ODVV Interview: Children’s interests are a moral compass for decision-making
ODVV Interview: Children’s interests are a...
According to the United Nations, there are 2.39 billion people in the world under the age of 18. In 2019, of the world’s population of children, 69 percent lived in a conflict-affected country and nearly 426 million children lived in a conflict zone. Poverty has long affected children inequitably and one out of six children worldwide suffers extreme poverty, living on less than $1.90 a day. Not every child, even in developed countries, has access to the means of education, and more than 175 million children are not enrolled in pre-primary education.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child is the world’s most widely recognized human rights treaty with 196 state parties, which includes every United Nations member state other than the United States that is a signatory. The convention specifies a wide array of the obligations of the countries in terms of the civil, political, economic, cultural, social, and health rights of the children. The fact that there has been unanimity on the ratification of the convention signals the fundamental importance of the rights of children as the inheritors of the future.
But as the international community finds itself fractured by conflicts, economic instability, pandemics, and the looming climate emergency, children are the ones who prove to be the most vulnerable. For one thing, the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in approximately 100 million more children around the world being forced into multidimensional poverty, without access to essential services. Prevention of violence against children during the pandemic was also affected, and 66 percent of countries reported a disruption in violence against children-related services due to Covid-19.
Warren Binford is an internationally-recognized children’s rights scholar and advocate. She is the W.H. Lea for Justice Endowed Chair in Pediatric Law, Ethics, and Policy at the University of Colorado. She has advised and worked with Save the Children, the International Red Cross, and the International Criminal Court. Her commentary on children’s rights has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic, among others.
Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has talked to Prof. Binford about the key challenges to children’s rights and the most viable strategies to respond to them.
Q: Considering that such urgencies as the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, global warming, and regional crises in the Middle East and North Africa are at the center of the international community’s attention, is it realistic to expect that the children’s rights continue to be a matter of concern and that adequate resources are allocated to addressing the violation of their rights?
A: Absolutely, yes! It is not only realistic, it is imperative. Indeed, children’s rights should be elevated across the globe, especially during tumultuous times because children bring out our best selves both individually and collectively. When we center children’s best interests in the decisions we make, we have a moral compass that compels us to subjugate our own immediate impulses and self-interest and plan for the future, while thinking of others. In moving beyond our immediate self-interest, we are able to make decisions that are wiser and more thoughtful.
Remember that children’s rights were first recognized at a similar time in world history. In 1924, a schoolteacher and founder of Save the Children, Eglantyne Jebb, convinced the League of Nations that humanity owed children the best that we have to give. The world was in between two world wars, countries were experiencing widespread deprivation as punishment for their roles in the first world war, the global flu pandemic had recently killed over 20 million people, we were just a few short years away from the Great Depression, and fascism was on the rise. In a landscape not unlike today in many ways, the League of Nations agreed that we owe children our best and adopted the first children’s rights declaration, which in turn, brought out an inherent idealism that united our shared values worldwide.
That 1924 children’s rights declaration laid the groundwork not only for the 1959 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child and the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child but for the entire international human rights framework, which was one of the greatest accomplishments of the 20th century. A lot of people don’t realize the foundational role that children’s rights played in advancing civilization over this past century. The fact that the 1989 children’s rights treaty became and remains the most widely ratified treaty in the history of the world tells us what unites humanity—it is our shared obligation to the world’s children.
Indeed, next year, 2024, will be the 100th anniversary of the rights of the child. As we look back over this past century, we will see many examples of humanity continuing to struggle with its own temptations, fallibility, and failures. We will see war, violence, exploitation, fear, greed, and more. But we will also see examples of our goodness, honor, integrity, generosity, and genius. I think that we need to continue to identify what factors increase the likelihood of the latter in our shared journey together and which ones decrease the likelihood of the former.
I remain passionately convinced that by keeping a focus on children and their rights, we will individually and collectively be called to peace, to address global warming, to find a way through crises—which are inherent to the human condition, and to invent cures to protect our lives and the lives of those we love. It is not just that, as the League of Nations declared, we owe children the best that we have to give, but that in turn, children bring out our best selves. So, yes, we need to maintain our focus and commitment on children and their rights.
Q: According to the United Nations’ children fund UNICEF, at least 463 million children didn’t have access to the means of online education during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic coinciding with massive lockdowns. As a result, in low- and middle-income countries, nearly 70 percent of 10-year-olds lost their literacy and numeracy and cannot read a simple text. Between March 2020 and July 2021, at least 400,000 students dropped out of school. Is it possible to make up for the damages inflicted by the pandemic on education and literacy in the short run?
A: In the short run, no. In the long run, possibly. As you know, we have limited windows in our development when our brains are primed to learn certain things—spoken language, deciphering text, and mathematics. When you miss those windows, it can be more difficult, but it is not impossible. We now understand that the brain is relatively adaptable and if it doesn’t form the most efficient pathway during an earlier stage in childhood, it can create a new, often more complex pathway. However, forming those pathways requires us to engage them and provide opportunities to stimulate those thought processes. We must not give up on them, but resolve to educate them moving forward, but also with robust remedial interventions so their losses are not permanent.
Q: The Covid-19 pandemic and the associated lockdowns have left indelible impacts on children’s mental health everywhere. According to a Harvard University study, nearly two-thirds of children aged 7-15 were diagnosed with clinical symptoms of anxiety and depression in 2020, and in a different survey of 1,000 parents across the United States, 71 percent said the pandemic had affected their children’s psychological well-being negatively. What are the steps that should be taken to ensure the mental and intellectual recovery of the children who for nearly two years, didn’t have the opportunity to engage with their peers and share the classroom or playground with them?
A: There is no question that the Covid-19 pandemic caused widespread trauma around the world. Just like with learning, children have certain windows when they are especially primed to develop socially. Think of, for example, the impact of older infants and toddlers not being able to learn to read a variety of faces either because they are not interacting with anyone other than their parents or faces are covered with masks; kindergarteners whose primary learning is socialization having to sit in a chair in front of a computer screen at home; or adolescents who are biologically driven to start to cleave away from their parents and move more towards their peers who are suddenly locked alone with their parents [all the time].
At the same time that these developmental milestones were being missed, we had a near-universal transfer and immersion in digital relationships in many parts of the world as school, work, friendships, and even family interactions were moved online. Although technology has brought us many blessings, such as the ability to connect with loved ones far away and the ability to reduce travel, which takes a toll both environmentally, financially, and on one’s health—there is universal agreement that excessive digital interactions can be incredibly harmful and in some cases, lethal, especially to children and adolescents who have not yet mastered in-person relationships and interactions.
Add to that the fact that home for many children suddenly was dominated by parents and family members distracted by remote work and school and there is no question that children’s emotional and social—and sometimes physical—needs were not being met. The fact is that we all need human, face-to-face, physical, and spiritual interactions. We need to be touched. We need to smell each other. We need to sense each other’s souls. We need to feel alive and loved. Many children did not get nearly enough of that time being with other people during the pandemic, and I suspect they are still not getting enough of it, so of course they are suffering mentally. We all are.
So, what do we do? We know that some people are incredibly resilient. Some people are just built that way, but there is some very promising research coming out of Johns Hopkins University right now led by Christine Bethell. Dr. Bethell worked on some of the original research into adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Now, she is focused on investigating whether there are things we can do during childhood to increase a person’s resilience, and there is! She calls these positive childhood experiences (PCEs). They are incredibly simple. Is your child able to share their feelings at home? Do they feel supported by family? Do they enjoy participating in community traditions? Do they have a feeling of belonging at school? Do they feel supported by friends? Are there at least two adults outside the home that they feel care about them? We should be intentionally creating circles of belonging for every child to foster these positive child experiences.
If you want to know what the cure is for the widespread mental illness among children and youth coming out of the pandemic, we are. We are the medicine. We are the cure. We need each other and our children need us, so we need to unplug and be present with the children in our homes, our communities, and our schools and immerse them in healthy, normal, in-person human interaction.
Q: Despite the advances made by global civilization, physical and psychological violence against children is still rampant in different forms in parts of the world. As per the World Health Organization reports, some 300 million children aged 2-4 are consistently subject to physical or psychological violence at the hands of their parents or caregivers. Do you believe it’s possible to uproot different forms of violence and neglect toward children?
A: This is an incredibly difficult question. I work at the first academic center in the US devoted to the prevention and treatment of child abuse and neglect. Our mission is “to create a world free of abuse and neglect” and we just “celebrated” our 50th anniversary, which wasn’t really a celebration at all because we wanted to complete our mission long ago, but we haven’t. Indeed, one of the founders, Dr. Richard Krugman, bemoans the fact that the numbers are no better now than when we started 50 years ago. He thinks we need to declare a public health crisis, and view this as a medical problem, rather than a social problem, which is our primary approach now. He may be right.
What is difficult about child abuse is that no one is immune. We see children brought in from rich families, poor families, different religious and cultural backgrounds, married couples, single parents, frontline providers, graduate students, the unemployed, drug-affected families, and sober families. However, we have been able to identify risk factors and protective factors, and I sincerely believe that if we did more to advance children and family rights, child abuse would go down. As I explained earlier, ensuring that children and families have the resources they need to promote health and well-being not only in children but throughout society, will go a long way to creating a better world.
Q: More than 200 million children live in the deadliest conflict zones worldwide, and many of them are facing the severe impacts of climate change and acute malnutrition. Specifically, in the Middle East, the children of Yemen and the Gaza Strip are gripped in the most unfavorable conditions and face difficulties accessing water, food, education, toys, and shelter. Amidst conflicts that have overshadowed the stability of the region, what are the resources required to assist the children in war-stricken areas?
A: Some of my earliest children’s rights work was with the Red Cross and Red Crescent during the war in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and it was absolutely heartbreaking. We recommended an outline of rights for children in armed conflict, and we were very relieved when some were included in the First Optional Protocol to the United Nations Children’s Rights Convention, which focused on preventing children from becoming soldiers. We were also grateful when the International Criminal Court prioritized the prosecution of the leaders of armed forces recruiting children to participate in armed conflicts. I am hopeful that the long-term impacts of that treaty and ICC prosecutions will help lead to an end to those practices, but as we both know, some children continue to be recruited such as we are witnessing in Yemen today.
Even if we significantly reduce or even eliminate children’s active participation in armed conflict, children caught in war zones still experience mass violations of their rights. First and foremost, it is critical to remember that state parties to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by every recognized country in the world but the US, who is a signatory, have an obligation to “ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child.”
I always note that that obligation is not limited to children within the state parties’ jurisdiction and control, which arguably obligates 195 countries from all around the world to help ensure the survival of every child in Yemen, the Gaza Strip, and elsewhere. Of course, there are many other rights that are not being realized by children in these regions—including health and education—but survival is fundamental and even that is at risk.
So, what are the resources needed, in addition to access to food and water, which is obviously critical to fundamental survival? We know that children in crisis, such as in a war zone or a refugee camp benefit from as much normalcy and predictability as possible. This means empowering parents and communities with basic resources such as paper, writing utensils, books, etc., to create zones of learning for children to escape the madness all around them.
Even without these things, we have examples of storytelling, choral singing, group recitations, and play—all of which can be done without any tools and have been shown to have calming and healing effects on children and adults alike. I am in no way saying that this is enough, but I do think that we must always remember that finding ways to be together with children in healthy and healing ways can help them develop the resilience they need to survive such brutality.
Q: Violence against girls is one of the pervasive forms of human rights violation. There are at least 33 African countries that continue to promote child marriage, and millions of girls are married before the age of 18 against their will. As a result of gender-biased sex selection, in many societies, there is an overwhelming tendency to have a boy child, and daughters are treated as unwanted offspring. Does the conservative nature of many Global South nations allow for the enforcement of meaningful reforms in favor of girls and the replacement of flawed social, intellectual structures?
A: The right to non-discrimination is a fundamental principle of children’s rights, including gender-based bias. We know that one of the leading ways to advance equality between girls and boys is free, universal education. This result shows up in the study and is yet another reason why we need to prioritize resources to educate all children—regardless of gender, race, culture, citizenship status, or socioeconomic class. If we try to take on people’s political, religious, cultural, or intellectual beliefs, addressing this problem will take much longer and have a much lower likelihood of success rather than simply ensuring that every country has an educated population of girls and boys, which in turn almost always leads to greater equality.
Q: With the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the intensification of the crisis in Ukraine, and the continuation of conflicts across the Middle East and Africa, there are new waves of immigration that are emerging. What are the harms imposed on children during the immigration process, and how is it possible to lower these damages?
A: The migration of children is another incredibly challenging issue that I have had to face on the frontlines in the work that I do. There are countless risks that children face during the migration process—family separation, sexual abuse, trafficking including labor and sex, physical assault, educational loss and denial, discrimination, illness, lack of access to healthcare, and so much more.
Although we do not have a global legal framework for children on the move—and I am one of those who believe we should—the fact is that children in migration have all the same rights as children who are settled. And, of course, children have all the same human rights as adults, except those that are age-inappropriate such as the right to marry.
Thus, children in migration have an entire panoply of rights, but sadly almost no way to enforce their rights. As a result, they become even more vulnerable. The United Nations has released a number of decisions in recent years trying to ensure that host countries know they are responsible for realizing the rights of children in their countries, even when they are non-citizens or lack permanent residency, but there is much more work to be done.
On a practical level, there are a few basic steps that I think we can take to help protect children on the move. One is to keep families together in almost all circumstances. As we discussed above, families are a major source of strength and resilience for children and their presence helps to moderate anxiety during stressful experiences such as the migratory process.
Two is to develop child-friendly reception centers at key border crossings so that children can be cared for in age-appropriate ways while their arrivals are being processed. Third is that we need tracking apps so that when children are separated from their parents, the authorities know where the children are and whom they are with so that traffickers are not able to prey on them and force them to disappear into underground networks or other abusive situations.
The fact is that migration is a normal part of the human experience. We have been migrating for thousands of years and will continue to do so because of natural disasters, armed conflict, better opportunities, or love. The sooner we recognize and prepare for this inherent part of the human experience, the better we can ensure that children get where they need to go to safely, quickly, and with all of their rights respected throughout the process.
Q: Finally, forced labor is one of the traditional forms of children’s rights being violated, and is usually treated as a top priority by the international community. According to the latest United Nations figures, there are 160 million children in labor worldwide. How is it possible to eliminate child labor? Are international leverages effective or should they be exercised in tandem with national reforms and drastic amendments to local structures?
A: Child labor is another area that I have focused on specifically and researched in person. First, we need to distinguish between forced labor and child labor. Child labor is not inherently bad, and in fact, can be a source of healthy maturation and responsibility for a child and can foster independence, as well as contributions to economic stability for a family. I worked as a child and encourage my own children to work as well. However, children have the right to be protected from exploitative, harmful, and age-inappropriate work, in addition to forced labor and slavery, of course.
Once again, we see free and universal education as playing a key role in reducing harmful child labor. Of course, we also need to ensure that laws are in place to ban these practices. We also have to ensure there are market pressures to expose and boycott businesses and manufacturers that use child labor and move away from a consumption-driven culture in many countries where people buy more than they need and pay less than they should, which they are able to do in exploitative markets such as we witness round the world today.