UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet
74th World Assembly and OMEP International Conference
It is a pleasure to address you today, on a topic that is close to my heart.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most widely ratified human rights treaty, representing a strong signal of the commitment of states to protect and promote the rights of every child, without discrimination.
And yet, the gap between the rights enshrined in that Convention and the everyday reality of children around the world is growing wider and wider.
The current global instability resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, raging armed conflicts, soaring inequalities and the climate crisis, threatens hard won gains in child rights.
To give you an idea, by the end of 2021, an estimated 100 million more children were living in multidimensional poverty compared to the pre-COVID situation. In many countries, heightened poverty is depriving many children of shelter, as well as adequate nutrition and care.
Over 90 % of children in the world had their education interrupted by COVID-19, the largest disruption of education systems in history. For many students, especially girls, this break may become permanent.
And you may already be aware that – due to COVID-19, a staggering 66% of countries reported a disruption in services to address violence against children.
Approximately 43% children under 5 years of age in low and middle-income countries – approximately 250 million children – are at risk of not achieving their potential due to poverty, poor health and nutrition, and lack of early stimulation.
In conflict-afflicted areas, children continue to suffer the most serious consequences of war. For instance, in Afghanistan, the climate of impunity and economic crisis have contributed to an increase in conflict related sexual violence, including early and /forced marriage, sexual slavery, and sale of children, mainly girls. In Yemen, more than 10,200 children have been killed or maimed since the beginning of the conflict, and thousands more have been recruited into the fighting.
The science is clear: the early years of a child’s life lay the foundation for their growth and potential. It is in the first years of life that the brain doubles in size and the number of neuronal synapses grows exponentially. Stimulation, adequate nutrition, and loving care are crucial for a child’s development. The Committee on the Rights of the Child, in its General Comment N. 7 on implementing child rights in early childhood, encourages the recognition of young children as social actors from the beginning of life, with particular interests, capacities and vulnerabilities, and their requirements for protection, guidance and support in exercising their rights.
For governments, these early years are a vital opportunity. Smart investments in policies and programmes targeting early childhood development lead to multiplier effects throughout a child’s life, and sustainable development outcomes for all.
At precisely this moment of grave and profound threat it is more important than ever to pursue the path that was committed to in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic – to build together towards transformative societies and greener economies that will be more resilient to crises.
Promoting and protecting the rights of the child must lie at the core of these efforts.
For States, this involves increasing national spending in social sectors, with a focus on accessibility, affordability, and quality of services and non-discrimination. In order to leave no child behind, investments and policies should target the children who are among the most marginalised in our societies. Concretely, States must build comprehensive public health care and social protection systems, and invest in transformative quality education, including early childhood education.
In that spirit, the UN Secretary-General will hold a Summit on Transforming Education in September of this year to accelerate progress towards the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 4.
Human rights education should be fully integrated in early childhood education. Age-specific methods can teach children, self-respect and respect for others, appreciation of diversity and peaceful resolution of conflict. This allows children to develop the confidence and capacity to live in a community, providing them with the tools – grounded in human rights - to tackle the challenges they may face.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is a critical instrument to expand children's access to early development and education as it defines this as a specific global target for all countries, under target 4.2 to ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education.
My Office provides regular input every year to the global reviews of progress undertaken by the High Level Political Forum for Sustainable Development, in broad consultation with civil society and children themselves. Through this reporting on children's rights in relation to the global Goals (SDGs), we draw attention to the progress, gaps and challenges that are faced in reaching the targets on the ground within countries.
Finally, States must also strengthen support to families, as an environment supportive of parents and caregivers is a critical factor in children’s development. More than 40 per cent of all children below primary-school age – or nearly 350 million – need childcare but do not have access. So in addition to affordable, accessible quality childcare, measures could include adequate wages, parental leave, breastfeeding support, accessible mental health services and child benefits.
Amidst the turbulence and the global challenges, we have an opportunity to learn the lessons of the past.
Within the eight years that remain for the global Sustainable Development Agenda, we must take bold and urgent action to generate the transformative change that our children deserve.
The alternative is unimaginable.