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Children’s rights vs. parents’ rights – Dispelling myths

Children’s rights vs. parents’ rights – Dispelling myths

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by Joezel E. Jack, Attorney-at-Law



Upon hearing of children’s rights, the uninformed person is apt to construe this concept as removing the rights, responsibilities and liberties of parents and giving them to the child. Moreover, the question that inevitably arises is “does a child have rights?”.

It is hereby submitted that the first step towards answering this question is to recognize that we, as adults, have rights by virtue of our humanity. Essentially, the question may be posed as such: “do human beings have rights ?”. This question can be answered with a resounding “yes!”. If so, it stands to reason that since adults have rights by virtue of their humanity, then children will similarly have rights. After all, they too are humans.

It must be remembered that human rights apply to all persons of all age groups. Accordingly, children have the same general rights as adults. However, because children are particularly vulnerable, they also have particular rights that recognize their special need for protection. {{more}}

International Law

The recognition of this truism brings the involvement of the United Nations into focus. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is an international convention setting out the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of children. Its basic premise is that children are born with fundamental freedoms and the inherent rights of all human beings.

The Convention defines a “child” as any person under the age of eighteen (18), unless an earlier age of majority is recognized by a country’s law. Under the laws of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, a person is deemed as attaining full age (the age of majority) at the age of eighteen (18) years. Accordingly, all Vincentians that are eighteen years or younger will benefit from the recognition of special rights by virtue of the Child Rights Convention.

Under this Convention, to which St. Vincent and the Grenadines became a signatory in 1993, each State Party is required to undertake all appropriate legislative, administrative, and other measures for the implementation of the rights recognized therein.

The Parties to the Convention bear in mind that the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth. The Convention, which deals with child-specific needs and rights moves away from the erroneous approach that children are mere possessions. Rather, they are viewed as human beings deserving of special rights and protection.

The Government of our nation must, therefore, respect and ensure the rights set forth in the Convention to each child without discrimination of any kind, irrespective of the child’s or his / her parent’s or legal guardian’s race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status.

The Rights

While this article cannot address each right in a detailed manner, it must be noted that the four core principles of the UN Convention are (1) non-discrimination; (2) devotion to the best interests of the child; (3) the right to life, survival and development; and (4) respect for the views of the child. The Convention protects children’s rights by setting standards in health care; education; and legal, civil and social services.

These rights include the right to life; to education; to express their opinions; to be raised by their parents within a family or cultural grouping and have a relationship with both parents, even if they are separated; to be protected from economic exploitation; to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities and to participate freely in cultural life and in the arts; to protection from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse; to protection from the illicit use of narcotic drugs; the right of the disabled child to special care; the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; to freedom of association and to freedom of peaceful assembly; and the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standards of health. The Convention also forbids capital punishment for children.

COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS :

Parental Rights vs. Children Rights – Unfortunately, as previously noted, many adults have not fully embraced the recognition of children’s rights due to their misconceptions regarding the impact of these rights upon their own. One of the prevailing misconceptions that exists is that the Convention gives children the “right” to disregard parental authority It is erroneously believed that the UN document wipes out parental rights, grants children a list of radical rights which would primarily be enforced against their parents and gives children unlimited freedoms to determine their own destinies without parental interference.

This premise, however, could not be further from the truth. In fact, the Convention acknowledges that the family, as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members, particularly children, should be afforded the necessary protection and assistance so that it can fully assume its responsibilities within the community. Furthermore, the convention recognizes that the child, for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding.

It is clear that the Convention acknowledges the role of parents in the upbringing of their children and does not intend to undermine families by removing parental rights.

Discipline vs. Violence – This year, Universal Children’s Day is being celebrated under the theme “Protection from violence is our children’s right – Our responsibility”. This is in recognition of the troubling fact that many children – the members of society least able to protect themselves – are subject to unconscionable violence, most often perpetrated by the individuals charged with their safety and well-being.

This brings us to another misconception on the rights of the child. An area that often comes into conflict is the distinction between acceptable discipline and physical abuse. Most persons can agree that a child does not belong in a home where he/she is being harmed physically or emotionally. The problem arises, however, in determining exactly what constitutes a sufficient threshold of physical harm.

Within our Vincentian society, many adults embrace corporal punishment as an important aspect in the discipline and general upbringing of children. It is the assumption that the parent has the child’s best interest in mind that gives him the right to punish a child for misbehaviour. Corporal punishment has been used from time immemorial and the shame it induces is oftentimes a more effective deterrent than the actual pain of the blow.

Unfortunately, some parents and other caretakers interpret this as permitting them to give a child “licks for breakfast, licks for lunch and licks for supper”. Such treatment of children is clearly unacceptable.

In this regard, the UN Convention on the Rights of he Child obliges Governments to take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.

It is clear that, within our local context, a balance must be struck between discipline and abuse. While we cannot ignore the importance of discipline within the home, school or other settings, there must, as in everything else, be moderation.

It is admitted that determining what level of punishment then is considered harm is not an easy task. The difficulty arises because the method, reason and frequency of both transgression and punishment varies greatly from child to child. Nevertheless, the Government must ensure that no child is subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The Convention also permits the removal of a child from his/ her parents in cases of neglect or abuse. Additionally, the Government must take all appropriate measures to ensure that school discipline is administered in a manner consistent with the child’s human dignity and in conformity to the present convention.

Restrictions – Another prevailing misconception is that the UN Convention grants children a list of radical and unlimited rights to conduct their own affairs in an unfettered manner. However, the Convention recognizes that certain rights must be made subject to limitations in the best interest of the child. For example, the right to freedom of expression is subject to certain restrictions that are necessary for respect of the rights or reputations of others or for the protection of national security or public order, or of public health or morals.

Parental and Governmental Responsibility – Additionally, parents need not view the recognition of these rights as placing undue hardship upon them. In fact, the Governments of the States Parties have been made responsible for the implementation of measures that will ensure the recognition of these rights. For example, while each child has a right to education, the onus is placed upon the Government to ensure that primary education, for instance, is compulsory and free to all.

Joint efforts – There are instances, of course, where both the Government and the parents have been given the responsibility of recognizing certain child rights. For instance, the Convention recognizes the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development. In this regard, the parents or others responsible for the child have the primary responsibility to secure within their abilities and financial capacities, the conditions of living necessary for the child’s development. However, the Government is also obliged to take appropriate measures to assist parents and others responsible for the child to implement this right and shall, in case of need, provide material assistance and support programmes, particularly with regard to nutrition, clothing and housing.

Conclusion

Generally speaking, it is the role of the Government to ensure minimal violation of our rights. By agreeing to undertake the obligations of the Convention, the Government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines has committed itself to protecting and ensuring children’s rights and has agreed to hold itself accountable for this commitment before the international community. To put this commitment into practice, the Government is obliged to develop and undertake all actions and policies in the light of the best interests of the child.

The task, however, must engage not just the Government, but all members of society.

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