Protecting Child Rights

By providing support, information and resources to keep children safe, Stop It Now! works to secure children’s right to freedom from violence. Now more than ever adults, communities and society around the world are stepping up to the responsibility to protect this right. 

Stop It Now! supports the United States' ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) as part of our commitment to support human rights for all children. 

What is the CRC?

The CRC is an international treaty that states that children have the following rights:  

  • the right to survival;
  • the right to develop to the fullest potential;
  • the right to protection from abuse, neglecti, and exploitation, and;
  • the right to participate in family, cultural, and social life.

The Convention expressly recognizes that parents have the most important role in the bringing up children. The Unite Nations General Assembly adopted the CRC in 1989 and to date 193 countries have ratified it. The United States is in the company of South Sudan and Somalia as the only countries not to have ratified the treaty.

“In my conversations with child advocates in countries where the Convention on the Rights of the Child has been ratified, the negative impacts forecast by some US critics have not been realized,”  says Deborah Donovan Rice, Executive Director of Stop It Now!. “What I hear about is the usefulness of having a framework that makes clear what is meant by children’s rights.”

The CRC has been critical for getting governments to take seriously the protection and support of children, while not interfering with parents’ responsibility to take care of their children. Our collaboration with international  organizations seeking to uphold children’s right to freedom from violence has made clear that the concept of children’s rights and ratification of the CRC provides a legal structure critical for advocating for prevention and response to child maltreatment, including child sexual abuse. “Rights-based and public-health approaches to child maltreatment are complementary, and when harnessed in concert they can act as a highly effective instrument of change in policy, professional activity, and public values.” (Reading, 2009, p. 340)

Definition of childhood

The CRC defines a child as a person below the age of 18, allowing exceptions for countries that have set a lower legal age. However, when it comes to child sexual abuse prevention, it is important to note that what the community accepts as the definition of childhood is constructed based on the specific cultural, social and historical context. For example, in the U.S., the legal age of consent for sexual relations varies from 16 -18 depending on the state. In some countries, girls are considered sexually adult at puberty, no matter that they are still under 18.    To prevent sexual harm to children under age 18, programs need to take into account the country or community’s context in order to design effective programs. (Pasura, forthcoming). 

Putting children and their voices first

Two key tenets of the CRC are that decisions be made according to the best interests of the child, and that children are active participants in society. The CRC requires adults, whether parents or policy-makers, to consider the impact on children before making decisions so that children’s well-being stays at the heart of actions, policies, laws and other social structures.

The CRC also recognizes children’s right to participate in society and to have a say in their lives, but it does not take away parental rights. As the Campaign for US Ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child points out:  “This does not mean that children can now tell their parents what to do. This Convention encourages adults to listen to the opinions of children and involve them in decision-making -  not give children authority over adults.” (Campaign, Questions Parents Ask, 2012)  The level of participation is based on children’s development and ability. The value of child participation is that we learn from children about their concerns, questions and needs when it comes to any issue, including child sexual abuse prevention. 

Embedding these and other tenets of child rights into laws and policies, as well as in the training and practice of professionals who serve children, can lead to the prevention of child maltreatment, including child sexual abuse. (Reading, p. 336) 

Starting point of adult responsibility

Stop It Now! was founded by a survivor who created a new approach to preventing child sexual abuse  based on her experience in childhood where she wanted adults to take action to prevent or stop abuse. Empathy for children’s point of view was central to the focus on adults taking responsibility to protect children from abuse. To understand how abuse happens, it is critical to understand the power imbalance between the child at risk to be victimized and the person (adult or child) at risk to abuse. Given the dynamics of abuse—where a more powerful person is intent on sexual harm—adults, with greater knowledge, maturity and legal status, are in a better position to take action on behalf of children. More importantly, if adults are educated and supported to understand these dynamics, know where to get help and how to intervene, they will be empowered to prevent children from being sexually abused and to intervene with someone who is at risk to abuse a child.   

This emphasis on adult responsibility was in direct challenge to the existing emphasis on teaching children body safety. Over time, in response to work in communities in the United States and through other collaborative work, Stop It Now! began to discuss the focus on children’s well-being as a key guiding principle. Since 2009, when we began working internationally, particularly with emerging countries, we learned from our partners about the fundamental role of child rights in advocacy for child abuse prevention. At that point, Stop It Now! fully adopted  messages to focus on both adult responsibility AND child rights. Much as Stop It Now! incorporated the thinking around child rights, policy makers and academics in the US have been leaders in promoting children’s rights in policy and practice. (Reading, 2009, p. 334)   

Linking child rights and adult responsibility

This focus on adult responsibility supports child rights by educating adults on specific things they can do to protect children from sexual violence. Stop It Now! encourages adults to learn about  and talk to their children about:

  • their bodies and sexual development, 
  • their right to speak up when they are uncomfortable,  and 
  • their right to say “no” to touch or other actions by adults or other children. 

We also educate adults to recognize behaviors that might lead to sexual abuse of children and offer them guidance and support so that they can take action to intervene before a child is harmed. This includes:

  • paying attention to children’s words and actions that show their discomfort with adults and other children;
  • recognizing and responding  to concerning behaviors (whether by adults or children) that might lead to sexual abuse of children, and;
  • acting on those concerns to keep a child safe.  

In our training we often refer to the safety message used on airplanes: “in the event of an emergency, adults are warned to put on their own oxygen mask before helping children with their masks.”  In the same way, adults need to learn about child sexual abuse prevention so they can help children speak up if they encounter uncomfortable and possibly abusive behaviors from an adult or another child.

Fear about child rights unfounded

In our work with international partners, we hear the same arguments against child rights that have been made here in the US in opposition to the ratification of the CRC. A report from our partner in Colombia, Corpolatin, states:  “In meetings with professionals and teachers it is common here to find resistance on the part of adults to advocate directly to children about their rights, arguing that this may result in loss of control over them and an inability to educate them.“ (Baldrich, 2012)

The fears that child rights undermines the rights of parents are unfounded. The CRC affirms parents’ rights: “The CRC is not about pitting children's rights against parents' rights – it is about ensuring that governments recognize the rights and needs of both children and parents. Under the Convention, parental responsibility is protected from government interference” (Campaign, Questions and Answers, 2012).   In fact, the CRC emphasizes the importance of parents and family in children’s lives. 

Looking ahead 

Promoting child rights requires adults to take seriously their responsibility ensuring that children have everything they need for a safe, nurturing and healthy childhood. It also means listening to children’s voices and involving them in decision-making according to their physical, social and emotional development. It is our firm belief that if children AND adults are educated and empowered then we can imagine a world without sexual abuse. The field of child sexual abuse prevention needs to be comprehensive in its efforts by incorporating both child-focused activities and adult-focused activities.

The notion of youth participation challenges Stop It Now! to actively hear from children and youth about our prevention efforts. This may take the form of collaboration with youth groups, the addition of youth representatives to our board, or incorporating new programming targeted at youth. We see this is a key part of our agenda as we plan for future work. 

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References

The Campaign for US Ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Questions & Answers, retrieved November 19, 2012
http://childrightscampaign.org/the-facts/questions-a-answers-about-the-crc

The Campaign for US Ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Questions Parents Ask, retrieved November 19, 2012, http://childrightscampaign.org/the-facts/questions-parents-ask

Corpolatin, internal report from Laura Baldrich, February, 2012.

Reading, R., Bissell, S., Goldhagen, J., Harwin, J., Masson, J., Moynihan, S., Parton, N., Pais, M.S., Thoburn, J., & Webb, E. Promotion of children’s rights and prevention of child maltreatment. Lancet 2009; 373:332–43.
http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(08)61709-2/abstract

Pasura, D., Jones, A. D., Hafner, J. A. H., Maharaj, P.E., Nathaniel-DeCaires, K., & Johnson, E. J. Competing meanings of childhood and the social construction of child sexual abuse in the Caribbean. Childhood, Nov 9 2012.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0907568212462255