Monday, 5 January 2015


Universal Children’s Day is a calendar date to highlight the many campaigns to improve the situation for those directly affected and harmed by the continuing ravages of neoliberal capitalism and the impact of the global financial crisis of 2008. Children in Need here in Britain is another regular feature, ostensibly a fun night of charitable fundraising, it seems at times to resemble a celeb-fest, massaging individual egos and plugging their commercial interests. Amongst the Conservative right it is a disagreeable and unnecessary intrusion into the public discourse around children's needs.

However, whether it is to raise awareness about climate change or the plight of refugees — among them the most vulnerable children on the planet — fleeing the killing fields of (western-backed) wars in the Middle East and north Africa, these special days offer a chance to focus our attention.
Politicians often mouth platitudes about children being the future and the need to equip them to cope in a modern technological world, while trumpeting the need for high-quality education and healthcare. But actions speak louder than words. And the actions of the ruling class and their capitalist friends in Britain and elsewhere are responsible for record levels of poverty, mental illness, physical and sexual abuse and homelessness among children.

A recent shocking report provided some insight into a specific problem. The privatisation of young offenders institutions in Britain has led to an increase in incidents involving riots, self-harm and suicide. Most inmates come from deprived and disadvantaged backgrounds. 
It is another example of where a former public service has been contracted out to big companies such as G4S and Serco, earning millions of pounds in profits while leading to a poorer service and more problems. 

The number of young people who have committed suicide in young offenders institutions over the past 10 years averages three per year. Last year, there were more than 3,000 incidents of violence in youth custody establishments and another 1,500 instances of self-harming — far more than before privatisation. In 2013 Unicef ranked Britain 16th out of 29 developed countries for the welfare of children, up from 20th in 2007.  However the report warned that spending cuts to youth and children’s services could lead to a reversal of the gains in the last years of the Labour government.
Britain has the second-worst mortality rate for children in western Europe and the highest levels of mental illness in under-25s. Poor children are twice as likely to die as the more affluent. 
Chronic diseases such as asthma and diabetes are not properly addressed, while one in three young people is overweight.
Mental ill-health among children and adolescents is also in crisis, with austerity cuts damaging service provision and increasing waiting times for treatment, resulting in only a fraction of the need being met. Suicide levels among Britain’s 15-to-25-year-olds have started to rise in line with austerity cuts in public services. In May, a report declared that the number of teenagers who have self-harmed has tripled in the last decade in England. The Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children (HBSC) report revealed that 20 per cent of the 15-year-olds questioned had hurt themselves in the previous year. 

The study, produced along with the World Health Organisation, spoke to 6,000 children in England aged 11, 13 and 15 and is considered an authoritative source. The LGBT support charity Metro asked 7,000 16 to 24-year-olds across Britain about their experiences. The results of their research suggested rates of self-harm were higher in young LGBT people and that they were more likely to need help with depression and anxiety than heterosexual people of the same age. Images of children working in dangerous cotton mills and being sent up chimneys were used to prompt the consciences of capitalists in industrialising Britain in the 19th century. Philanthropists, trades unions and radical politicians legislated to eventually protect children from having to work under the age of 16 and in dangerous occupations.
Such conditions however now prevail in many countries in the world and, like so much else, it seems as if the failures of capitalism are taking the world backwards in time. POVERTY is rightly the focus of much logistical aid provided by relief charities, NGOs and governments, but what is often overlooked in the desperate context of war, drought, hunger, lack of housing and poor medical facilities is the psychological impact on young people in developing nations. Many have witnessed terrifying acts of violence, murder, rape, torture and genocide. 

Children and young people who are suffering from psychological distress in developing countries ravaged by war, poverty and hunger cannot make the best use of even the limited education available. These children require psychological help to heal damaged minds before they are capable of using any learning experience. The World Health Organisation has declared mental illness to be the biggest threat to children in the 21st century. Huge challenges exist in many Latin American, African and Asian countries to improve the life chances of children harmed by ethnic cleansing, war, genocide and increasing human rights abuses.

Last year Unicef criticised the Millennium Development Goals for “ignoring the needs of the poorest and marginalised adolescents.” The UN general assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child on  November 20 1989  — the 30th anniversary of its Declaration of the Rights of the Child. It came into force in 1990 after it was ratified by the required number of nations. 
Currently, 194 countries are party to it, including every member of the UN except Somalia, South Sudan and the US. Both Somalia and South Sudan have started their domestic process to become a party to the treaty but, to its shame, the US is yet to do so. The wealthiest nation on the planet puts profit before children, because fully signing up to the treaty would add costs to US business. 

The convention is the most ratified human rights treaty. It requires states to give primary consideration to the best interests of a child when making decisions which affect them, and includes children’s rights, such as rights to education, play and protection from economic and social exploitation. Nevertheless, despite the near universal ratification of the convention the abuse of children’s rights continues around the world. Children are forced to act as child soldiers in many ongoing armed conflicts, they are used as suicide bombers, subjected to female genital mutilation, trafficked and sold into sex slavery, employed as cheap child labour to enable westerners to wear designer T-shirts, and feature in child pornographic imagery to be circulated among paedophile groups on the internet. Yet there is precious little effort made to enable children’s voices to be heard. 
The United Nations general assembly has proven time and again to be of no use to children when it comes to real action to promote and enforce children’s rights. 

Three optional protocols have been adopted since 1989. They include measures to stop the use of children as soldiers, to prohibit the sale of children into prostitution or pornography, and to enable children to instigate legal complaints against their own or other states. But we are a long way from these protocols being implemented by all UN member states.
Steven Walker is a Unicef Children’s Champion.