Thirty years ago today (20 November 2019), the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted a to enshrining

The UN had already promoted a child’s right to education, a supportive environment, and care in the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1959. What made the 1989 convention different is that it spelled these rights out more explicitly.  

It is human rights convention in the world. The only UN member country Even South Sudan, the newest country in the world, ratified it in 2015.

 A boy in white traditional Afghan dress standing next to a kite lying on the ground, he is staring at the sky where several kites are flying
A man and two boys in the distance with hills and houses in the background, about to fly a green kite
Kite flying on Friday evenings is a distinctly Afghan tradition which was banned under Taliban rule, but has made a fierce comeback. From the series Afghan Kite Flyers by Benjamin Lowy

When I started thinking about marking the date, my first instinct was to look at all the ways in which the convention has not made any difference. But I soon realised that anniversary after anniversary, and the UN’s own children’s agency, has just on all the work that remains to be done.

So I thought about changing perspective and trying to approach this from a different angle. 

Of course, adoption of a treaty doesn’t mean a direct application of its principles. However, over the past 30 years, a lot has been achieved: mortality rates for today only 8% of primary-school-aged children are not in education,

Still, what I’m most interested in is how this international treaty has changed our perception of children and the treaty’s long-term effects on our everyday lives.

As such, to my mind, the most striking elements of the convention is that it stated that children’s views should be respected as valid and that it – giving the latter such as the right to live with a family, healthcare, nutrition, education, and freedom of religion. 

The inclusion of the right to play was the result of several years of negotiations, Theresa Casey, play advocate and former chair of the International Play Association, told me over the phone.

“The first draft didn’t have the right to play at all,” she says. “How could you have a convention for children without the mention of play? It would be the first thing that children would mention!”

A group of adults and kids standing in the grass with a town in the background. The man in the middle is standing and flying a kite off screen
Kites in the distance against a blue sky - at the bottom there are mountains
Kite flying on Friday evenings is a distinctly Afghan tradition which was banned under Taliban rule, but has made a fierce comeback. From the series Afghan Kite Flyers by Benjamin Lowy

is often considered frivolous and less important than other needs, such as good nutrition. But play is fundamental in especially in the first 1,000 days of life. For example, children can learn problem solving and collaboration by playing – elements that are necessary for the growth of the executive functions in

By putting play at the same level as other rights, the 1989 convention set an important precedent because it implicitly argued for play to become part of children’s lives regardless of the context. This meant that all children – even those experiencing crisis, war, poverty, or illness – should be granted the possibility to play. 

“Play is an everyday right for children, not just something for special occasions,” says Casey. 

Of course, that is not yet the case in many other contexts, but we are slowly becoming more aware of the importance of play for the sake of it. Would this have been the case without the 1989 convention? My inkling is no.

Two boys, one in yellow sweatshirt and one in a pink one are flying kites, with hills and a town in the far distance.
Kite flying on Friday evenings is a distinctly Afghan tradition which was banned under Taliban rule, but has made a fierce comeback. From the series Afghan Kite Flyers by Benjamin Lowy
Q&A with Irene and director Maryam Zaree Are you in Amsterdam? Irene will be running a Q&A at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam on 24 November with director Maryam Zaree about her documentary Born in Evin. Click here for more information

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