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

By Mark Tomlinson

Original article published in Daily Maverick

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 1 million 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. 

Read the full article in the Daily Maverick here.

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