Research Article: Child Rights and Child Poverty: Can the International Framework of Children’s Rights Be Used to Improve Child Survival Rates?

Date Published: October 23, 2007

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Simon Pemberton, David Gordon, Shailen Nandy, Christina Pantazis, Peter Townsend

Abstract: The authors explain how the international framework of human rights can be better used to help reduce child poverty and improve child survival rates.

Partial Text: The purpose of this short paper is to explain how the international framework of human rights can be better used to help reduce child poverty and improve child survival rates.

It is estimated that over 10 million children in developing countries die each year, mainly from preventable causes. In approximately half of these deaths, malnutrition is a contributory cause [1,2]. However, the World Health Organization has argued that seven out of ten childhood deaths in such countries can be attributed to just five main causes, or their combination. In addition to malnutrition [3], these causes are pneumonia, diarrhoea, measles, and malaria. Around the world, three of every four children seen by health services are suffering from at least one of these conditions. Many of these deaths could be prevented using readily available medical technologies at comparatively little cost. In 1997, the United Nations Development Programme estimated that the cost of providing basic health and nutrition for every person on the planet was $13 billion per year for ten years [4]. To place this sum in perspective, in 2002, the United States population spent $30 billion on pizza and Europeans spent $12 billion on dog and cat food.

In recent years, the importance of the link between child rights and child survival has been contested. In 2004, an editorial in The Lancet [8] argued that UNICEF’s focus on child rights had been detrimental to international campaigns to improve child survival. In particular, the article claimed that the outgoing UNICEF Director (Carol Bellamy) had focused on “girl’s education, early childhood development, immunisation, HIV/AIDS, and protecting children from violence, abuse, exploitation, and discrimination”, and that in doing this she had “failed to address the essential health needs of children”. The current Director of UNICEF (Ann Veneman) has so far given much less prominence to child rights, making “child mortality public enemy number one for the agency” [9].

A human rights approach offers the possibility for progressive interventions into child poverty and child survival in three ways. First, conventions like the UNCRC have been signed by most countries in the world and thus can be considered to embody universal values and aspirations. Second, human rights conventions place a legal obligation upon states, a view endorsed by Mary Robinson (former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights) in her speech to the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa: “…a human rights approach adds value because it provides a normative framework of obligations that has the legal power to render governments accountable” [11].

There are objections to the human rights approach. One question is whether human rights, as formally expressed in human rights conventions, are genuinely universal [14]. Critiques based on cultural relativism and Asian values have suggested that human rights are “western” in orientation and content and, consequently, promote liberal/individualist social preferences over more “collective” forms of organisation [15,16]. However, it is a fact that every country in the world (the 193 UN Member States) has signed the UNCRC—implying that negotiated moves towards the realisation of the agreed goals are feasible. There is a near-unanimous consensus on objectives and values. Only two countries have to date failed to ratify the UNCRC—Somalia and the US.

The UNCRC does not contain an explicit human right to freedom from poverty. Hence, to measure poverty in terms of rights, a selection process is required to match these rights to the severe deprivations of basic human need that characterise poverty and cause ill health. Giving greater priority to selected groups of rights does not imply that rights are divisible in any ultimate or “perfect” sense. It allows planned actions to be taken, progressively by stages, to achieve agreed ends. Human rights are interrelated, so the fulfilment of some rights is reliant on the prior realisation of others [15].

The international framework of child rights is a useful theoretical and political tool in taking action to reduce child poverty and improve child health [24–29]. A rights-based strategy is necessary to the development not only of international and national jurisprudence but to a global civil society that challenges the structures of global poverty, so that child rights may move from the realms of rhetoric to those of tangible reality. However, in order to provide clear guidance for policy, we need to move away from an approach that gives all rights equal weight, to a strategy of choosing clear implementation priorities. We suggest that the rights contained in the UNCRC relating to child survival and non-discrimination be prioritised, i.e., these rights should be implemented first in situations where child rights cannot be implemented all at once. An emphasis on both survival and non-discrimination is vital to prevent unequal health provision from developing—for example, privileging the survival of boys over girls or one ethnic group over another. If such priorities are not set, then governments may decide to implement those rights first that are least expensive and easiest to fulfil and only implement more expensive rights, which would improve child survival, at a later date.



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