The adoption of the UNCRC is rightly identified as a watershed in the way children are treated and positioned within policies, services, and society more broadly. The UNCRC recast children as bearers of human rights who are entitled to an identity, to the receipt of essential services such as health and education, and to protection from abuse, exploitation, neglect. As duty bearers, governments have an obligation to be proactive in the provision of such services and safeguards.

The most radical provisions of the UNCRC are the so-called ‘participation articles’, which entitle children to a range of civil rights, including the rights to information, privacy, and freedom of conscience and assembly. While children are not entitled to vote for the governments that make laws on their behalf, Article 12 of the UNCRC states that children have the right to express their views on matters concerning them – in line with their emerging capacities – and to have those views taken seriously by decision-makers.

The UNCRC has been hugely influential with governments, international agencies and non-governmental organizations that have moved over the past 25 years to incorporate the language of rights into their organizational vocabulary and policies.

But has this made any demonstrable difference for children? What has been achieved, so far, in the new millennium in the realm of children’s rights? The response is both a great deal and not enough.

Crucially, the UNCRC has positioned children as a distinct social group with specific needs, interests and perspectives. This has been instrumental in prioritizing children within the global development agenda. The focus of the Millennium Development Goals on infant mortality and increasing school enrolment provides a powerful example of this – and considerable progress has been made in advancing children’s rights to survival and education.

Pakistan was among the 150 representative states that met at the world summit for the convention for the rights of children (CRC) in 1990 at Geneva and made a pledge with the other nations to improve the health and well-being of children and women by the end of the century.

In 1993 at the convention of SAARC countries on children, five goals were laid down. These included childhood immunization, universal primary education, and child nutrition, provision of drinking water and adequate shelter by year 2000. The year 2000 had also been set as the deadline to end child labour in hazardous conditions and the year 2010 as the deadline for eradication of all kinds of child labour. Over a decade has passed since we entered into the new millennium and the state of Pakistan’s children is still far from satisfactory.

Pakistan is ranked 43rd in the list of South East Asian countries with the highest under-five mortality rate. The immunization coverage for TB, DPT, polio and measles is still far from satisfactory. New cases of polio continue to emerge and there is a resurge in the cases of tuberculosis. The percentage of children born with low birth weight in a state of intrauterine malnutrition is still 19% (a drop in only 4-5% in the last two decades). A majority of these newborns continue to suffer from malnutrition in infancy and childhood. Nearly 40% of children less than five years of age suffer from malnutrition. Of these, 10% are severely malnourished. Those surviving the consequences of malnutrition in early childhood end up as stunted underweight adolescents. Early marriages of such an adolescent girl results in the birth of another underweight baby and thus the cycles goes on.

Education is the fundamental right of every child. On it rests the development of the nation. Only 56% of our children are enrolled in primary school. Percentage of girls enrolled in primary education is far less (51% vs. 60% boys). Of those enrolled, 2/3rd of the girls and half of the boys do not complete primary education.

There has been an unprecedented rise in violence and crime against children and adolescent females in the last few years. The youth of today are not only subjected to injustice and discriminatory attitude, but are increasingly being found involved in unhealthy activities like substance abuse. The state of children and youth in Pakistan thus presents a very dismal picture. Have we really done any planning for this large population of our country?

Considering the aftermath of lawlessness, violence, frustration and denial of basic rights to which we have subjected our children and the youth, can we expect a better future for ourselves? Is it not time to confront the reality?