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Why child rights mainstreaming is critical to realizing children’s rights 

Across the globe, children bear the brunt of multiple crises, violations of children’s rights are on the rise, and children’s rights defenders, including children, face increasing barriers and attacks against a backdrop of pushback against child rights. In this context, more than ever, a systematic and holistic implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is crucial at all levels, including within the UN system. This is called child rights mainstreaming. This approach recognizes children as a distinct group of rights holders and as key actors of civil society, with a specific right to be heard and participate in public affairs.  Without the systematic integration of children’s rights, some rights end up being overlooked, partially realized, or even violated. Child rights mainstreaming must be treated as everyone’s responsibility. It must form an integral part of the human rights-based approach and go hand in hand with gender mainstreaming and intersectionality. The integration of children’s rights should take place at all levels, from local to global, and across sectors. The United Nations (UN) system is strategically placed to assist and encourage States to fulfil their obligations. The UN therefore needs to take the leading role by integrating children’s rights into all aspects of the organisation’s work, policies, programmes, and activities. Child participation cannot remain an ad-hoc practice based on the interest or goodwill of certain UN entities and States, pushed by NGOs.

The historical lack of child rights mainstreaming in the UN work – including the absence of a UN wide strategy on children – has left children excluded from practically all key UN decision-making processes on children’s rights concerns. Too often, children’s rights remain confined to sector-specific, thematic and welfare-oriented interventions. Too often, children continue to be put into the box of ‘vulnerable groups’ with not enough attention given to their capacities and empowerment or subsumed to “youth”.

Several key occasions have, however, arisen in recent years to remedy this status quo. Based on our prompting (see background information here), the UN Secretary-General (SG) decided to develop, in 2021, a Guidance Note on Child Rights Mainstreaming (hereafter the SG Guidance Note), conceived as practical guidance to the entire UN system on how to systematically integrate children’s rights in all aspects of the organisation’s work. The development of this document has triggered long awaited inter-agency discussions on gaps and solutions that make the Guidance Note more than just a document, bearing a huge potential for change. Two other interlinked global processes have also bolstered momentum for pushing forward our agenda on child rights mainstreaming in 2023: the Human Rights 75 Initiative led by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) (a yearlong initiative leading up to global pledges for the future vision of human rights); and the Summit of the Future – a high-level event which will bring world leaders together to deliver an action-oriented “Pact for the Future”, committing States to a new vision for addressing common challenges.

What we did and achieved in 2023

An historic step: the publication of the SG Guidance Note on Child Rights Mainstreaming

We have been involved all along the development process of the SG Guidance Note, mainly facilitating the participation of civil society, including children, in the elaboration of this document through regional online consultations and online surveys. In total, more than 450 children aged 7-17, and 300 civil society stakeholders contributed worldwide to shaping the Guidance Note (see our previous story for more information here). We have also been able to influence the content of the SG Guidance Note through different actions, including by holding a substantive discussion with members to gather collective input for a joint submission and supporting and endorsing our members’ individual submissions containing further messages and detailed inputs. This resulted in the inclusion of strong language on child participation.

After months of preparation, the SG Guidance Note on Child Rights Mainstreaming was published in July 2023. It provides practical guidance to all levels of the UN, across all three pillars (development, human rights, and peace and security), to Headquarters, regional and field contexts, on how to integrate children’s rights within management, operations, and programmes.  The Guidance Note includes tracks to follow-up on its implementation, mainly through the establishment of a team tasked with its implementation. Progress with implementation of the Guidance Note will also be reviewed by the UN Executive Committee/Deputies Committee as part of the regular updates on the Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights (his transformative vision for human rights). “I thank Child Rights Connect and your members for your powerful advocacy which was instrumental to this decision and process. This Guidance Note is just one step in a bigger process which will require wide, collective, and concrete action to implement its recommendations”, stated the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, at our 40th anniversary conference in May 2023. With our Network, we will work for the implementation of the Guidance Note, as a first step, to bring child rights mainstreaming from paper to life.

Caption: Cover of the Guidance Note

Leveraging the role of the Human Rights Council to implement the Guidance Note

In view of strengthening the role of the Human Rights Council (HRC) and the OHCHR in delivering on their mandate to promote a systematic child rights approach, through our successful advocacy, the 2022 HRC resolution on the rights of the child requested the High Commissioner for Human Rights to prepare a report with specific recommendations on how to strengthen a child rights-based approach in the work of the United Nations. This report, to be presented at the HRC in March 2024, has the potential to provide concrete recommendations that could turn into an increase in human and financial resources for the OHCHR and the HRC to undertake child rights mainstreaming.

In October 2023, together with Save the Children and our Working Group on child participation, we supported the OHCHR in organising an expert roundtable with representatives from Member States, civil society, OHCHR and UNICEF, to identify concrete recommendations to inform this report. Discussions with the European Union delegation in Geneva and the Permanent Mission of Uruguay, as the core group for the HRC resolution on the rights of the child, have been on-going to ensure that the 2024 HRC resolution on the rights of the child build on the recommendations from this critical report.

Beyond the Guidance Note: influencing the Summit of the Future to make sure children are not forgotten

In his report Our Common Agenda, the Secretary-General called for a Summit of the Future, to be held in September 2024, and a resulting action-oriented “Pact for the Future”, with State commitments to address emerging shared challenges, included those posed by new technologies. The Summit of the Future will be a milestone moment for the international community and important decisions will be taken, which will have a direct or indirect impact on children’s rights and future generations. As expressed by the Committee on the Rights of the Child “If the UN is truly committed to become a more inclusive multilateral platform for partnership and solidarity having people at its centre as outlined in Our Common Agenda, children must be an integral part of the process for the Summit of the Future, a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to develop the frameworks of multilateralism so they are fit for the future.”[1]

As a child rights movement, our aim is to achieve child rights mainstreaming through the negotiations of the Pact for the Future, Annexes, and related processes. Together with our members, we have thus been engaging through multiple high-level tracks to ensure a holistic approach to children’s rights as part of the Summit of the Future.

Ahead of the Summit, the UN Secretary-General appointed a High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism (HLAB) to identify concrete recommendations on improving international cooperation for the resolution of shared challenges. In 2022, the HLAB held a global public consultation with experts, leaders, and practitioners, including member States, UN entities and civil society. We made a submission to the HLAB and our key recommendation was integrated in the outcome report calling for a strategy to implement children’s rights. The recommendation is not only calling for a UN-wide approach to children’s rights to reinforce the UN capacity to support Member States’ actions, but also for the prioritization of a clear guidance on mainstreaming children’s rights across the multilateral system. This recommendation comes on top of those made on “youth”, which shows that the HLAB acknowledges that children are a distinct group of rights holders.

Moreover, we have contributed to ensuring that children’s rights make their way into the Summit of the Future preparations. And they are, progressively. To inform the Summit, civil society representatives organised the Global Futures Forum (GFF) in March 2023 to develop the “People’s Pact for the Future”. This document seeks to feed diverse civil society ideas and insights into official discussions on the Pact for the Future. In preparation for the GFF discussions, together with our Children’s Advisory Team and members and in coordination with the #CovidUnder19 initiative, we contributed to virtual civil society consultations and other preparatory meetings informing the GFF.  Miriam, our former Child Advisor from Lebanon, presented an intergenerational research paper entitled “Channeling The Changemaking Power of Children to Drive Environmental, Peace, Security, and Digital Policies for the Future” during the GFF.  Through the research paper, children and young people reflected on what future generations-oriented policies are needed now for a positive post-2030 world. Children’s perspectives and contributions have influenced the conference outcomes and recommendations, consolidated in the  Interim People’s Pact for the Future, especially as children are included as a cross-cutting consideration in the report. Furthermore, together with several members, we developed  a position paper to inform the scope and elements of the Summit of the Future as well as a joint submission to inform the development of the zero draft of the Pact for the Future with the aim to  continue to raise awareness that “Children should be both subjects of the Summit and the resulting Pact for the Future, and active participants before, during and after the Summit”. We also contributed to the discussions for a Global Digital Compact with a joint submission.

Caption: Flyer of the presentation of children’s intergenerational research paper (left) and cover of the Interim People’s Pact for the Future (right)

Channeling children’s voices and rights into the planning and work of the OHCHR

2023 has been a pivotal year to better advance children’s voices and rights into the priorities and work of the OHCHR. The consultations of children as part of the Human Rights 75 Initiative and the strategic planning process for the OHCHR’s Management Plan for 2024-2027 were key opportunities in that respect.

Children make their voices heard in the Human Rights 75 Initiative and influence the High Commissioner’s vision for the future

During our 40th anniversary conference in May 2023, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk delivered a keynote address, followed by an interactive dialogue with children and other participants. He called for “putting children’s voices at the centre”, committing his office to better incorporate the views of children in their work, including in the context of celebrations around the 75 years of the Universal Declaration on Human rights (UDHR) (the Human Right 75 Initiative) and his ensuing Vision for the Future. “I will make sure that the voices of children will be incorporated in the vision and forthcoming Management Plan of my office for the next five years”, he stated.

Throughout 2023 consultations took place in the framework of the Human Rights 75 Initiative with the aim to inform the High Commissioner’s new vision for human rights as well as the OHCHR’s Management Plan for 2024-2027.  We worked closely with the OHCHR to ensure that child participation was at the centre of this process. Our Children’s Advisory Team (CAT) supported the OHCHR to develop the child-friendly version of their survey to gather views from as many children as possible to shape the future vision of the High Commissioner as well as the Management Plan. This meant that for the first time, the OHCHR consulted children directly in their strategic planning process! This survey reached about 4,000 children. Our Child Advisors helped analyse this data which fed the OHCHR report “Children’s Vision for Human Rights”. The Children’s Advisory Team was given the opportunity to give more personal input and help interpret these findings through a focus group discussion with the OHCHR. To empower our CAT to help with this process, we delivered capacity building sessions on the history and content of the UDHR. This gave our child advisors the tools to work with us and the OHCHR in developing a child-friendly version of the UDHR as well as a child-friendly information sheet on the High Commissioner for Human Rights to help provide context to the survey.

In addition, we empowered child human rights defenders, including our child advisor Gloria (14, Cameroon), to participate in the Youth and Child Human Rights Defender Conference co-organised by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders and Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Vienna in June.

The culmination of this year-long initiative was the participation of the Child Advisors in the high-level December event. Four of them – Anna Katharina (17, Venezuela), Anghelina (16, Moldova), Doris (14, Zambia) and Fran (15, Croatia) – joined this two-day event in person in Geneva to represent the Children’s Advisory Team. Anna Katherina presented the contributions of the child advisors and children who took part in the survey in the “Voices in defense of human rights 2” segment. Her powerful intervention can be seen here. “The activities that I’ve been a part of are really a masterpiece of people who organized it and those activities because we children were able to tell our opinions not by heart but from the heart directly and I’m really glad that I had that opportunity!”, she shared about her experience in the Human Rights 75 initiative.

Caption: Our Child Advisors at the high-level event under the Human Rights 75 Initiative.

The impact of child participation in the Initiative goes beyond 2023. The High Commissioner for Human Rights presented his human rights vision for the future at the 55th session of the Human Rights Council in February 2024. As a result of the consultations with children, “Meaningful decision making by youth and children” is listed among the eight directions for a better future in his vision statement, called “Human Rights: A Path for Solutions”. “Meaningful and equitable engagement of children in all their diversity in decisions concerning them at the local, national and international levels is integral to the full realization of their human rights”. This vision is a contribution to the upcoming Summit of the Future.

OHCHR report on inclusive social protection: first time the Human Rights Council requests a child-friendly version together with consultations with children

For years we have been advocating for the OHCHR to systematically consult with children to inform their reports and produce child-friendly versions. The Human Rights Council resolution on the rights of the child from 2022 requested that the OHCHR biennial thematic report on children’s rights should be accessible in a child-friendly format. This meant that, for the first time, the OHCHR could properly  develop a child participation process and produce a child-friendly version, setting up a clear precedent for the reports to come. We supported the OHCHR in undertaking consultations with children, including our Children’s Advisory Team and we helped develop multiple options for children to share their views which can be replicated in the future. This included: a child-friendly survey, focused group discussions run by national and local partners, and four calls with the OHCHR. Between January and March, just over 600 children from 24 different countries across various regions engaged in that process. We also shared a questionnaire with all the children consulted for the project to gather their feedback on the draft child-friendly report. “The most important thing is that the opinions of children and adolescents who participated in this report were added, hoping that everything will become a reality”, said a 14-year-old child from Mexico, highlighting the importance of involving children in decision-making.

Caption: Cover of the child-friendly version of OHCHR report

What difference did this make

The publication of the Guidance Note of the UN Secretary-General’s on Child Rights Mainstreaming represents a historic step for advancing a child rights approach across the UN. This also has the potential to set an example and inspire States and other inter-governmental organisations to follow suit. The advocacy and implication all along the process of our Network has allowed the inclusion of key recommendations made by civil society and children, including a strong focus on child participation as an underlying core principle. Furthermore, the process in itself was a success: the number and quality of consultations with civil society and children that we enabled has contributed to ensure that this UN-led initiative was inclusive, responsive and credible. This Guidance Note has been and will be the catalyser of many other opportunities at the UN level to advocate for child rights mainstreaming and child participation on different fronts.

The Human Rights 75 Initiative has been fed by civil society and children’s inputs, and the resulting High Commissioner’s vision for human rights has children’s participation at the core to ensure the full realization of their rights. We hope this will also be reflected in the next OHCHR’s Management Plan.  Through constant joint advocacy with members, strides are being made in the discussions for the Summit of the Future and its outcome document. Similarly, the discussions on child rights mainstreaming are picked up at the Human Rights Council, including through solid child participation practices which will serve as a strong precedent.

What have we learned?

Ensuring that children’s rights are systematically considered, everywhere, will be a long-term process. It will take bold conversations, the forging of wide alliances, and a restless fight. And we are just at the beginning of this process.

Implementing child participation as a protected right under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child necessitates addressing legal, institutional barriers, and allocating dedicated resources, including a budget within OHCHR. We still experience a lack of prioritization of children’s rights generally, with children still mainly seen as future generations and not as the present generations, justifying a lack of investment in them. There is also a constant tendency to subsume children with youth which overlooks the distinct needs of each group. Recognizing their differences, and unique needs and opportunities, is crucial for effectively promoting and safeguarding the rights of both groups within the UN framework and beyond.


[1] Statement of the Committee on the Rights of the Child on Human Rights Day 2023, 10 December 2023: