Thirty years ago, the member states of the United Nations agreed to a binding treaty of international law that would allow all children in all countries and of all ethnicities, cultures and orientations to live in a world in which their human rights would be respected and adhered to. It was 1989 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child was born; it was formally signed in 1990 and to date is the world’s most widely ratified human rights treaty in history.
As envisioned, it has become the standard for children’s rights and the basis for the work of UNICEF, the UN’s children’s organisation. Over the years, the ratification of this convention has seen amendments to old laws and the passing of new legislation to protect children where none existed before or where the law was so archaic it did more harm than good. Some of the changes made in some member states in the 30 years since the convention came into being include an end to corporal punishment, the development of juvenile and family courts, improvements in education with emphasis on educating girls in some regions where this had not been seen as a priority or necessity.
But it has not all been rosy. In some countries, enforcement of legislation has been and continues to be an issue. Too many adults still see children as their property to do with as they see fit and this engenders mental, physical, emotional and sexual abuse, exploitation and neglect.
A current case in point is the anti-vaccination movement in the United States, Europe and other countries. The anti-vaxxers, as they are called are parents and guardians, some of whom have been vaccinated, but who refuse to allow their children the same protection. Some quote the long-disproved hypothesis that there is a link between the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine and autism, a developmental disorder that impairs the ability to communicate and interact. Others refuse any and all vaccines because of religious reasons and yet others proffer philosophical or other personal beliefs.
Whatever the reason, one of the results seen today is a 300 percent increase in the cases of measles globally in the first quarter of 2019 compared with last year, according to statistics released by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Up to the end of April this year, the WHO said, 170 countries had reported 112,163 measles cases as compared with the same period in 2018 when 163 countries had reported 28,124 cases.
Vaccination skeptics were not made this year, the anti-vax movement, in different forms, has been around for at least a century, proving that ignorance also endures. More than that, in the US at least, the legality of not vaccinating children has been tested and found wanting.
According to Stanford University Law School Emeritus Professor Michael Wald, “As early as 1905, the US Supreme Court ruled that parents do not have a constitutional right not to vaccinate their children, regardless of the reason…” He also said, according to the university’s website that under most state laws, failure to provide vaccinations might also be considered “medical neglect”.
Unfortunately, vaccinations are not mandatory in many places – although there have been calls for this in Germany – and parents who refuse to take their children for shots do not just put them at risk, but others as well. And this does not just apply to the current measles outbreak, but other health issues easily transmitted among children in a shared environment, like at schools.
According to the convention, children have the right to “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health and to facilities for the treatment of illness and rehabilitation of health,” among other rights. Sadly, this right and all the others are disrespected more often than not. The truth is that very often, the lines are so blurred that children’s best interests are not even considered in the decisions affecting them. Instead, it’s the parent/s projected wants and needs and their fears, hopes and dreams.
Yes, children are dependent on adults for nurture and protection and need discipline and guidance throughout their formative years, but this cannot preclude the fact that they are individuals with inalienable rights that should be respected.