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UNCRC turns 30

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In 2006, I met Robbie on the streets of Kitwe, Zambia. Some of you know him too as I have spoken of him many times. About the same age as our second son, about the same size, the same damn Manchester United shirt – but he was on the streets of an African city and our son was home in Twickenham.

This was, to me, “just not right” and it was the start of a journey which quickly made clear that children like Robbie cannot take their rights for granted.  Probably like my son, they have a limited understanding of what those rights should be but, unlike him, they are often surrounded by people who systematically abuse them.  Since 2006, I have continually heard stories of truly appalling abuse and neglect, abuse that is often taken as the normal state of things by the children and, sadly, taken as the normal state by many of us too.

Today is the 30th Anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and it is only within the last 15 years that this has meant anything real to me.  I have always been aware of our rights as human beings and was vaguely aware that they were guaranteed by the Universal Declaration.  A very good thing I was sure and something we can take for granted apply to us.

While I join in today’s UNCRC birthday celebrations, it is now a source of amazement and anger that a Convention on the Rights of a Child only came into being during the second half of my lifetime and that, until 2017, the rights of street-connected children were not explicitly mentioned at all.  I am pleased and proud to say that, thanks to the tireless efforts of the likes of the Consortium for Street Children, Patrick Shanahan, Sarah Thomas de Benitez, the UNOHCHR,  StreetInvest and many others, that has now changed and UN General Comment No. 21 spells out very clearly how states must guarantee the rights of street children.

So it is now up to everyone to make sure states honour their commitments to guarantee the rights of street connected children. It is important to understand that the guaranteeing of rights includes principles behind how we go about this.  Central to it is the recognition of the strengths of these young people, their realities and their right to participate in decisions affecting their lives and in deciding what is in their own best interests.  A rights based approach does not treat young people as either victims or criminals but believes in them to be among the most resourceful, resilient and responsive young people that I have had the honour of meeting.

On the one hand, treating young people in this way seems the most logical thing in the world when we think of how we would like to (but don’t always) respond to our own children.  In practice, it has proved immeasurably more difficult.  Many fine people and organisations, including our Regional Coordinating Partners CINI in Asia, Glad’s House in East Africa and MFCS in West Africa strive every day to realise the rights of street children; working to maximise their growth and development and minimise the stigma and abuse they suffer.  StreetInvest has been trying its best to do this for a decade.  We have learned a great deal in that period and only hope we can do more as we enter our second decade … because it is just the rights thing to do!

Duncan Ross

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