Today, the right of all children and young people to be heard is, in theory, taken for granted.
The international community has, in its near universal ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), agreed that this principle is a key aspect of children's and young people's ability to exercise the rest of their rights.
This was not, however, the case in 1989 when the CRC was drafted. "States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child," says the Convention.
But even as these words were being drafted, this did not reflect reality.
Consulting youth on the rights of the child
I experienced this first hand. In 1988, as members of the Swedish Red Cross Youth Section, my colleagues and I heard of this Convention and were appalled that we, the children and young people about whom this document was speaking and to whom it was guaranteeing rights, had never been consulted.
We therefore decided to take action. Given the mandate of the Red Cross, we focused on one specific article of the Convention regarding children in armed conflict. We did not feel that the text of this article represented the best interests of the child. So we drafted an appeal, stating that "We, the young people of all nations, do not accept this."
We sought the support of youth all around the world for stronger language protecting children in conflict situations.
Imagine: back then there was no Facebook, no Twitter, no SurveyMonkey, and certainly no online petition platforms. We had to look up the addresses in catalogues and send out information via letters and fax!
After sending our appeal to 2,000 organisations in 150 countries, the responses were overwhelmingly successful: 655 child and youth organisations in 120 countries representing over 100 million young people showed their support by signing the appeal.
To my knowledge, this was the only large scale and formalised initiative at the time to get the view of youth on the new Convention.
Taking our appeal to the top
So with a 4 metre-long appeal in hand, and much anticipation and enthusiasm, we travelled to Geneva in March 1989. We were confident that with the support of millions of young people across the world, our appeal could not be ignored.
Even though it had not yet been enshrined in international law, it was evident to us that an international document that would protect our rights should take into account what more than 100 million of us had to say.
Those drafting the Convention did not seem to see things the same way, and our appeal was, however, all but ignored. We had lost one specific battle, but not the war, as a few years later, an Optional Protocol on Children in Armed Conflict addressed the very issues we had raised in 1989.
The Convention today
Today, the Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most ratified international treaty, with all but 2 (USA and Somalia) states ratifying the treaty. 194 states have, on paper, agreed that children and young people are rights holders, with not only the right to be heard but also many other rights.
But as I so clearly experienced in 1989, words on paper, while important, are not sufficient. If not followed by the political will to make those rights a reality, gaps in protection will remain.
We have come far, it's true. But 58 million primary school-aged children are still out of school. Globally, 35% of children under 5 have not had their births registered (a number that climbs to 60% in South Asia). 1 in 3 girls in the developing world will be married by their 18th birthday. And an uncountable number of children and young people remain unheard, their voices at best not taken seriously, and at worst, completely silenced.
No one left behind
For over 75 years, Plan International has been working to address these gaps, with children, young people, their families and their communities. Plan has partnered with them to ensure the implementation and full realisation of their human rights and dignity, and to make sure that their voices are heard.
As civil society, we need to continue to work together and with children to make sure that they can claim their rights.
The 25th anniversary of the Convention of the Rights of the Child on 20 November is an important opportunity for us not only to look back and consider where we started, but also to redouble our efforts to ensure that the words written in the Convention do not remain simply letters on paper, but rather become a reality.
The original vision of the Convention will only be realised if no one is left behind.
Read about the Convention on the Rights of the Child*
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