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Discrimination is a major reason why children's rights remain unfulfilled.
This toolkit promotes children's right to non-discrimination. It explores how discrimination affects the full range of children’s rights, with a particular focus on age-based discrimination.
The goals of the site are to:
- promote understanding of how discrimination affects all children's rights
- shed light on age discrimination against children
- support the removal of barriers to all children's inclusion
Email comments and suggestions to email@example.com.
IntroductionDiscrimination involves treating an individual or a group of people unfairly in comparison to others because of who they are, or their circumstances.
The right to non-discrimination is a well-established human rights principle and one of the four over-arching principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). This means that all children should enjoy all rights set out in the CRC. For any right to be realised, children must not be discriminated against.
The UN Human Rights Committee defines discrimination as:
“any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference which is based on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status and which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by all persons, on an equal footing, of all rights and freedoms.” (General Comment 18) Read more about definitions here.
Discrimination may be deliberate and intended, or unintentional.
Although there has been significant work on this topic, the wide range of ways in which children experience different forms of discrimination has not been sufficiently explored or challenged.
Why a toolkit on non-discrimination?
Looking at rights violations through the lens of discrimination helps to expose prejudices and beliefs that may have led to unfair treatment – whether such treatment was intentional or otherwise. It can create new means of challenging negative actions, whether through law, policy, education or practice.
So, for example, by understanding that the corporal punishment of children, if legal within a given State, constitutes discrimination on the basis of age (an adult smacking another adult can be prosecuted for battery), it helps us to think about the issue in a different way.
What is it about children that makes us think it is acceptable to hit them, but not adults – or even animals! Are there other ways in which this discriminatory view of children affects how we behave towards them? Why is discrimination towards other groups of people, for example ethnic minorities, normally considered unacceptable, yet sanctioned by the State when it comes to children?
Other international instruments addressing discrimination include, among others:
- International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD, 1965)
- UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW, 1979)
- UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2008)
- UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
- Inter-American Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities
- UN Human Rights Committee, General Comment No. 18 on Non-discrimination (1989)
- UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Draft General Comment on Discrimination and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (2009)
One focus of this site will be to shed light on the extent to which children experience age-based discrimination.
Children face exclusion or are treated unfairly in most societies in comparison to adults because they have less power. This is a result of children’s dependence on adults and adults' reluctance to give them more decision-making power as they develop the ability to exercise it themselves.
Furthermore, in some societies a 'fear' of older children as a group has developed where they are perceived as being responsible for street crime and public disturbances. This has led to discriminatory laws and measures curtailing their freedom of association and the violation of other rights which adults freely enjoy.
- Read a briefing on age discrimination
- Why children should be protected from age discrimination
- Global report: Laws protecting children from age discrimination
- Global report on status offences
Other forms of discrimination
Particular groups of children face discrimination on grounds other than age, because of their gender or sexual orientation, for instance, or because of their parent's identity. In Iran, for example, the criminal age of responsibility is 14 years and seven months for boys and eight years and nine months for girls, reflecting discrimination on the grounds of gender.
Factors contributing to discrimination against particular groups in society include: unequal power relations, fear of 'difference', and traditional beliefs and practices.
In some cases, multiple forms of discrimination are at play, because a child is both a girl and has a disability, for example. All forms of discrimination against children are compounded by virtue of their age and consequent vulnerability. This means they have fewer opportunities for challenging discrimination. For example, children do not usually have access to courts and complaints mechanisms on an equal basis with adults.
Discrimination may affect members of a group in different ways depending on their situation. Understanding discrimination therefore requires understanding who has power - and who does not - in a particular context and what it means to be a child, a girl, or to have any other identity in a given context. For example, a girl from a disadvantaged background may have a very different life to another girl from a wealthy background, or to a girl from a similar background with a disability.
Finding out from children themselves about their lives is key to understanding how power relations operate and how children experience discrimination.
- Read more about multiple discrimination here.
- Read about how discrimination affects all children's rights here.
This website looks at who or what discriminates (i.e. the structures and attitudes that discriminate) rather than on how the child might change (for example, in the case of a child with a disability, by going to a specialist school). The goal is systemic change.
The website supports the elimination of barriers to children’s inclusion. It encourages action and reflection to address the root causes of discrimination, for example, in legislation, policy, attitudes, and resource allocation which can serve to perpetuate discrimination and inequality.
While everyone has a responsibility to protect children from discrimination, the State has a particular obligation under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). It must take proactive measures to ensure children are protected from discrimination by others. The CRC does not accept limited resources as a justification for discrimination against any group of children.
Measures to protect children from discrimination include, for example, establishing equality legislation which protects all children from discrimination, allocating resources to ensure all children are provided for equally both in comparison to adults and to other groups of children, creating mechanisms for monitoring and reporting discrimination, and providing channels for children's participation. Read more under 'Challenging discrimination.'
Equality does not mean treating everyone in the same way
Protecting children from discrimination does not necessarily mean that all children should be treated in the same way as adults or as other children. Equality cannot be achieved simply by treating everyone the same - sometimes additional measures are necessary to overcome disparities. For example, a school without special equipment for pupils with disabilities, might be treating everyone the 'same', but does not ensure fair access to education for all students.
The principle of non-discrimination does not rule out affirmative action - or positive discrimination - to remove barriers which perpetuate discrimination, provided this is demonstrably in the child’s best interests.
Indeed, the Committee on the Rights of the Child has recommended that States take proactive measures to even out disparities and disadvantages that some children face. The CRC highlights the need to make special provisions for children particularly prone to forms of discrimination such as children with disabilities (article 23) and refugee children (article 22).
However, preferential treatment should be temporary and should end when the aim of such treatment has been achieved.
The most commonly quoted definition of discrimination is that of the UN Human Rights Committee:
“any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference which is based on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status and which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by all persons, on an equal footing, of all rights and freedoms.”
International human rights law applies to children in the same way as any other group. However, children face particular exclusions and discrimination for which they need special provisions. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted to bolster protection for children’s specific situation and vulnerability in relation both to the State and to other individuals, e.g. because of the actions of parents or teachers. The principle of non-discrimination underpins all rights in the Convention, and article 2 sets out specific obligations on the State:
1. “States Parties shall respect and ensure the rights set forth in the present Convention to each child within their jurisdiction without discrimination of any kind, irrespective of the child's or his or her parent's or legal guardian's race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status.
2. States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that the child is protected against all forms of discrimination or punishment on the basis of the status, activities, expressed opinions, or beliefs of the child's parents, legal guardians, or family members.”
Direct discrimination occurs when someone is deliberately and unjustifiably denied an opportunity, or treated less favourably than another person in a similar situation.
Direct discrimination against children on the basis of their age includes the fact that some countries laws do not protect children from violence in the same way that they protect adults.
Direct discrimination against particular children could include, for example, failure to provide free health care or education to refugee children where all other children can access these services.
Indirect discrimination results when a policy or rule applies to everyone, but has an inadvertent but unfair impact on people in a particular group. This usually occurs not as a result of intentional discrimination, but because of an omission to consider the possible barriers that might disadvantage some people.
Indirect discrimination against particular children includes, for example, failure to ensure schools are accessible to children with disabilities.
Some have distinguished between non-discrimination and equality by saying that non-discrimination refers to the absence of inequality whereas equality describes the positive dimension of equality. ("The principle of non-discrimination in the Convention on the Rights of the Child", Samantha Besson, The International Journal of Children's Rights, Vol. 13, No. 4. (December 2005), pp. 433-461, citing McKean 1983)