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Interview: Children's rights in China

7 December 2015
As Plan International China prepares to implement its first ever project funded by the European Commission, we spoke to Country Director Sven Coppens to find out more about the challenges children in the country face and what Plan International is doing to address these.

Girls in China face a number of challenges to the realisation of their rights
Children in China face a number of challenges to the realisation of their rights. Photo credit: Plan International.

What are the main challenges facing children in China today when it comes to realising their rights? How is Plan International China working to address these challenges?

China’s economic growth had largely been stimulated by a wave of internal migration, which has had an impact on millions of primarily rural children from poor socio-economic background. There are some 70 million left behind and migrant children in rural and urban settings - children that are no longer living with their parents, who have migrated to the cities looking for work. They are either left in the care of poor – often illiterate – grandparents or, increasingly, are growing up in boarding schools. Many of these children experience mental health problems.

The situation is in essence a ticking time bomb which not only impacts on the rights fulfillment of these children but – in both the short and long term – on Chinese society as a whole.

Through focusing Plan International China’s programs in early childhood care and development, child protection, disaster risk reduction and youth employment on this particular group of left-behind children in China, we are targeting some of the most vulnerable and marginalised children in Chinese society.

What is the situation like for girls in particular?

Although in general gender parity in education has been achieved in China, recent studies clearly demonstrate that boy preference and traditional social gender norms favoring boys over girls are still dominant. China has one of the most distorted sex ratios at birth globally and boys are still raised with many more privileges than girls. For example, girls are not allowed any time out for leisure (either at home or at school) whilst boys can play freely during break time.

In ethnic minority areas many girls still drop out of school early, meaning they either don’t receive the skills and qualifications they need to gain decent jobs. Despite being forbidden by law, child marriage also remains a problem.

Through Plan International China’s flagship Because I am a Girl projects, supported by our National Offices in the UK and France, we are developing replicable models to support girls’ continuation and smooth transition up to tertiary level education, to promote access to decent jobs and to postpone the age of marriage amongst ethnic minority girls.

Plan International China has just signed its first EC-funded project. Can you tell us more about it?

We are very proud in Plan International China to have been awarded our first ever EC grant! This grant also comes at the time that we are celebrating our “20 Years in China”-Anniversary. Two memorable milestones of success.

Our new project “Improved responsiveness of social protection for migrant and left behind children in Qinghai and An'hui Province” will be implemented from the 1st of January 2016 onwards. The overall objective of the project is to contribute to improved responsiveness of social protection for migrant and left-behind children, through fostering multi-actor partnerships in policy dialogue.

It is a true game changer for Plan international China, as it will be our first governance program in which we aim to set-up and facilitate a structural and critical dialogue between children, families, citizens and governmental bodies responsible for children.

Some 6,000 migrant girls and 91,000 rural left-behind girls and boys with benefit directly from the project, through the improvement of social protection services and cash grants. In the long run, the project will benefit approximately 30,000 migrant girls and boys (52% girls and 90% are Tibetan) and some 3.6 million rural left-behind girls and boys (50.5% are girls) through improved policies and future policy changes, as the social protection system becomes better equipped to take into account the needs of left-behind and migrant children.

The EU-China Human Rights Dialogue is currently underway. How do you see the HR dialogue with the EU as being helpful in promoting change and better realisation of children’s rights in China?

The EU Delegation in China is a powerful player in the promotion of Human Rights in China and can rely on the strong support of all the EU member states’ representations in China. Within the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue there is no space for civil society to directly get involved.

The EU Delegation is however very actively involving civil society actors working in China, including Plan International China, in consultations preparing for the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue. We have very eagerly taken this opportunity to raise child right issues and also zoomed in on girls’ right in particular. I am very confident that our contributions are seriously being taken into account during the actual dialogue and that positive changes will result from it.

What is the environment for civil society organisations operating in China? How can an organisation like Plan International work with the EU to support local CSOs and help ensure they are able to operate effectively in China?

The space for civil society in China is very limited and some voices suggest that this space is even shrinking. This is not an issue only in China, but it is a regional phenomenon in a lot of countries in Asia. Within such context it remains important to positively and proactively deal with political sensitivities but also to increase our work on promoting CSO capacities and our partnerships with CSOs.

The EU supports these strategies and is not a mere donor, but an active ally that advocates on behalf of member states and international organisations. As an organisation, it is important to realise that our relationship with the EU Delegation transcends the funding relationship and can become a strategic one allowing for a better advocacy towards the realisation of children’s rights in Chinda.

Interview with Sven Coppens, Plan International Country Director.