UBC pioneers child rights monitoring

Finding affordable and quality child care for preschoolers is a familiar challenge for many Canadian parents. What may be surprising is that the inability to access this type of service could be a violation of child rights.

The United Nations’ Convention on the Right of the Child (CRC) was enacted in 1989 and has been ratified by 193 countries, including Canada. Countries that have signed the CRC have an obligation to invest in early child development through programs and services for children and by supporting parents and caregivers so they can raise their children appropriately.

“We often don’t think of very young children as right bearers and active members of society”, says Ziba Vaghri, the director of the International Research and Initiatives Program at UBC’s Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP).

Countries that have ratified the CRC are obligated to submit periodic progress reports to the United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of the Child (UN-CRC). In the past, these reports have mostly overlooked very young children—children below the age  of eight.

“Early childhood is a critical age,” says Vaghri. “Experiences in the early years influence a person’s health, education and economic potential throughout their life.”

Vaghri and her colleagues at HELP maintain that by protecting the rights of children in their earliest years, they are put in the best position to succeed in life. And this paves the way for society’s health and prosperity.

The missing information on young children in the reports to the UN-CRC worried experts in the field. Their concern was that this was just the tip of the iceberg and an indication of countries tendencies to overlook obligations to children in their early years.

In 2006, the UN approached Clyde Hertzman, the director of HELP who was recently named Canada’s Health Researcher of the Year, and other international development agencies such as the World Health Organization and UNICEF, to create a guide to support countries through the process of writing and submitting their progress reports. A key focus for the group has been to ensure that the reports include information on the rights of children in their early years.

Hertzman and Vaghri have been leading the process and have developed a series of child rights indicators that are based on health, development, education and other parts of a child’s care. The use of indicators as a report writing tool will help countries to become mindful of the existing gaps in child rights systems.

“Writing reports in this way will create a body of information that itself can inform infrastructure and policy development,” says Vaghri.

But before this report writing tool can be adopted and applied in all 193 signatories to the convention, it has to be rigorously tested. HELP and its partners have to successfully complete six pilot projects—two each in low-income, middle-income and high-income countries.

The first of these pilots was carried out in 2009 in Tanzania, considered a low-income country. In early 2011, Hertzman and Vaghri will launch a pilot in Chile, a middle-income country. In 2012, the team will implement a pilot in Canada.

“As a country with high standards of living, Canada should be a global model of how a society supports human development, starting with early childhood,” said Vaghri.

The 2008 UNICEF Report Card, which compares the status of early childhood education and care in the 25 most affluent countries, ranked Canada at the bottom for investment in early child development.

“As Canada fails to fulfill its obligations to young children, its leading role on the world stage will be compromised,” says Vaghri. “Our hope in bringing the pilot to Canada is to take inventory of the policies, programs and commitments in place. This will raise awareness of the current gaps, and bring stakeholders together to engage in a constructive dialogue.”

If all goes according to plan, the report writing tool will be endorsed by the UN-CRC and will be accepted globally within three to five years.

“As UNICEF reports, ‘a great change is coming over childhood in the world’s richest countries,’” says Vaghri. “Let’s just hope that we play a leadership role in this exciting change ahead of us.”