ACN calls on businesses to respect and support children's rights

Little children are always lovely.  They are adorable.  They tell the truth, sometimes painfully and can get away with things we adults will never be forgiven.  Our hearts bled for them.  The concept of child rights is not new.  Yet the exploitation of children has continued to this day.  Why is this so?  What can we do about it?  Just because there had been shortcomings, we should not be weary in continuing to work for children.

In September 2015, the images of a 3-year old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi lying facedown lifelessly in red T-shirt and shorts on a Turkish beach reverberated across the globe, highlighting the plight of desperate children who are abandoned by authorities and the society. The toddler died alongside his five-year old brother, his mother and other refugees when their boat overturned during the desperate voyage crossing to Europe after their application for asylum in a country was refused.

Almost three years later, the images could still stir the emotions and arouse public concerns about innocent, young, and beautiful, but vulnerable children, who are sadly often deprived of their rights and subject to cruel and inhumane treatments every day.  This story is not new.  This kind of stories has been repeated over the years, decades and centuries. 

The globe’s promise and action

The world has promised to protect children and it has moved to protect children. In fact, in the history of human rights, the rights of children are the most ratified. Let’s look at some facts:

  • In England, the industrial revolution brought about a transformation of the country side. Charles Dickens in his novels record the sufferings. His novel “Oliver Twist” came out in 1838. The book brought attention to many social ills at that time, including child labour, the poor having to work in workhouses and the recruitment of children as criminals;
  • In the middle of the 19th century, the idea appeared in France to give children special protection, enabling the progressive development of “minors’ rights”. Since 1841, laws started to protect children in their workplace. Since 1881, French laws included the right for the children to be educated;
  • Since 1919, the international community, following the creation of The League of Nations (later to become the UN), started to give some kind of importance to the concept and established a Committee for child protection. Save the Children was founded in 1919 to feed children suffering from starvation after World War 1;
  • The League of Nations adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child on 16 September 1924, which is the first international treaty concerning children’s rights. Save the Children played a big role in drafting this Declaration;
  • UN Fund for Urgency for the Children was founded in 1947 after the World War II, which became UNICEF and was granted the status of a permanent international organization in 1953;
  • Since 10 December 1948, Article 25(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes that “motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children whether born in or out of wedlock shall enjoy the same social protection.” Article 26 of the UDHR calls for the right to education for all, and deals both with access to and the aims of education;
  • In 1959, the UN adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child;
  • The year 1979 was declared International Year of the Child by the UN;
  • The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) adopted on 20 November 1989 and came into force on 2 September 1990. The Convention is the most comprehensive document on the rights of children. The 54 articles of the convention affirm four basic principles, namely: a child’s right to survival; a child’s right to development; a child’s right to be protected; and a child’s right to participate actively in his/her community. The UNCRC defines a child as “every human being below the age of eighteen years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier”;
  • Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor was adopted by ILO on 17 June 1999 and came into effect on 19 November 2000;
  • In May 2000, Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict was ratified and came into force in 2002;
  • As of today, 196 countries are party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (see image below), including every member of the United Nations except the United States. The United States has signed the document but has not ratified it.
  • CRC
    Source: OHCHR

    Yet children’s rights are still most often neglected

    The ideas and the characters to the obligation of safeguarding children’s rights are universally accepted. Children’s rights are human rights. They have the right to life, right to education, right to food, right to health, right to water, right to identify, right to freedom, and right to protection and others. However, there is still a huge gap between expectations and application and implementation. There has been significant progress in respecting and supporting children’s rights, yet children remain one of the most vulnerable members of the society. Let’s look at some statistics:

  • Poverty: More than 30% of children in developing countries – about 600 million – live on less than US $1 a day. One in four children under age five in the world has inadequate height for his or her age;
  • Hunger: Poor nutrition causes nearly half (45%) of deaths in children under five – 3.1 million children each year. One in four of the world’s children suffer stunted growth. In developing countries the proportion can rise to one in three;
  • Health: 7,000 fewer children die each day than in 1990, but more than six million children still die before their fifth birthday each year;
  • Education: In some deeply impoverished nations, less than half of the children are in primary school and under 20% go to secondary school. Around the world, a total of 114 million children do not get even a basic education;
  • Water: Nearly 1,000 children die due to preventable water and sanitation-related diarrhoeal diseases each day;
  • Child soldiers: Thousands of children are serving as soldiers in armed conflicts around the world. These boys and girls serve in government forces and armed opposition groups. Girls may be forced into sexual slavery. Many are abducted or recruited by force, while others join out of desperation, believing that armed groups offer their best chance for survival;
  • Child labour: Worldwide, 218 million children between 5 and 17 years engaged as labour, mostly working in agriculture (71%) which includes fishing, forestry, livestock herding and aquaculture; 17% in services, and 12% in the industrial sector, including mining. In Asia and the Pacific, 62.1 million children are involved in child labour;
  • Related to business activities, beyond child labour, children are also exposed to many other issues which have long-lasting and even irreversible impacts on their physical, mental and emotional health and well-being. For example, children are more vulnerable to hazardous products. Due to their physiology, they absorb a higher percentage of pollutants to which they are exposed. Also, in many countries, childcare responsibilities conventionally rest with women, and poor working conditions and lack of maternity rights can therefore directly affect their children. Furthermore, many children are being left behind by their parents as they migrate in hope of stable income and better opportunities for their children in the long run. Parental migration results in separation and reduced care which may negatively impact the social and psychological development of left-behind children. In addition, just like adults, children also experience discrimination at different levels, due to their race, gender, immigration status, disabilities or a combination of such factors. However, discrimination against children can be more severe than that against adults because children often have less social power.

How to address the children’s rights problem? – which role to play for businesses?

How could we tackle the problem of children’s rights? In order to solve the problem, we need to understand why it has become such a problem and where does the gap come from. It is not difficult for us to identify the underlying causes which we can name a few here. They are but not limited to ignorance, lack of good governance, lack of decent work, corruption and especially vested interests and profits without values which have become notorious in our society.

With the increased attention on corporate responsibility and sustainability over the past decades, particularly the growing concern on human rights, there is an increased awareness on the rights of children and an enhanced role for businesses. Businesses are the major contributor to the problem. The pursuit of profits at all cost provides great incentives to exploit both children and adults.  At the same time, businesses are expected to be the key solution provider as they are uniquely equipped to deliver innovative changes on a large scale, build up capacity and momentum towards sweeping progress. In fact, more and more companies have been integrating children’s rights into their core business practices. However, when addressing children’s rights, businesses typically focus on the issue of child labour in the supply chain and too often fail to understand the range of other ways in which children are affected. 

The violation of children’s rights cannot be solved with piecemeal principles. It needs a holistic approach. Developed by UNICEF, the UN Global Compact (UNGC) and Save the Children, the Children’s Rights and Business Principles are a comprehensive set of principles to guide businesses on the full range of actions they can take in the workplace, marketplace and community to respect and support children’s rights. Businesses need to eliminate child labour, ensure decent work for all workers, provide decent working conditions that support working parents or caregivers such as living wages, length and flexibility of working hours, provisions for pregnant and breastfeeding women, family health care, special needs of migrant workers, parental leave and childcare facilities. Children’s rights need to be incorporated into core business strategies, not only in words and speech, but in action and truth.

However, children’s rights are everyone’s business, not only the private sector. Governments at all levels have the duty to protect, respect and fulfil children’s rights by enforcing the laws. As all governments have ratified the UNCRC, we assume they have laws to protect children. Good laws are useless without solid enforcement which can be only achieved if there is a strong political will, good and clean governance and transparency. All members of society, including business, must comply with and even go beyond applicable national laws and respect international standards and norms on children’s rights. Trade unions and media need to be active and effective advocates and monitors for the improvement of children’s rights. The ILO’s decent work agenda is also part of promoting child rights.

ASEAN CSR Network supports the Children Rights and Business Principles

ASEAN CSR Network supports the Children Rights and Business Principles and the internationally and regionally recognised standards, principles and guidelines such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, UNGC 10 Principles, ILO Conventions and Declaration, ASEAN Guidelines for CSR on Labour, among others.  ACN is working to realise our Vision of “A responsible business community making ASEAN a better place to live for all” by mainstreaming responsible business conduct in ASEAN. We want to have an equitable, inclusive and sustainable ASEAN.  Corporate respect for human rights is an important priority for us with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights as our reference.

We call on stakeholders, especially businesses, to play their part in respecting and supporting human rights, including children’s rights. We believe that together we can tackle the root causes of the children’s rights violations. Responsible business practice needs to be taken seriously as an integral part of the national and regional development agenda.

As the world strives to achieve its sustainable development goals, it is timely for us to make a bold commitment and take strong action to promote children’s rights. Children account for almost one third of the world’s population. In Asia, they are 1.1 billion. So they are not invisible and should not be made invisible. Children’s rights are an essential investment in our sustainable future. Investment in children is fundamental to eliminate poverty, promote shared prosperity and equity.