Human Rights for Children: The Unfinished Agenda


William R. Fernekes

Ten years after the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child by the United Nations—the most widely ratified UN treaty in history—what is the status of human rights guarantees for children as we embark on the new millennium? The Convention divides the human rights of children into three major clusters: protection, provision, and participation. This article examines current trends and indicators that relate to the three clusters of children’s rights. It also presents model units on how to integrate the study of children’s human rights within the social studies curriculum. Each unit displays concrete linkages between the NCSS curriculum standards and the content of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.


What are Children’s Rights?

The idea that children are a group in need of specific rights guarantees was first proposed during the nineteenth century by social reformers who envisioned children as a vulnerable group and emphasized providing for or protecting them. In the United States, Progressive Era reform groups, such as the National Child Labor Committee, targeted abuses of children in the workplace and advocated protection of children from such abuses through state and federal legislative efforts. A major outcome of their efforts was the creation of the U. S. Children’s Bureau, the first federal agency to specifically address children’s issues, in 1912. The efforts of U. S. child labor reformers and their colleagues in Europe also led to development of the first set of international norms regarding children’s rights: the International Labor Organization Convention Fixing the Minimum Age for Admission of Children to Industrial Employment (1919).

Concurrently, John Dewey and other educational reformers argued for the increased enrollment of children in the public schools, where they would be educated to participate as responsible citizens in democratic society. Progressive Era reformers also sought changes in the treatment of juveniles within the justice system—arguing that segregation of children from adults in the penal system would assist in their rehabilitation based on the recognition that children, by virtue of their age and level of social-emotional maturity, require different treatment than do adults.

The aftermath of World War I accelerated the growth of non-governmental organizations with the primary focus of children’s rights. In 1924, British reformer Eglantyne Jebb authored the first international declaration of children’s rights. Known as the “Declaration of Geneva,” this landmark document emerged from her leadership of the organization now known as Save the Children. The document articulated five key principles that would apply to all children worldwide:

1. The child must be given the means requisite for its normal development, both materially and spiritually.

2. The child that is hungry must be fed; the child that is sick must be nursed; the child that is backward must be helped; the delinquent child must be reclaimed; the orphan and the waif must be sheltered and succored.

3. The child must be the first to receive relief in times of distress.

4. The child must be put in a position to earn a livelihood, and must be protected against every form of exploitation.

5. The child must be brought up in the consciousness that its talents must be devoted to the service of its fellow-men.1

Although the Declaration of Geneva still emphasized provision (Articles 1, 2, and 3) and protection (Articles 3 and 4) of children’s rights, Article 5 pointed forward to the need for children’s participation rights, implying that governments have an obligation to assist the child in developing a social consciousness favoring public service and working on behalf of the public good.

Gradual expansion of the concept of children’s rights occurred during the period 1924 - 1945, notably through the efforts of non-governmental organizations, intergovernmental bodies (such as the ILO), and as part of New Deal social reforms. Overcoming decades of Congressional opposition to expanding the federal government’s role in supporting child provision and protection, New Deal measures such as the Social Security Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the National Youth Administration established large-scale federal programs to assist children in the areas of maternal and child health, children with disabilities, child welfare services, youth employment and working children.

In 1945, with the world exhausted by six years of global conflict, the United Nations was founded and held its first meeting in San Francisco, California. With millions of children suffering privation from the destruction caused by World War II, and with the widespread recognition that child casualties resulting from warfare and genocide were among the most prominent consequences of the war, the United Nations established the United Nation’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to provide relief to children.

Soon thereafter, the International Union for Child Welfare initiated efforts to gain international support for an expanded version of the 1924 Declaration of Geneva. Momentum for the global embracing of human rights accelerated with the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The following year, world diplomats approved the Convention for the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, plus two additional protocols addressing the needs of children in wartime, otherwise known as the “Geneva Conventions.”

After more than a decade of intense activity within the United Nations structure, the UN General Assembly in 1959 adopted the Declaration on the Rights of the Child, which expanded on the ideas put forth in the Declaration of Geneva and placed children’s rights within the context of fundamental human rights guarantees as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration on the Rights of the Child became the foundation for the much broader UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was first proposed by the government of Poland in 1979 and, after a decade of negotiations, emerged as an international treaty open for signature by UN member states in 1989.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the most comprehensive international treaty regarding children’s rights, establishes a set of universal norms that constitute the “highest international legal source for the basic principles and standards constituting the rights of a child.”2 In embracing three interrelated clusters of rights—provision, protection and participation—the CRC expanded significantly the scope of rights for children. In the CRC, provision refers to making certain children receive their rights by law and by allocation of resources; protection rights are based on the belief that children are entitled to more safeguards than adults due to their vulnerability; and participation addresses the rights of children to develop and participate in society.

Overall, the Convention on the Rights of the Child recognizes children as a vulnerable group deserving special consideration and as young human beings possessing their own rights. When UN member states sign and ratify the CRC, they are committing to bring their domestic laws into accordance with its provisions and to report regularly to the enforcement body for the Convention, the Committee on the Rights of the Child. All of the rights of children embodied in the CRC are enforceable within the UN system, once a member state ratifies the CRC.


Worldwide Goals for Children’s Rights

In 1990, one year after the Convention on the Rights of the Child was opened for signature by United Nations member states, the World Summit for Children was held in New York City. The assembled leaders of UN member states drafted a set of decade-long goals to improve the global welfare of children. The overall goals for 1990-2000 are as follows:

> A one-third reduction in under-five death rates (or a reduction to 70 per 1,000 live births—whichever is lower)

> A halving of maternal mortality rates

> A halving of severe and moderate malnutrition among the world’s under-fives

> Safe water and sanitation for all families

> Basic education for all children and completion of primary education by at least 80%.

> A halving of the adult illiteracy rate and the achievement of equal educational opportunity for males and females

> Protection for the many millions of children in especially difficult circumstances, and the acceptance and observance in all countries of the recently adopted Convention on the Rights of the Child. In particular, the 1990s should see rapidly growing acceptance of the idea of special protection for children in time of war.3

The Year 2000 goals also identified four categories of more specific goals to assist in the achievement of the broad decade-long goals: protection for girls and women, nutrition, child health, and education.

UNICEF, in cooperation with Oxford University Press, annually publishes The State of the World’s Children.4 This report, which combines thematic analyses of specific issues involving global child welfare with the presentation of data on a wide range of indicators about the status of children worldwide, has become a standard reference concerning children’s rights. Within the United States, the annual yearbook on The State of America’s Children published by the Children’s Defense Fund reports and analyzes statistical data released by the federal government about the condition of children.5 These two comprehensive sources illuminate how specific rights guarantees in the CRC are being met, and the rate of progress towards achievement of the decade-long goals set at the World Summit for Children in 1990. Both contain excellent data for classroom use.

To illustrate global and U. S. responses to the CRC and the World Summit for Children Goals, this article highlights three critical children’s rights for purposes of illustration: access to education, children and violence (including participation in war), and child health. The trends discussed for each issue are based upon data drawn from The State of the World’s Children (1992-1998) and The State of America’s Children Yearbook (1997-1998). A complete copy of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is available in Edmonds and Fernekes, Children’s Rights: A Reference Handbook.6


Trends in Children’s Rights Illustrated

Topic I: Access to Education

CRC Articles: 28-31

Decade Goal: Basic education for all children and completion of primary education by at least 80%.

Evidence of Progress: Comparing global data that displays trends from 1986-1991 and from 1993-1997, the net primary school enrollment ratio7 has improved in four major categories of UN member states while declining in three other categories (see Table 1).

World data, only available for the years 1993-97, reveals that the primary school enrollment ratio is 85% for males and 79% for females. Comparative data was not available for two regions: South Asia, and East Asia and the Pacific. Thus, while progress has been made overall, the gender gap in access to education in much of the world remains, and the decade goal of 80% completion of primary school has not yet been achieved universally. Indeed, in specific world regions, such as Sub-Saharan Africa and the Least-Developed Countries (which consist principally of African states, with some Southwest Asian, East Asian/Pacific and selected other states from the Caribbean and Middle East), the expectation that 80% of all eligible children will be enrolled in primary school is highly doubtful.8

For the United States, the picture is somewhat different. With a net primary school enrollment rate of 96% for males and 97% for females, and 99% of all primary school children reaching grade 5 (as of 1995), universal access is close to being achieved. However, the situation deteriorates when data for secondary school completion rates are examined. While there has been substantial improvement in closing the gap between the percentage of whites and blacks who have completed a high school diploma or its equivalency, there has been little improvement in this category for Hispanics (see Table 2). Thus, whereas primary school enrollment is close to universal, decline takes place in secondary school, notably among specific population groups.


Topic II: Children and Violence (Includes Impacts on Children of Warfare)

CRC Articles: 9, 16, 22, 37, 38

Decade Goal: Protection for the many millions of children in especially difficult circumstances and the acceptance and observance in all countries of the recently adopted Convention on the Rights of the Child. In particular, the 1990s should see rapidly growing acceptance of the idea of special protection for children in time of war.

Evidence of Progress: There has been substantial progress in reducing the rates of overall child mortality. Total annual child death rates have declined 50% since the founding of UNICEF in 1946, from 25 million to 12.5 million.9 Much of this effort has occurred in the field of immunization against deadly diseases, which since 1980 has saved the lives of close to 20 million children.10 At the same time, the problem of children affected by warfare continues, with devastating effects in much of the world. By the end of the 1980s, it was estimated that the percentage of civilians who are victims of wars currently being waged had reached 90%, in contrast to civilians being two-thirds of the victims in World War II.11

Data from specific violent conflicts that have occurred since 1980 illustrate the large-scale efforts required to develop the conditions necessary to protect children from the scourges of warfare and violence. These examples are only illustrations of the worldwide problem.

> Over 100,000 children were lost, abandoned or separated from their parents in 1994 as a result of the ethnic conflict and resulting genocide in Rwanda.

> Between 1980 and 1988, it is estimated that 330,000 children in Angola and 490,000 children in Mozambique died from war-related causes.

> In 1988, it is estimated that upwards of 200,000 children, ranging from age seven to eighteen, were fighting in wars in 25 countries.

> The trauma of war continues to have severe impacts on children. Surveys of children in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovinia conducted by UNICEF revealed that 20% of the over 1,500 children surveyed in 1993 had terrifying dreams; 29 % felt ‘unbearable sorrow’; and 66% had been in a situation where they thought they would die. Similarly, a survey done in 1995 in Angola revealed that 67% of child informants had seen people being tortured; 66% had seen people being murdered; and more than two-thirds of all children interviewed had experienced events in which they had defied death.

For the United States, gun violence has been one of the most serious threats to the well-being of children. It is only recently that there has been a decline in firearm deaths of children and teens. From 1983 through 1994, the total number of children and teens dying from firearms increased every year, from 2,951 in 1983 to 5,820 in 1994. The first year where a decline was reported was in 1995, when every category of firearm-related deaths for children and teens— homicides, suicides, accidents and unknown—experienced decline. This decline coincided with an overall decline in juvenile crime as reported by the Justice Department. Arrest rates for violent crimes fell in both 1995 and 1996, with the most significant declines taking place among juveniles aged 13-15 and for the crime of murder.

Overall, there appear to be grounds for cautious optimism that violent crimes affecting children and teens in the United States will continue to decline. Worldwide, however, warfare continues to plague tens of thousands of children who are either participants (child soldiers) or civilian victims (suffering from physical, mental or emotional problems; existing as refugees; or having their lives disrupted by the impact of war on basic services such as shelter, education, and many others).


Topic III: Child Health

CRC Articles: 23-27

Decade Goal: A halving of severe and moderate malnutrition among the world’s children under age five.

Evidence of Progress: For the purposes of this article, malnutrition is defined as “the consequences of the combination of an inadequate intake of protein energy, micronutrients and frequent infections.”12 Because the causes of malnutrition are often multifaceted, a reliable indicator of malnourishment is the weighing and measuring of children against a “reference population” of children who have grown well. Malnourished children are most often shorter and lighter than this “reference population,” with visible effects ranging from stunted growth and low body weight (moderate malnourishment), to severe wasting (marasmus) and kwashkiorkor, or swelling of the arms and legs and changes in hair and skin quality (severe malnourishment).

The data in Table 3 illustrate the percentage of under-fives suffering from moderate and severe underweight and severe underweight, using data from UN agencies gathered between 1990-1997.13 World data indicates that between 1997 and 1998, the percentage of under-fives suffering from moderate and severe underweight declined from 32 to 30%, while those suffering from severe underweight increased from 10 to 11%. This decidedly mixed picture demonstrates regions with substantial improvement since the end of the 1980s (Middle East and South Asia), while marginal improvement has characterized Latin America and the Caribbean and Least Developed Countries as a whole. Regions that have yet to register even substantial marginal improvements, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, are also heavily represented in the category of Least Developed Countries; in contrast to other world regions, malnutrition rates in many Sub-Saharan countries actually increased in the early 1990s due to patterns of regional economic decline and the resulting strains on social services and per capita buying power for food.

Despite the fact that the United States has a GNP per capita (in dollars) that ranks among the top 15 UN member states ($26,980 in 1995), U. S. government data for 1996 reveals that 14,463,000 children, or 20.5% of all U.S. children, were living in poverty. In that year, 69% of poor children lived in families where an adult worked at least some of the time, an increase from 61% in 1993. But with the major changes underway in federal nutrition programs resulting from 1996 welfare reform legislation, the services provided by the federal government to blunt malnutrition are being reduced, thus placing in jeopardy the quality of child nutrition for millions living below the poverty line.

Federal food stamp program cuts are scheduled to continue through the fiscal year 2002 budget, with the total cuts yielding over $20 billion. While the number of children and adults receiving food stamps has been reduced dramatically from September 1994 through September 1997 (6.2 million over this time period), requests for emergency food assistance aid in U. S. cities (based on data from the U. S. Conference of Mayors) increased an overage of 16% in 1997 in the 29 cities surveyed. Additionally, the demand for free and subsidized meals (lunches and breakfasts) has increased substantially between 1994 and 1997, with increases of between 5% (school lunch) and 21.4% (school breakfast) being registered.

The danger evident in these trends is that low income families who have lost food stamp benefits due to cuts stimulated by the federal welfare reform legislation will be using a larger proportion of their already minimal incomes to purchase food for children. The capacity of local and state government agencies, as well as non-governmental organizations, to bridge the increasing gap between federal assistance and the needs of low-income families for nutrition assistance remains unknown at this time.


Placing Children’s Rights Front and Center

The variable progress towards achievement of only three goals of the World Summit For Children Decade suggests that the struggle to make children’s rights a living reality will take long-term commitment. How can social studies educators make children’s rights a central issue in the social studies curriculum? This section offers two model units, both linked to NCSS curriculum standards in Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for the Social Studies.14

It makes eminent sense to place the “best interests of the child” at the center of social studies education. Because children are the primary people served by social studies educators, the reflective study of issues that directly affect their well-being should be highly motivational for them. Young people engaged in studying the rights of provision, protection, and participation named in the CRC can establish linkages between classroom learning and the real world that directly affect their personal development. By drawing upon content from the wide-ranging subject fields of the social studies, teachers and learners can more readily engage a multi-disciplinary approach in probing the complexity of issues affecting young people, a position stated effectively by Wraga: “Because societal problems are complex and they transcend conventional subject divisions, civic competence depends upon integrating knowledge from a variety of subjects.”15 Echoing Dewey’s emphasis on the active development of knowledge in response to real-life problems and issues, Wraga’s position is evident in the two model units discussed here.


Model Number One: Public Policy Analysis Case Study

Grade Levels: Middle and High School

Relevant CRC Articles: All

Relevant NCSS Standards:

Theme: Individuals, Groups and Institutions

Performance Expectations: e, f, g (middle school) and e, f, g, h (high school)

Theme: Global Connections

Performance Expectations: d, e. f (middle school) and d, e, f, h (high school)

Theme: Civic Ideals and Practices

Performance Expectations: c, d, e, f, i, j (middle and high school)

Content and Instructional Approach: This case study of the Convention on the Rights of the Child invites students to role play the U. S. Senate and related non-governmental organizations that advocate and/or oppose ratification of this UN treaty. The unit would seek an answer to this central policy question: “Should the U. S. senate ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child?” The teacher would review the structure and major content themes of the CRC, having students examine the various protection, provision, and participation rights guarantees embodied in its articles. Students would also be familiarized with the key concepts serving as the foundation of the CRC, such as the “best interests of the child” and the development of international standards of conduct by states, groups, and individuals regarding human rights.

When this introductory phase has been completed, students assume roles of elected U. S. senators, and small groups are created to examine specific clusters of rights guarantees in the CRC. Through research, students develop a familiarity with the issues related to specific CRC articles (examples: child labor, child health, education, child sexual exploitation, and others). Specific non-governmental organizations that have taken positions for and against ratification of the CRC will be represented by other students in the class, with their role being to advocate their positions through testimony and lobbying of the U. S. senators. The culminating activity of the role play is a formal debate and vote by the students representing U. S. senators, where all senators publicly present speeches in favor of or opposed to ratification, and then vote to ratify or reject ratification of the CRC.

Once the role play has concluded, a thorough discussion of the case study is necessary to review the process and to establish critical issues related to human rights for children for further study. It is also recommended that a form of social action emerging from student inquiry into these issues be implemented, such as letter-writing that informs U. S. senators of student positions on CRC ratification; lobbying of elected officials to influence action with regard to CRC rights guarantees at the local, state, and federal government levels; and use of online interactive communication strategies to conduct dialogues with young people and adults involved in children’s rights issues in the USA and internationally.


Model Number Two: Historic Development of Selected Children’s Issues (Child Labor and Impact of War on Children)

Grade Levels: Middle and High School

Relevant CRC Articles: Child Labor—28 and 32; Children and War—6, 19, 22, 38 and 39

Relevant NCSS Standards:

Theme: Time, Continuity and Change

Performance Expectations: Child Labor, Children and War—b, f (middle and high school)

Theme: Global Connections

Performance Expectations: Child Labor—d, e, f, g (middle school) and d, e, f, g, h (high school); Children and War—d, e, f (middle school) and d, e, f, h (high school)

Theme: Civic Ideals and Practices

Performance Expectations: Child Labor, Children and War: c, d, e, f, i, j (middle and high school)

Theme: Production, Distribution and Consumption

Performance Expectations: Child Labor: f, h, i, j (middle and high school)

Content and Instructional Approach: Beginning with a brief overview of contemporary concerns about one issue (child labor or children affected by war), the teacher poses this central question: What historical trends of the twentieth century have contributed to the development of contemporary concerns about this issue? Students and the teacher then brainstorm additional questions for inquiry that would help answer the central question. These subsidiary questions should focus on process (what types of information are needed to investigate the central question) and content (what are the effects of child labor on young people; what effects does warfare have on children’s growth and development).

Students investigate their questions in small groups, which can be organized in terms of chronological time spans (The Progressive Era, the 1920s through 1930s, and so forth) or by world region (North America, Europe, Asia, and so forth), or a combination of both (1914 through 1945, thus engaging both major World Wars and their impacts on children in varied world regions). Students present their findings about their specific issue, noting how world states have responded to the problems facing children and offering analyses of the trends that have developed over time.16 Presenting their findings in chronological order can facilitate the analysis of century-long trends.

A culminating activity for this unit could involve students in a presentation of their findings with recommendations for public policy to the local community or to broader audiences using mass media outlets (cable television and the Internet are two examples). An exhibit of student work that provides insight into the issues examined and highlights possible alternatives for addressing the problems facing children in the future can also be mounted for public viewing and discussion.



Improving the welfare of the world’s children has never received more attention on the world’s public agenda than is the case today, despite the variable progress towards realizing the human rights guarantees in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Social studies educators have a unique and powerful opportunity to place children’s issues at the center of the social studies curriculum, in the hope that the new millennium will offer the promise of real guarantees for the protection, provision, and participation rights stated in this landmark international treaty.

As Nelson so aptly states, “Schools should be locations for identifying and critically examining significant human issues and for thoughtful consideration of potential answers and consequences. The social studies bear special responsibility for this examination of issues and responses.”17 By accepting the challenge of incorporating issues-centered approaches to children’s rights within the K-12 social studies curriculum, the professionals in this field can help young people both to reflect on the actions needed to improve the quality of life for future generations and to engage in forms of social action and participation which contribute to that goal. The children we teach today and in the future deserve no less.


1. Beverly C. Edmonds and William R. Fernekes, Children’s Rights: A Reference Handbook (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO Press, 1996), 82-83.

2. Ibid., 10.

3. Ibid., 158.

4. UNICEF, The State of the World’s Children (New York: Oxford University Press, Annual).

5. Children’s Defense Fund, The State of America’s Children (Washington, DC: Children’s Defense Fund, Annual).

6. Edmonds and Fernekes.

7. The net primary school enrollment ratio is defined as the number of children enrolled in primary who belong to the age group that officially corresponds to primary schooling, divided by the total population of the same age group.

8. For a list of Countries in the Major World Aggregates (industrial, developing, and least developed countries), see United Nations Development Programme, “A Decade to Eradicate Poverty,” Social Education 61, No. 6 (October 1997): 322.

9. UNICEF, The State of the World’s Children 1996, 10.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid., 13.

12. UNICEF, The State of the World’s Children 1998, 24.

13. Moderate and severe underweight represents those under-fives who are below minus two standard deviations from median weight for the age of reference population; severe underweight represents below those under-fives who are below minus three standard deviations from median weight for the age of reference population.

14. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for the Social Studies (Washington, DC: NCSS, 1994).

15. William Wraga, “The Interdisciplinary Imperative for Citizenship Education,” Theory and Research in Social Education 21 (1993): 201-231.

16. For a list of International Landmarks in Child Protection, see United Nations Children’s Fund, “How Can I Study?”, Social Education 61, No. 2 (February 1997): 66-67.

17. Jack L. Nelson, “The Historical Imperative for Issues-Centered Education” in Ronald W. Evans and David Warren Saxe, Handbook on Teaching Social Issues (Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 1996), 14-24.


William R. Fernekes is supervisor of social studies at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington NJ. He was a member of the task force that authored Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (NCSS, 1994).

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.