’t allow their daughters to receive education. Are these challenges that can be remedied? Do the international organizations have a role to play?
A: While we have made progress on children’s education over the past 30 years, it is troubling that so many children are still out of school. Universal education should not be unattainable. We must ensure schools are accessible to all children. That means governments must prioritize children. Too often, governments speak of caring for children, but their budgets and policy priorities do not reflect that. International organizations have a role to play. But ultimately, we need much greater and sustained commitments from governments. Education is critical, both as a right itself and because it helps enable young people to realize their other rights.
Q: In what ways has the COVID-19 pandemic and the inevitable closure of schools worldwide impacted the quality of education offered to children? For schoolchildren, particularly the first graders who were supposed to get the first impression of the learning environment, interact with their classmates and be exposed to teaching in an interactive setting, this has been a difficult year. How is it possible to make up for the damages incurred?
A: The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on children. It has not only affected their education, but it also has increased poverty, housing insecurity, mental health concerns, and vulnerability to an array of rights violations. All of this has had a major impact on child wellbeing. Recovery will take time. But importantly, as above, it will only happen if governments invest resources in schools and other programs to support children. Even today, we see many governments giving more priority to supporting businesses than to protecting children from COVID-19. Children deserve much better.
Q: Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child recognizes “the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health” and their entitlement to treatment and rehabilitation. In practice, however, many countries with limited resources and smaller public budgets have shelved this commitment and fail to address the health and sanitation needs of children. How is it possible to ensure the implementation of the treaty, particularly its provision on healthcare for children, 31 years after going into effect?
A: I think this is one of the most significant challenges for human rights law. The mandate to implement and ensure economic, social, and cultural rights, which include health rights, is subject to the states’ available resources. That has created a loophole where governments can simply claim they don’t have resources. But the language of human rights law requires that states use the “maximum extent of their available resources.” We can measure and assess that, and there is growing work on budget analysis for human rights. If a country’s overall budget is increasing, but healthcare spending is not, then that raises a question whether it is fulfilling its obligation. More analysis is needed to make a final determination, but we need a stronger commitment from UN treaty bodies and other organizations to make the obligation of progressive realization more meaningful. Otherwise, we risk losing another generation of children, while states drag their feet with respect to their human rights obligations.
Q: Our societies are becoming more multicultural and diverse, and with the spike of international migration, young people get to interact and communicate with peers who are lingually, religiously, ethnically or culturally distinct from them. How do you think the values of tolerance, plurality, inclusion and diversity should be taught to children so that they come to understand racism is a social plague and one that should be denounced?
A: I think it is wonderful that societies are becoming more multicultural and diverse. As you noted, children today have the opportunity to interact with peers from around the world. Diversity is a good thing. It breaks down barriers, spurs innovation, and creates new possibilities. But we also see today that some people are resisting it, sometimes violently. We need to address the immediate threats to migrants and others who are targeted. But we also need to commit to building and sustaining rights-respecting communities. That means a commitment to human rights education. Countries need to develop national plans for human rights education. They need to train and educate citizens on human rights, and children’s rights in particular. This is one of my primary areas of research focus these days. I think we need to implement human rights education, and specifically children’s rights education, in all schools. Doing so produces positive outcomes. Schools with human rights education curriculums see a reduction in peer aggression, and the results show that students exposed to human rights education learn positive citizenship skills and develop an understanding of the connections between their rights and their duties to respect and protect the rights of others. In short, a commitment to human rights education can help build support for diversity, inclusion, understanding, and tolerance.
Q: Our children are growing in a digital and highly connected world and have easy, daily access to the means of technology. What are the most viable strategies to protect them from cyber harassment, bullying and abuse and also shield them against the threat of online radicalization and extremism?
A: From policymakers to parents, people are concerned about the risks inherent in the digital environment. Not only are bullying, exploitation, and extremism threats, but social media has also changed the day-to-day lives of young people. Privacy has changed radically, and corporations have massive amounts of information on children long before they become independent individuals. We are playing catch up. We urgently need a much more sophisticated and comprehensive plan for children’s engagement with the digital world, one that allows children to reap the benefits of the online world, without being subjected to the harms.
Q: There are experts who view children’s constant engagement with computers, smartphones, gaming consoles and televisions as tantamount to mere threats and exposure to risks to their mental wellbeing and intellectual growth. Do you agree with this reading, or do you consider it overly pessimistic, because children spending time online involves opportunities that outweigh the threats?
A: Well, I think it is fair to ask whether our lives are better off because of certain forms of technology. In fact, it is important to ask these questions. We should not just assume that more technology is better. Smartphones enable us to access the world at any time, but they also have produced harms and many children report feeling alienated and disconnected due to the widespread and constant use of cell phones. So, I think we need to take these risks much more seriously. But the answer is not as simple as it is all good or it is all bad. It is complicated. There have been many positive things achieved through technology. For example, we see young people using social media to organize to confront issues such as climate change, racism, gun violence, and more. They are pressing governments and corporations to make positive change. That’s just one example of how social media can be used for positive change, and how young people are often leading the way. What we need for children is a rights-based approach to technology. We need to develop this in partnership with young people. They have a right to be protected from harms. In addition, they have a right to access technology in ways that will help enable them to reach their full potential and play meaningful roles in their communities.
Q: How do you think the uptick in screen time for kids as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic can increase their vulnerability to cyber bullying? In India, 37 percent of parents report their children encountering cyberbullying. In the United States, 15 percent of students have reported being bullied online. Do these figures show the national legislation and international frameworks are inadequate or do you believe there are solutions that can be deployed to counter this trend?
A: Even before the pandemic, children were spending a lot of time online. Many teenagers reported spending 7 hours a day online, not including schoolwork. And the COVID-19 pandemic pushed even more of their lives online. But it is also important to remember that while cyberbullying gets a lot of media coverage, traditional forms of bullying in person are still more prevalent in many countries. For example, in the US, more children report being bullied in person than online. So, we need to address online harms, but we cannot forget about the rest. As for law, right now both international law and national legislation are inadequate. But that does not have to be the case. Policymakers can do more to create legislation that establishes a rights-based approach to the online world. That is what children desperately need. And governments need to move much faster to both prevent harms and ensure equity for all children.
In the end, on all these issues, it is important to remember that children’s rights violations occur at the hands of other human beings. That means we can prevent them. But doing so requires that we recognize the dignity in every child, elevate all children, and prioritize their rights and wellbeing.
By Kourosh Ziabari