All children have one thing in common: their rights. The right to life, health, education, protection and play are all fundamental children’s rights that were acknowledged for the first time on a global scale 25 years ago, with the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). In this document, the world agreed to protect the rights of our children: the next generation of parents and leaders.
Since its creation in 1989, the CRC has inspired changes that have improved the lives of millions of children around the world; data demonstrate that remarkable progress has been achieved on children’s rights since the convention was adopted in Cambodia in 1992.
However, it is also true to say that progress is uneven and, while we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the CRC, we are reminded that much remains to be done to ensure that all children can enjoy their full rights.
We can see good advances in education, child survival and HIV/AIDS: more girls and boys are enrolled in primary school than ever before (98 per cent); fewer children die before their fifth birthday compared with 25 years ago (reducing from 116 to 40 live births per 1,000 between 1990 and 2012); the number of people affected by HIV has dropped to 0.7 per cent; and access to improved water sources in Cambodia has increased from 22 per cent in 1990 to 71 per cent today.
But we need to do more. We need to do more to keep children safe within families and away from residential care (since 1989, the number of residential care facillities has increased, with 11,865 children in orphanages as of 2013); to keep children protected from disease through improved nutrition and sanitation (chronic malnutrition is still high, with 40 per cent of children under 5 years of age stunted and 28 per cent underweight); and to keep children nurtured in their early years of life to ensure they are breastfed, properly stimulated and supported in their healthy growth.
So, is Cambodia a better place for children now than it was 25 years ago? The answer is a resounding yes. But we still have some way to go to ensure that “all rights for all children” is a government priority recognising the value of this investment because children deserve it and because it will contribute to the future economic growth of Cambodia. Differences remain striking in this country between rural and urban areas, for children with a disability or for those children left behind when parents migrate, as well as between wealthier and poorer families.
As Cambodia is on its way to becoming a middle-income country, what will the next 25 years bring? We know so much more today than 25 years ago about how children develop – and in particular how their brain develops. We know what is good for brain development – good nutrition, sanitation and hygiene, stimulation, protection from abuse. We must acknowledge the interdependence of nutrition and sanitation: poor hygiene and diseases like diarrhoea are some of the main causes of malnutrition, as a result of loss in nutrients and poor assimilation of food; we cannot eliminate children’s malnutrition without ensuring that children have access to good nutrients, as well as to toilets, and that they wash their hands with soap.
At the same time, the more we learn about how the brain is negatively affected by the environment in which children grow, the stronger the evidence that we must promote zero tolerance to violence and neglect and why children should not be placed in institutions, except as a very last resort, and children under 3 – never. There is a growing body of evidence that shows not only does the brain not develop fully in children in institutions – but parts of the brain actually die and much of this is not reversible.
The next 25 years will bring greater awareness of the importance of adequately investing in the vital early years of life, since investment in early childhood is proving the foundation for a population capable to promote the development of its own country.
Middle income status suggests less donor dependence and an increase in government investment in crucial areas of nutrition, health, education and providing the most disadvantaged with social protection measures such as conditional cash transfers to keep children in families, in quality schools, well-fed and out of institutions – so that Cambodia’s children become the skilled population who can power the economy of the future.
This anniversary reminds us of the opportunity and honour we have to serve the children and women of Cambodia to fulfil their rights. The vision of the CRC can only be achieved if all children’s rights are realised, including the most disadvantaged. We must leave no child behind.
Rana Flowers is the UNICEF representative in Cambodia.