When the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was adopted in 1989, signatories pledged to guarantee the protection, survival and development of all children without prejudice or discrimination. Yet almost 30 years on, violations continue unabated.
The chasm between the ideals of the UN and the day-to-day practices of local and municipal governments has limited the tangible benefits for children. Now, Sweden is taking a stand.
In September 2014, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven announced that the wellbeing and rights of children would be a priority in his administration, including the implementation of the CRC in Swedish national law by January 2020.
Years of work by civil servants followed, and later this month, a detailed proposal for implementation will be put to a parliamentary vote. Apolitical spoke to Pernilla Baralt, State Secretary to the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, who has overseen much of the work on putting the CRC into practice.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Sweden has long been at the forefront of advancing children’s rights, whether in becoming the first country to ban corporal punishment in 1979 or in its generous parental leave policies. Why?
It’s dangerous to think that it’s something Nordic, or something specific to the Swedish character—this can happen in any country so long as governments take the right political decisions.
That said, if we are ahead of some countries, I think it’s due to a belief in the fundamental importance of equality, not only as a value or a right, but also as a factor in economic growth. As a country of only nine million people, we can’t afford to leave anybody behind. We strongly believe that a country needs all of its citizens – women and men, girls and boys.
Is there anything particular to Swedish governance that has helped spur on the cause of children’s rights?
In government, you need a clear political commitment, knowledge, competence, facts and figures. When we talk about equal opportunities or children’s rights, we say that it’s great if this is a question that you’re engaged with and burning to change – but it’s not the most important thing. What we demand of everybody is to be competent on the issue.
Heads of units, heads of budget processes – they need this competency to craft policy with the rights of men, women and children in mind. Without it, you might design reforms with unequal results depending on, for example, gender or age. We have embedded courses on gender equality into the general training system. Now, we’re adding children’s rights.
What does the introduction of the Convention on the Rights of the Child into Swedish law mean for government — and children — in the country?
The Convention has already been signed: every actor in Sweden should, in theory, be working in tandem with the rights outlined in the Convention and all new legal proposals should be developed in accordance with it.
Nevertheless, we have seen that the practical impact and implementation of the Convention have not always been as efficient as if it had been regular Swedish law. Now, the CRC is going to be mandatory, compulsory – not ad hoc. Instead of having one expert on children’s rights in each local or national body, we need all persons working with children and making decisions that concern children to understand and implement children’s rights.
Legal change alone doesn’t always translate to system-wide reform, however. How does one change the culture of a government?
First, we’re investing in competence across the board, and second, we’re providing an updated mapping of national legislation and its conformity with the CRC as well as developing a guide to facilitate interpretation of the articles in the CRC.
On competence, we’re designing a national program to support all local and regional communities as well as national agencies. The Ombudsman for Children in Sweden has been given a special task to support all relevant actors as well as to develop information and educational materials for children. The aim is: how do you, in your work as a teacher, police officer, or a nurse, make sure that children’s rights are a reality for the child concerned, and help them participate in any decisions being taken.
The second support mechanism is a road map for the judiciary on how to interpret the articles. Many of the articles are general in their nature and difficult to apply directly. We will therefore gather all relevant legal documents, guidance and the lessons learned internationally from concerned international agencies, international courts and other relevant actors.
Are you facing any particular challenges?
A common challenge in this kind of work is in making legal protections and decisions equal across the territory. It shouldn’t matter if you’re a girl born with disabilities in Kiruna in the north or in Stockholm: you should have the same support and the same rights.
That means we can’t rely on individual agencies or people. It has to clear what is expected with clear objectives and follow up as well as a strong supportive legal framework to ensure that all the children in a given commune have the same rights.
Have you learned any lessons in the process?
We apply many of the lessons learned and methods used to achieve gender equality. They include clear leadership from the top, gender mainstreaming, and monitoring.
Collaboration and coordination between all relevant actors in the interests of the child are also vital – especially when it comes to vulnerable children.
For example, we formed a cross-ministerial working group for state secretaries in order to better share knowledge and coordinate actions in relation to unaccompanied minors arriving in Sweden. We also often meet among several national agencies as well as between regional and local authorities to better coordinate, especially regarding the need for early intervention for vulnerable children among for example schools, social services and the police.
The main thing I believe is we need to be systematic, coordinated and to focus on the most relevant processes and structures. This can’t be a parallel project, but a central part of the local, national and global agenda.
(Picture credit: Pixabay/DesignMIssC)