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Child Protection from a Human Rights Perspective

Many humanitarian and development agencies—UN assistance programs and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)— engaged in an important perspective shift from needs-based to human rights-based approaches during the 1990s, contributing to integrated and holistic approaches in development and humanitarian aid (Gready and Ensor 2005, 20). The human rights-based approach laid the foundation for “a redefinition of the nature of the problem and the aims of the development enterprise into claims, duties, and mechanisms that can promote respect and adjudicate the violation of rights” (Uvin 2007, 602-603). It created an understanding of international aid as an obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights, requiring an in-depth understanding of contexts and social, economic, cultural, and political relationships.

Measures should be integrated in local capacities to empower duty- bearers and enable individual rights-holders to claim the rights (Cornwall and Nyamu-Musembi 2004, 23). From this perspective, child protection frames the obligation of duty-bearers to protect children as rights-holders from all forms of violence, abuse, neglect, and exploitation according to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), its Optional Protocols, and other relevant international and regional treaties, including the Convention relating the Status of Refugees of 1951 with the 1967 Protocol.

The CRC defines a child in Article 1 as every human being below the age of 18 years. As with other human rights accords, the CRC contains a range of rights for all included individuals as rights-holders and responsibilities for duty-bearers to respect, protect, and fulfill these rights. According to Article 19 of the CRC, states are 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.” This also encompasses effective mechanisms to provide support and services for children and caretakers, including preventive measures, identification, reporting, and judicial procedures about inadequate treatment of children (see Article 19, 2). The UN Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) is mandated by the CRC to protect children and to assist in the realization of children’s rights (UNICEF 2008) and has, along with the UNHCR, declared its commitment to use the human rights-based approach in programming (UNHCR 2008a, 17; UNICEF 2008).

With the sustainable fulfillment of children’s rights in various social, economic, cultural, and political contexts as the center of attention, the human rights-based approach paved the way for recognizing that merely fulfilling single needs is vertical and short-sighted (Wulczyn et al. 2010, 6), thus insufficient for responding to the complex challenges of children. Consequently, a more comprehensive approach on child protection measures in humanitarian and development aid was born: a systems approach. Although a systems approach to child protection constitutes a relatively young approach in international aid, systems-related thinking has a long history in a variety of disciplines,[1] and the systems approach to child protection is inspired and influenced by this system-related research combined with diverse practical experiences and lessons-learned in international aid. Scholars and practitioners increasingly stress the need for a holistic and integrated approach to child protection, including children’s and communities’ participation; in addition, they consider diverse contexts, child rearing practices, socioeconomic realities, and political settings (Evans and Mayer 2012, 532ff; Mann 2012; Ensor 2014) as parts of the systems approach.

Key to this shift towards systemic thinking in child protection with preventive, responsive care and rehabilitation components was the 2006 UN Secretary-General’s Study on Violence against Children, in which the UN not only calls for formulating national strategies, policies, and action but also recommends “that all States develop a multi-faceted and systematic framework to respond to violence against children which is integrated into national planning processes” (Pinheiro 2006, 18). Since then, leading aid agencies, such as UNICEF, Save the Children, and UNHCR, increasingly treat child protection deficits as systems problems in various fields and have adopted a systems approach in their programming that is underpinned by academic studies and operational experiences.[2]

  • [1] For an overview of the most relevant literature, see Wulczyn et al. (2010, 32-47).
  • [2] Aid agencies have developed a variety of papers that include, among others: Save the Children (2006, 2009), World Vision (2011), and Terres des Hommes (2011).
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