Analyzing Policies and Practices through a Child Rights Lens

Journal article written by: Marv Bernstein, Chief Policy Advisor, UNICEF Canada, and Pat Convery, Executive Director, Adoption Council of Ontario

Although North Americans typically greet one another with the phrases “How are you?”, “Comment allez vous?”, or “Como estás?”, Masai warriors say “Kasserian ingera?” (meaning “Are the children well?”). This phrase—which puts children front and center—resonates nicely for our work in child welfare, permanency planning, and adoption, and can help those of us in the child welfare and adoption communities remember the importance of having a child rights focus at all levels of our work. What better way to guide our discussions, our advocacy, and our policy than to ask: “Are the children well?”


Almost universally, we believe children have the right to be safe from physical harm, abuse, neglect, and exploitation. We believe children have the right to education, family relationships, and access to their culture. The list goes on. These beliefs in children’s rights have been translated into obligations for us to consider in our practice by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (available at Pages/CRC.aspx).

The four guiding principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child are:

  • Non-discrimination: All rights set out in the Convention apply to all children, who shall be protected from all forms of discrimination, regardless of race, colour, gender, language, opinion, origin, disability, birth, or any other characteristic.
  • Best interests of the child: In all actions concerning children, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.
  • Life, survival, and development: Every child has the right to life, and the state has an obligation to ensure the child’s survival and development. This includes the right to a standard of living, health, and education that is adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral, and social development.
  • Respect for the child’s views: Children have the right to participate and express their views freely, and have those views taken into account in matters that affect them.

Since its adoption by the United Nations in 1989, this treaty has received near-universal ratification by 193 countries (Canada has ratified the Convention; the U.S. has signed but not ratified it, although it has ratified two Optional Protocols). The treaty has inspired changes in policies to better protect children, altered the way organizations see their work for children, led to a better understanding of children as having their own rights, and served as a catalyst for children’s rights advocacy and collaboration.

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