The UNCRC at 20 Years: How to Strengthen the Leverage of Child Rights?

20 November 2009
Children raising hands

20 November 2009 - Andy Sumner

Child rights, as embodied in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), are important. But is there more that can be done to strengthen them, and the child-related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), using the emergent '3-D child wellbeing' approach?

Children in developing countries (taking the UNCRC definition of less than 18 years) account for on average one third of the world’s population, and half of the population in the poorest countries. A high proportion of the poor are children, and the incidence of poverty among children is invariably higher than in the adult population. The long run impacts and irreversibility of poverty suffered during childhood are well documented in terms of nutrition, stunted growth, delayed school enrolment and reduced grade completion.

IDS research on wellbeing, building on a long tradition of research in this area, has focussed on how a child rights perspective, and the child goals in the MDGs, can be strengthened by considering the relationship between child rights, child poverty and child wellbeing.

Child poverty will continue to move up the agenda next year at the UN review summit on the MDGs, as the goals are fundamentally about children (including child nutrition, child education, and child mortality). Standard development indicators of child rights and child poverty are important, but they need expanding in order to fully capture whether children in a particular society are flourishing now and in future.

How does child poverty differ to adult poverty?

Childhood poverty is distinct from adult poverty in two ways.

Childhood wellbeing is intensely relational in nature. There is greater relational vulnerability for physiological and psychological reasons; greater reliance on others for care and nurture; and less autonomy/power. The conventional voicelessness of children has a particular quality and intensity.

All of these issues are compounded by the challenge of relating the meaning of childhood, defined by contexts and cultures, with more universal rights-based understandings.

Second, childhood wellbeing also has a profoundly subjective dimensions, and as such the relative dimensions for childhood poverty deserve special attention. Children have differing needs, wants and capacities depending on the stage of childhood (infancy, early childhood (under 5 years), middle childhood and adolescence). Childhood wellbeing is heterogeneous in nature - gender, ethnicity, disability status, age and parental status all play a role, and again we can note that the meaning of 'childhood' is defined by context and culture. The relative dimensions of poverty in childhood may have particularly adverse consequences for children’s emotional development and their ability to flourish.

Increasingly however, as agencies have engaged with children’s own voices, this broader agenda has emerged. In research in Latin America and the Caribbean, UNICEF has noted that perceptions of peace in society, perceived family harmony, perception of the health of their environment, quality of food, access to schooling, ability to play in safety and the degree to which they are ‘looked down on’ by others are all important to children.

What does a three-dimensional wellbeing approach mean?

The material aspects of wellbeing are covered well in the UNCRC and the MDGs. However, there is a gap in accounting for the third (subjective) dimension of wellbeing (although there is a good effort to cover this in the UNICEF Innocenti scorecard, as of yet data is only available for OECD countries).

A 3-D child wellbeing lens brings together material and subjective wellbeing in a holistic way, so that important aspects of child poverty and well-being are not neglected. It  addresses what children feel, as well as what they can do and be. Also, important for children and child poverty, it is based on actual current wellbeing, rather than future wellbeing (children as future adults). A 3-D child wellbeing lens builds on rights conventions such as the UNCRC to focus on the enabling conditions for a 'flourishing childhood'.

A 3-D notion of child wellbeing could be thought to be what a child has; what a child can do with what they have; and how a child thinks about what they have and can do. It involves the interplay of the resources that a child is able to command; what they are able to achieve with those resources, and what needs and goals they are able to meet; the meaning that they give to the goals they achieve, and the processes in which they engage.

The UNCRC and the MDGs have provided considerable impetus to refocus the efforts of development agents around the world on the major moral challenge of eradicating global poverty. A concept of 3-dimensional human wellbeing can contribute to a revived UNCRC and MDG momentum if development policy complements its emphasis on material wellbeing by placing it in relation to relational and subjective dimensions of human wellbeing. This will mean more attention how these three dimensions relate in the spheres of human values, relationships, norms and behaviours.

Andy Sumner is a Research Fellow at IDS.