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13 Children’s Rights That Still Aren’t Universal—But Should Be

Children—typically defined as people under the age of 18—are among the most vulnerable members of society, but aren't always afforded basic protections and human rights.

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Sporty children, boy brothers, riding bikes on a rural landscape together on sunsetTomsickova Tatyana/Shutterstock

All children deserve a childhood

According to World Vision, millions of children around the world are denied their childhoods, and experience slavery, human trafficking, child marriage, abuse or other forms of exploitation. These human rights violations are even more extreme in developing countries, where an estimated 79 percent of children experience some type of violence. But even wealthier countries, including the United States, need some work when it comes to protecting children. Here are 13 children’s rights that aren’t universal, but should be. It’s not just children who are at risk; here are 16 ways women still aren’t equal to men.

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poor, sad little child girl sitting against the concrete wallOlesia Bilkei/Shutterstock

Right to protection from attacks and conflict

According to UNICEF, more than 29 million babies were born into areas experiencing armed conflict in 2018. Palestine is an example of this, where regular outbreaks of violence and poor living conditions have taken a heavy toll on children in Gaza. In fact, UNICEF reports that “toxic stress” is causing long-term psychological and physical harm to the children. Need some peaceful inspiration? Here are 23 moving quotes about peace from world leaders.

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Sad asian little girl hugging her mother leg in vintage color toneA3pfamily/Shutterstock

Right not to be separated from parents

Article 9 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child states that countries “shall ensure that a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will.” At this point, the United States is the only country in the world that has not ratified this UN convention. America has also been violating this basic right, where an estimated 5,500 migrant children have been separated from their parents since June 2018, Time magazine reports.

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one little child in green jacket standing on ruins of destroyed buildings in war zoneRuslan Shugushev/Shutterstock

Right not to participate in armed conflict

Though the concept of child soldiers may seem unthinkable, it’s a reality in some parts of the world. The Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulates that no child under the age of 15 should be recruited to participate in armed conflict. However, in South Sudan, there has been a recent rise in children being forced into joining militias, The Guardian reports. In addition to boys being recruited to fight, girls are also being forced into providing sexual and labor services for the soldiers. Find out what school was like 100 years ago.

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3-year-old little boy, dressed in jeans and dark blue longsleeve, washes his hands himself in the sink in the room of the children's toilet, standing in front of the morror. Side view. Selective focusNina Unruh/Shutterstock

Right to basic sanitation

Having access to toilets and clean, running water is something many people take for granted. Unfortunately, children all over the world don’t always have these options. For example, in Chad, only one in seven schools has potable water, and just one in four has a toilet. Of those schools with toilets, only one-third are for girls only—a significant challenge and barrier when it comes to dealing with menstruation. As a result, many girls miss school when they have their periods because of the lack of facilities, as well as menstrual products. When public restrooms are available, here are 8 unspoken etiquette rules you should follow.

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Bride sitting on the chair waiting nervously before getting marryBubble_Tea Stock/Shutterstock

Right not to be forced into marriage

Child marriage—especially among girls—is a major issue in many parts of the world. According to the International Center for Research on Women, one-third of girls in the developing world are married before the age of 18, and one in nine are married before the age of 15. We also know that girls with higher levels of education are less likely to marry as children. In Mozambique, for example, around 60 percent of girls with no education are married by 18. However, this decreases to 10 percent of girls with secondary schooling and less than one percent of girls with higher education. Find out how a second-generation American is empowering immigrant girls around the country.

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NAGAUR, INDIA - CIRCA FEBRUARY 2011: Child labor, boy sewing in booth on the market.Claudine Van Massenhove/Shutterstock

Right not to be forced into labor

All children deserve to have a childhood, and that means not being forced into working jobs meant for adults. For example, in Zimbabwe—which is the sixth-largest tobacco producer in the world—Human Rights Watch found that child and adult workers faced serious health risks and labor abuses on tobacco farms. Working also meant that they had to miss school and fell behind on their education. You’ll be inspired after reading how a former victim of domestic violence is helping young girls escape the same fate.

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Child girl eating an apple in a park in nature.pavla/Shutterstock

Right to healthy food

All humans—including children—have the right to access adequate nutritious foods, but that’s not always the case. For example, in Cambodia, one in three children under the age of five is stunted or underweight, according to UNICEF. However, only around six percent of those suffering from malnutrition get any sort of treatment. Find out how a 17-year old is helping to feed the homeless in the Washington, D.C. area.

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African American child drinking water from tap outdoors. Water scarcity conceptAfrica Studio/Shutterstock

Right to clean water

The ability to access clean drinking water is an important component of health, but many children around the world don’t have this option. For example, in one part of Zambia, more than one-third of the population (more than 76,000 people) live in lead-contaminated townships. According to Human Rights Watch, half of the children living in these areas have elevated blood lead levels that require medical treatment. Much of the area’s surface water supplies are contaminated, and purchasing water can be prohibitively expensive; in fact, it can cost more than electricity in Zambia. Find out how often you should be changing your own water filter at home.

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Child abuse. Poor child in slum begging you for help concept for poverty or hunger people,sivilla/Shutterstock

Right not to be sexually abused

Though sexual abuse occurs around the world, a recent BBC television documentary, Sex for Grades. dove into the world of sexual abuse in the education system of western African countries like Senegal. Instead of being a place of refuge, schools are places of fear because of sexual violence and arrangements where they are sexually abused by teachers and other administrators in exchange for getting an education.

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Sad thoughtful little kid girl feeling hurt depressed bored looking away at window, lonely upset worried child being abused punished or neglected hiding problem thinking of psychological traumafizkes/Shutterstock

Right to bodily autonomy

Given that children have a limited capacity to consent to medical procedures, it is especially dangerous when the procedures are harmful. This is the case with female genital mutilation, which is still practiced in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. In fact, FGM is nearly universal in Somalia, Reuters reports. According to the World Health Organization, more than 200 million women and girls alive today have undergone genital cutting. These are 16 unavoidable facts about domestic violence you need to know.

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GUAYAQUIL, ECUADOR - FEBRUARY 8: Unknown kid in lesson drawing in primary school by project to help deprived children in deprived areas with education, February 8, 2011 in Guayaquil, EcuadorDe Visu/Shutterstock

Right to education

Getting an education is a fundamental part of childhood, but for many kids around the world, it’s not a possibility. In Yemen, for example, 2 million children are out of school, while an additional 3.7 million are at risk for dropping out, according to UNICEF. “Conflict, underdevelopment, and poverty have deprived millions of children in Yemen of their right to education—and of their hope for a brighter future. Violence, displacement, and attacks on schools are preventing many children from accessing school. With teacher salaries going unpaid for over two years, education quality is also at stake,” Sara Beysolow Nyanti, UNICEF Representative in Yemen said in a statement. Find out what everyone gets wrong about being homeless.

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Medan, Indonesia - April 15,2017 : Children play in front of their flooded house.Children enjoy flooded streets to bathe with big health risksMas Jono/Shutterstock

Right to a habitable environment

Though different parts of the world have their own environmental challenges, climate change affects those all over the globe. This was the idea behind 16 children—including Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist—filing a landmark complaint to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. The petitioners argue that UN Member States’ failure to tackle the climate crisis in a timely manner constitutes a violation of child rights.

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QUETTA, PAKISTAN - JANUARY 25: Flood survivors in relief camp in Quetta, Pakistan on January 25, 2011thomas koch/Shutterstock

Right to safe housing

All children should be able to grow up in a home where they feel safe and secure. This is a problem in many parts of the world, including Iran, where there are an estimated 200,000 children living on the streets—around half of which are Afghani migrants, according to the Center for Human Rights in Iran. They are particularly vulnerable to physical abuse, sexual abuse, human trafficking, and infectious diseases. Discover ways you can help children in foster care without becoming a foster parent.

Elizabeth Yuko
Elizabeth is a bioethicist and journalist covering politics, public health, pop culture, travel, and the lesser-known histories of holidays and traditions for She's always mentally planning her next trip, which she'll base around visits to medical museums or former hospitals, flea markets, local cuisine, and stays in unusual Airbnbs or historic hotels.