Invisible children: what needs to change

Posted by Natalia Schiffrin / Wednesday 01 July 2015 / Children's rights Law Inequality


As part of the UK's examination of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Natalia Schiffrin from the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE), shares her thoughts about what more needs to be done.

Recently, I visited my local primary school to teach a Year 4 class about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). I explained that this was an important international agreement and that more countries had signed up to it than any other human rights treaty. A little hand shot up. “Not Somalia!” said a girl. How on earth did she know that? I wondered. I agreed, and then in fairness, added that the USA hadn’t signed either. All eyes darted to the sole American student, who valiantly marshalled a defence of his country’s human rights record. If only everyone were as well informed as these eight year olds, I thought to myself, my job would be a lot easier.

 The UK ratified the CRC in 1991 and in early summer 2016, the UN will be assessing how well it is meeting the child rights obligations it signed up to. This examination is called the ‘reporting process’. Once a county has ratified the CRC it is regularly examined by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (the treaty monitoring body for the CRC) - initially two years after ratification and then every five years.

As part of the UK’s examination, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE) has coordinated two reports. CRAE’s See it, Say it, Change it project has supported children and young people to research and write their own report and I have coordinated a report on behalf of a number of civil society groups. On 1 July 2015, we are launching these reports in Parliament and submitting them to the UN Committee in Geneva.


"It’s easy to sign a human rights treaty, but it’s a lot harder to comply with its obligations."

It’s also a challenge to assess this fairly. That’s why as part of the ‘reporting process’ the UN formally invites children and young people, and civil society groups acting on their behalf, to prepare “alternative” reports. These reports set out civil society’s view of how well children’s rights are being respected and provide a critical response to government reports.

Against the backdrop of threats to repeal the Human Rights Act and wide-spread failure to protect children’s rights, CRAE wanted to make absolutely sure that the CRC is on everyone’s mind – politicians, policy-makers and the children’s sector.

To prepare the civil society report, we formed a steering committee, and divided up the sections of the report according to ‘clusters’ of rights in the CRC. Kate Mulley, Director of Policy and Campaigns at Action for Children, agreed to take the lead drafting the chapters on violence against children and family life and alternative care. We assigned the rest of the chapters to other leading figures in the children’s sector, held a series of working group meetings and put out a call for evidence. We were overwhelmed by the range and strength of the response.

Strictly word limited by UN rules, it has been a huge task to cover so many issues and gain wide sign-up to the report and its 172 policy recommendations. Cautious throughout the process not to prioritise one right over another, I hesitate now to highlight any “most urgent” issues the report covers. In fact, one of the things I am especially proud of is that we managed to address so many aspects of children’s experiences.

"The report deals with issues of grave concern like death in police custody, suicide and immigration detention. But it also assesses more everyday matters, such as lack of play space and breastfeeding; also key to a child’s wellbeing."

It’s an important exercise. The UN reads these reports carefully and draws on them in its examination of States Parties (countries that have ratified the CRC). At the end of the process the UN will make recommendations to the UK Government on how it can better respect the rights in the CRC. It is clear that the UN’s examination offer a key opportunity to push for change and ultimately improve the lives of children. Reforms to the Children’s Commissioner’s for England and the extension of more rights to immigrant children can both be traced back to this process in the past.

As might be expected, forging agreement between 76 signatories was bound to raise challenges, but we managed to resolve them. Over all, the response CRAE received across the sector was enthusiastic, generous and unhesitating. Above everything else, all signatories recognise the fundamental importance of international scrutiny and share the belief that children’s rights must be paramount. Let’s hope the Government agrees.

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