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Focusing on the Needs and Rights of Children

by Stu Marvel, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Emory School of Law

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the single-most widely ratified human rights treaty in history. The Convention is the first international treaty to focus on the specific needs of children, and includes a wide range of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights. It builds on previous human rights instruments such as the Geneva Declaration on the Rights of the Child (adopted 1924) and  the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted 1948), which outlined the importance of childhood within the architecture of rights. It was not until 1989, however, that the world community reached consensus on the specific entitlements of children with the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This document represents a critical and comprehensive tool to address the well-being of children around the globe. With one notable exception, every member of the United Nations is either a party or is actively involved in the process of ratification. That exception? The United States of America.

Although the United States was actively involved in drafting the Convention, the government has faced substantial resistance to official ratification. The Convention is viewed by some as overstepping parental rights to make decisions on behalf of their children, particularly in regard to homeschooling, sex education and gun rights. Supporters of the Convention, however, argue that ratification will provide a national strategy to assess the law and policy on children’s rights and well-being, will focus resources where children need them most, and will allow Americans a more effective voice on children’s rights on a global level. While these debates continue to rage, one thing is clear: The United States remains without a key international tool to protect the welfare of its children. Among the most pressing issues we face is the incidence of growing and widespread child poverty.

Image of UNICEF Poverty GraphCurrently, more than 16 million children in the United States live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level (just $23,492 a year for a family of four). Even using this uncomfortably low bar, a full 22% of all children in the nation now live in poverty. And how does the U.S. compare on a global scale? A recent report from UNICEF has found that nearly one-third of U.S. children live in households which can be considered impoverished. This puts the United States near the bottom of industrialized countries, with one in three kids living in poverty in one of the richest nations of the world.

There is a crisis underway, and the needs and rights of children are falling behind. Were the U.S. to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a new framework of economic responsibility would snap into focus. As Professor Kirsten Sandberg, the Chairperson of the Committee on the Rights of the Child explained during a recent trip to Atlanta, the Convention requires nations to shield services and ensure that children are able to access health care, education and other resources to build a resilient future. As Sandberg maintains, “whatever their economic circumstances, States are required to undertake all possible measures towards the realization of the rights of the child.” Ratification by the U.S. would provide much-needed political force to the work to combat child poverty, while helping to ensure that social disparities and economic marginalization – both locally and on an international scale – do not take another twenty-five years to address. As a founding member of the United Nations, the United States would do well to lead this charge, rather than continuing to languish at the bottom of the pack of industrialized nations.


Stu Marvel is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow with the Feminism and Legal Theory Project and the Vulnerability and the Human Condition Initiative at the Emory School of Law in Atlanta, Georgia. She also teaches on human rights, women and the law at Agnes Scott College, and is an affiliated member of the College's Human Rights Program.

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