11/18/2014 07:49 EST | Updated 01/18/2015 05:59 EST

25 Years of Child Rights, But Much More to Do

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When hundreds of girls are kidnapped in Nigeria, disappearing into the night for months and counting, the world is outraged. When boys are handed guns and forced into militias, the world is shocked. When children work as slave labourers in mines, there are global cries for action. But these atrocities are only part of the picture.

Children throughout the world, including in Canada, are subjected to myriad abuses from family members, public institutions, including schools, and when going about routine activities. Their suffering is largely invisible and silent, but that does not mean it does not exist.

This Thursday, November 20, we mark the 25th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. That treaty lists dozens of inalienable rights for children under the age of 18. Some are fairly basic, such as the right to an identity or the right to an education, while others are more far-reaching such as governments' obligation to "provide support services to parents, especially if both parents work outside the home."

Photo: Plan / Rob Few

Plan's work to promote child rights and lift millions of children out of poverty is based around core areas, including education, health, participation, and protection.

Photo: Plan / Rob Few

The Convention is much more than an endorsement of motherhood principles such as the rights of a child to safety, health, and education. It "obliges" signatories to amend existing legislation or create new laws to ensure these rights are achieved and protected. All but two UN members, the United States and Somalia, have ratified the agreement, making it one of the most-ever widely endorsed international treaties.

This 25th anniversary provides an occasion to consider the gap between the Convention's bill of rights and the reality that countries often pay lip service to these principles, especially when times are tough. Government and societal support for children's rights is too often compromised during times of natural disaster, war, or other political crises that cause social systems to break down.

Children's rights, like those of adults, are absolute; they are not contextual nor subject to cultural or economic forces. These rights can't be set aside during hard times, times when children are most vulnerable.

Take for example what typically occurs in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake or typhoon. A child's right to an education is put on the backburner as authorities use schools for other purposes or delay getting temporary classrooms up and running. Or some parents, desperate to feed their families, consider selling their young daughters into marriage, believing this action will ensure their daughters are taken care of and kept safe. Orphaned children are abducted and trafficked as domestic servants, or worse.

Children's voices are easily ignored because they are not heard. They simply don't have a place at the table when adults make decisions about what is best for them. This is a situation that has to be remedied as world leaders consider a new set of targets to replace next year's expiring UN Millennium Development Goals.

Photo: Plan / Pattapong Polek

Sponsored children from villages in Chiang Mai, Thailand, play games to mark Universal Children's Day, celebrated annually on November 20.

Photo: Plan / Pattapong Polek

It's not enough to create mechanisms that let children speak up. Parents, teachers and policymakers must also listen when children speak.

Recently, we have seen shocking examples in Canada of adult female victims afraid to come forward publicly, or even come forward at all, to discuss inappropriate and violent sexual behaviour. Imagine how fearful young girls must be to talk about the same issues.

As we look to entrench children's rights, we must ask whether our schools and police stations, among others, have created safe places for young people to speak about their challenges, abuses, or violations. Natural tendencies to get along with others and not rock the boat can create a culture of silence that allows reprehensible conduct to flourish.

Attitudes must change, and governments must play a helpful role in facilitating that transformation. Canada, for one, should ratify the UN protocol that will ensure children have the safeguards in place to report violence and other violations of their rights. Canada must also ensure that its private sector partners abroad are pursuing business practices that respect children's rights in all respects. Too often, I hear from Canadian companies in the developing world that the life of their operations, a decade or so, is far too short for meaningful programs that benefit young people. I reply that 10 years for a child is a lifetime and can easily span the path from childhood to becoming an adult.

We can do more.

Canada has certainly made strong efforts to secure the first-ever resolution to end child, early and forced marriage, but we should also expand those efforts to include working with local communities where these abuses occur. We also need accountable international protocols that govern how countries and aid agencies treat children in times of crisis, and Canada must also support global initiatives to ensure that children who must work to support their families do so in safe conditions and that their education is not jeopardized as a result.

As we develop our next set of international development goals, Plan Canada along with other non-governmental organizations will push for the inclusion of children's rights as not only universal but as an essential building block for creating sustainable societies. That will benefit children and adults alike.