Children's Rights in unrecognized states (theory)

From April 2019 – January 2024 our research team is studying the development rights of children who are living in unrecognized states. Here you find all vlogs and blogs related to the theoretical part of this study, which includes mainly legal/political questions. Please find a short description of the research project here.

By Fons Coomans - 29 July 2021

Gumato, a 13 year-old girl from the Gabra nomadic tribe in Kenia, cannot go to school, because the schools are closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. She is at home since March 2020.[1] The parents of Gumato decided to have their daughter circumcised while at home. Gumato’s mother said that she was happy with the long period of school closure, because there is now more time for Gumato’s recovery; the period of the school holidays is too short for that. Even though circumcision is prohibited by law in Kenia, it is still a wide-spread tradition among tribes in Kenia. Once a girl has been circumcised it means that she is ready for marriage, even at a very young age. Schools used to be an important safety net for girls against child marriages, as well as against domestic violence, sexual abuse and domestic work. As a consequence of Covid-19 measures all these safeguards seem to have disappeared. Girls are now in a very vulnerable position; several of their human rights are seriously at risk.

The impact of the pandemic on the development of children worldwide

UNESCO has reported that worldwide two-thirds of a school year were lost on average due to Covid-19 school closures. The International Labour Organisation has said that child labour during the pandemic has increased. Since parents have lost their jobs, which had negative effects on family income, many children had to step in and work to support their families. In addition, children who are at home instead of going to school can easily be used for domestic chores or to work on the land (see this report). The World Health Organisation has reported that last year 23 million very young children have missed early childhood vaccinations against polio, measles and diphtheria due to badly working distribution systems for vaccines as a consequence of restrictions on transport, affecting in particular remote areas and slums.

These examples show that the pandemic has a serious impact on the immediate and long-term development of children.

What are children’s development rights?

The United Nations Declaration on the Right to Development (1986) defines development as ‘a comprehensive, economic, social, cultural and political process, which aims at the constant well-being of the entire population and of all individuals on the basis of their active, free and meaningful participation in development and in the fair distribution of benefits therefrom’. Article 6 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child guarantees the right of the child to life, survival and development.

In my view, the notion of children development rights is an umbrella term. It involves different children’s rights that are interconnected and together protect the child’s development. It includes the right to health, education, adequate standard of living, safe and clean environment, participation, the right to play and leisure. But also the basic prerequisites to be protected from economic exploitation (child labour), and from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. All these rights are part of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. For example, a child may receive education by being allowed to go to school. However, if the child is sexually abused by the teacher, his/her rights to health and protection from sexual abuse are violated. If as a consequence the child is taken out of school, his/her right to develop intellectually, socially and emotionally will be affected.

In addition, the notion of development rights of children has to be informed by the principle of non-discrimination and equality of opportunities. For example, pregnant girls must not be denied access to school because they are pregnant, but be able to continue and finish their studies just like other girls.  

All these rights have a solid basis in international human rights law, which includes children’s rights. States have voluntarily accepted treaties which contain legally binding obligations to realize these rights. The underlying idea is that human rights are tools to protect human dignity. In addition, human rights are universal; they apply always, to everyone and everywhere. The example of Gumato demonstrates that there is a gap between the idea of having (children’s) human rights in theory and enjoying these rights in practice. Often cultural traditions, beliefs and norms act as obstacles against the possibility to exercise these rights in reality. Female circumcision is such a practice that is based on cultural norms and traditions. In this regard the key role of education must be emphasized. The right to education acts as a key right: through the process of acquiring knowledge and learning skills at school the enjoyment of other rights (sexual and reproductive health rights, participation, expression) will become possible. In addition, education empowers girls to develop themselves and move up the social ladder. Seen from this perspective, the school closures during the pandemic are very serious. The closures may be used by parents and communities to hold back girls and keep them at home.

An empty classroom in Kenya that is now used as a chicken run, due to the school closures
SOURCE: BBC. (2020, 25 August). Desks have been pushed to one side at Mwea Brethren to make way for farm supplies. [Photograph]. BBC News

Embed from Getty Images

Schools for more than 168 million children have been closed for almost a year due to lockdowns
SOURCE: © UNICEF/UN0423792/Chris Farber/UNICEF via Getty Images.

Limiting the consequences of the pandemic for children’s development rights: an outlook on the future

What can be done to make sure that the negative consequences of the pandemic will not affect the development rights of children? In the short term, the most important thing is to reopen schools. Schools should restart as soon as possible, and make extra efforts to make up the educational arrears. Protective equipment, such as face masks, test equipment and clean water and soap facilities needs to be provided to pupils and teachers. In addition, a system for monitoring regular attendance of children at school needs to be set up through visits to families by teachers or community leaders, aimed at preventing that children would drop-out, because families need them to work for additional income for the household during Covid times. Governments must invest in hiring qualified teachers who are able to cater for the specific educational needs of pupils. If financial resources are insufficient, the international community must step in to prevent that a whole generation of pupils will be lost.

From a human rights perspective, there is a need to change traditional ideas about education, child marriage, circumcision and child labour to make sure that during future public health or economic crises, children do not carry a disproportionate burden. Instead, it must be recognized that children have human rights that cannot be taken away easily. In general, awareness raising and education of both girls, boys, parents and village leaders may help in changing traditional ideas about the role of girls in society and their future. Personally, I am impressed by the potential of bringing young people into action as agents of change: the example of the Girls Advocacy Alliance is inspiring. This programme, in which Terre des Hommes Netherlands is involved, trains girls aged 15-21, to question dominant social norms with parents, religious leaders and government officials aimed at gradually breaking through vicious traditional circles. By involving girls themselves who stand up and speak out, there is a good chance that the message will be heard, sink in and lead to real changes. Of course, this is not enough. There is a need to bring pressure upon local and national government to take their human rights obligations seriously. This also requires political will and determination to accept and fulfil development rights of children, even if pandemic restrictions make this not an easy task.

[1] The story of Gumato is taken from the Dutch magazine Wordt Vervolgd (Nov/Dec 2020), published by Amnesty International NL.

By Simona Urbaničová - 6 July 2021

On February 17, 2008, Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia. To this date, Kosovo is widely recognised as an independent state within the international community, including by the majority of EU Member States and NATO Member States. However, Kosovo is neither a member of the UN nor the EU. So, what makes Kosovo ineligible for the UN and the EU membership? What prevents Kosovo from joining these two organisations? In order to find out answers to these intriguing questions, feel free to watch the video prepared as part of the MaRBLe programme at Maastricht University!

By Marieke Hopman - 10 May 2021

Dear all,

Those of you who were already following children’s rights research, which used to be mostly my PhD project, you may have noticed that we have been out of touch for a while. This was for two reasons:

  1. Shortly after defending my PhD “Looking at Law Through Children’s Eyes”, our first child Samuel was born and I was on leave for a while (see this blog).
  2. We received (a lot of!) funding for a new children’s rights research project, a project that discusses the rights of children living in conflict zones, and that therefore is very politically sensitive. To not jeopardize the field research for this project, we did not share any information about it. Until now!

Now that our first data collection phase is finished, I am very happy to tell you all about this project. The official title of the project is: “Invisible Children: a rights-based approach to development for children living in unrecognised states. Including case studies in Abkhazia, Palestine, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and Somaliland”. The video below gives a short impression of what the project is about:

Why is this research important?
According to the most fundamental principles of the international community, “We, the peoples of the United Nations” acknowledge that all humans, including children, are entitled to universal, fundamental rights. Similarly, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are universally agreed objectives for “all children”. Nevertheless, there are children who left behind, namely: children living in unrecognized states. 

These children are disadvantaged in that:

  • their development rights are generally not protected under international human rights law
  • their development rights are generally not the object of study, as there are few incentives to research these areas
  • there is generally no political or popular interest for these children
  • there is limited access to development aid
  • non-recognition hinders the development of these states, which negatively affects children’s development rights with lasting effects for future generations

From the child’s perspective, growing up in an unrecognized state has a major influence on their development. As one student in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus told us:

"It hurts when I am growing [up] because all dreams that you have are limited […] you can’t really evolve roots because something might come up, like a [political] solution that will change the whole game."

What does the study look like?
The main question for the project is: (How) can development rights of children living in unrecognized states be better realized? To answer this research question, a group of researchers is working together to study these three subjects:

  1. Conceptualizing what development rights actually entail for children living in unrecognised states from an international law perspective. We want to know what rights, if any, children living in unrecognised state have under international law. This includes the question of whether children living in unrecognised states are stateless.
  2. Developing a theoretical framework and methodology to study the different norms related to the protection/violation of children’s development rights in different socio-legal contexts. Concretely, this means that we develop a theoretical framework and methodology for studying the protection/violation of children’s rights in the very different legal and social systems in which these children from different cultures live.
  3. Formulating - through field research and literature study – a deeper understanding of legal and non-legal normative mechanisms that protect/violate development rights of children living in four unrecognized states: Abkhazia, Palestine, the SADR and Somaliland. Basically, we want to know what the situation of children’s rights is in these unrecognised states.

The total project takes four years and has a total budget of € 788.665. It is funded by the NWO WOTRO Joint SDG Research Initiative, the UM Children’s Rights Research Fund and both financial and in-kind contributions of organisations and researchers involved in the project.

What’s next?
From now on you can expect regular updates on this website from our research team and blog/vlog contributors. A draft report on the first case study (the child’s right to freedom of expression in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara) will be published in a few weeks. You can follow me on social media (Twitter & Facebook) for regular updates, and you can sign up here to receive our quarterly newsletter. 


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