June 20, 2024

Hankering for History

Hanker: To have a strong, often restless desire, in this case for–you guessed it–history!

The History of Children’s Rights

5 min read

It is hard to imagine a world where there is a lack of extensive laws upholding and protecting the rights of children. And  yet, international conventions on children’s rights were set into place only 91 years ago, by the League of Nations in 1924. Due to the collapse of that conference with the advent of World War II, the modern Convention  on the Rights of the Child, set by the United Nations, is only 26 years old.

What Are Children’s Rights?

Presently, children’s rights are the legal, social, economic, political, physical and spiritual rights bestowed upon them by the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. This Convention is one extension of several on the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As the international family of nations recognized more need for “specialized rights,” they crafted agreements that would be a standard for all the member-nations to reach.

Currently, the Convention on Children’s Rights provides for a standard definition of a child (below 18 years old), the universality of children’s rights as human beings (non-discrimination), and guarantees the protection of these rights by the member-states’ respective governments. The guarantees go as basic as affirming a child’s right to an identity; a name and a citizenship.


This extremely detailed enumeration of rights draws its wording from the history of its development. Today, abuses of children in labor, children working in sweatshops and abused children, may all be made into documentary stories and shown around the world. The global population makes the necessary enraged noises, and there may be enough hype, every now and then, to convince a nation to alter its laws to fit that convention.

The history of Children’s Rights shows how that long, detailed document developed. The writers were compelled to take into account cultural practices and treatment of children worldwide, and decide on a list of rights for children that would affirm them and their safety, no matter what nation they were in. It was a long and difficult journey, over time.

The History of Children’s Rights

Stories like Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and David Copperfield were the first literary references to the proliferation of child labor during the Industrial Revolution of the United Kingdom and the United States. Even the British miniseries “North and South” shows how normal it was for entire families, parents to children, to be employed in the cotton factories.

Therefore, the reclamation against child labor during the years of the Industrial Revolution is the first known movement of its kind for children’s rights. Even then, there were very few or no fruitful attempts to win legislation for their protection, except some slow but progressive laws in France that protected them in the work place. Eventually, Europe began to adopt laws mandating education for all children.

It took a World War, the First World War, to alert the international community to the fact that the plight of children was a global concern. The First World War saw children killed as collateral damage in bombings, gassed, and orphaned by the destruction. As a result, the League of Nations created the first international convention on children’s rights, the 1924 Geneva Declaration on the Rights of the Child.

The 1924 Declaration provided for the most basic needs of the child. It mandated that children be fed adequately, nursed in times of sickness, encouraged to advance in education, reclaimed from delinquency, and that orphan and beggar children should be cared for. It also affirmed the right of children to be attended first in times of disaster, to be trained to an occupation, and to be protected from exploitation.

However, the high instability of Europe following the First World War lowered the capacity of the governments to protect the children. As Facism began its spread in Italy and Nazism in Germany, children again fell prey to exploitation and the dangers of being unprotected. The Second World War, which again devastated Europe, saw many children exploited, killed, and orphaned.

The United Nations moved quickly, creating what is now known as UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) in 1947. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, providing an international foundation document for other specialized human rights. In 1959, the Declaration of the Rights of the Child was made, only a generalized form of principles for the protection of children’s rights.

The most recent, and the conventions considered most internationally binding, was only adopted in 1989: the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This was the most detailed of all, defining the age range of the children, and outlining 41 Articles describing their rights and the duties of States and Governments with regard to those rights.

The State of Children’s Rights Today

When something is an “institution,” it is something that is expected. Bowing in modern Korea and Japan, for example, is an institution. Non-apartheid laws are institutions in South Africa. Democratic political systems are institutions in the United States.

When the UN laid down the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it began the institution-building for specialized human rights. As recognition of the importance of such conventions grew, the member-states wrote and ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. That began the institution-building for state laws protecting children. At the moment, it is more normal for the rights of children to be fought for, than not.

One example of how “normal” child protection is, is the set of Federal Regulations on life jackets in the United States. Almost every State has its own set of laws on wearing life jackets during recreational boating. Some states require every person on the boat to have a life jacket. Others require only children 8 and below to wear life jackets. However, in case there is no State regulation, the Federal government requires all children below 13 to wear life vests, unless they are below decks or in an enclosed cabin. This is typical of different national laws that provide basic, specific protections for children in the different nations.

Get Involved In Children’s Rights Protection

There are several ways to get involved in protecting children’s rights both locally and internationally. Choose an issue that is close to your heart personally, and find an organization that specializes in helping in those areas.


Called to Rescue prioritizes the saving of children from child trafficking. Save the Children is one of the most active organizations when it comes to protecting children in times of natural disasters. Real Life Foundation provides high school and college scholarships for the poorest of the poor children. You can give, volunteer, or even promote and support by sharing and participating in their events.  


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