Covid-19 and Children’s Rights in Wales
by Professor Jane Williams - Acting Director, Morgan Academy; Co-founder, Observatory on Human Rights of Children
‘Children are not the face of this pandemic. But they risk being amongst its biggest victims’. United Nations Policy Brief: The Impact of Covid-19, 15 April 2020
Coronavirus and Human Rights
Initial governmental responses to the Coronavirus pandemic prioritised the need to protect those at greatest risk from the disease and to reduce associated stress on health systems. Children appear less likely to become infected and less likely to die or need medical treatment if infected. The Coronavirus emergency measures, however, are having a massive impact on children. For some, the impact may be life-long and life-limiting. Hitherto, discussion of the human rights implications of Coronavirus measures focused mainly on restrictions on individual freedoms normally enjoyed by adults. Less prominent is consideration of the human rights of children, now and in the longer term. This needs to change.
Welsh Government together with the Welsh Youth Parliament, the NGO Children in Wales and the Children’s Commissioner for Wales launched an online survey, ‘Coronavirus and Me’ to help Welsh Government understand children’s experiences. In a short introductory video, the Commissioner presents the survey as giving children their ‘right to have a say’ and invites them to share their ‘thoughts, feelings and emotions’ on the changes they have been experiencing. Alongside this, the Senedd’s Children Young People and Education Committee is taking evidence and consulting the public in its inquiry into the impact of Coronavirus on children.
The Observatory on Human Rights of Children at Swansea and Bangor Universities is one of many respondents to the Committee’s public consultation in this inquiry. The Observatory supports children’s human rights through research and by working with organisations on ways to put into practice rights guaranteed by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The Observatory’s response to the Senedd Committee cites a Policy Brief from the United Nations which warns that children are at risk of being the biggest victims of the Coronavirus pandemic, with an estimated 42 – 66 million more children worldwide falling into poverty, huge impacts on education, additional child deaths due to the likely global economic downturn and heightened risk of harm to the most vulnerable.
Coronavirus and Children in Wales
In Wales, as elsewhere in the UK, there are concerns about the unequal impact of school closures, disruption of review of children placed in care, sub-optimal ante- and post-natal care due to distancing restrictions, difficulties in accessing mental health support, increased exposure to abuse in the home and barriers to normal involvement of parents and children in the family justice system. These threats are greatest for those who are already disadvantaged and especially those who are digitally excluded. It has perhaps never been more important to imbue governmental decision-taking at all levels with informed and anxious attention to the human rights of children.
Children’s rights in Wales
Welsh legislation, influenced by Swansea University researchers, imposes a special duty on Welsh Ministers when exercising any of their functions, to pay ‘due regard’ to the requirements of the UNCRC. (Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011). This provides an essential point of reference for the Welsh Government’s decision-making, as does the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. Requirements to properly consider children’s rights and the impact on future generations apply to decision-making in emergencies as much as any other time.
So what needs to happen?
In practice, this means policy process should include two core functions: firstly, children’s rights impact assessment, as required in Wales by the Children’s Rights Scheme, and secondly, making sure that children can effectively inform governmental decisions. This is not mere legal technicality but will help secure better decisions now and in the future. ‘Coronavirus and Me’ and the Senedd CYPE Committee’s Inquiry are therefore important but should not be isolated from wider, emergent political discourse around ‘building back better’. Children’s lives and life chances are affected not only by actions in their homes, families, schools and communities, but also by governmental choices for economic recovery and climate action, as exemplified in a recent publication by Observatory collaborator Professor Barbara Bennett Woodhouse, The Ecology of Childhood.
Involving Children as Citizens Now
Children can, and want to, be part of the solution to big challenges, as seen in youth movements on climate action, gun laws in the US and the early work of the Welsh Youth Parliament, among others. The Observatory’s Lleisiau Bach Little Voices projects, funded since 2012 by the National Lottery, show children as young as 7 researching and advocating together and with adults for change on matters as diverse as plastic waste, homelessness, loneliness in older people and curriculum content. The projects reveal children’s will and capabilities to go beyond merely expressing their ‘thoughts, feelings and emotions’ on what is happening to them, important though it is that they can also do that. As Wales emerges from the first swathe of Coronavirus measures, recognition of children as ‘citizens now’ in their everyday places and activities, is essential to promote and protect their human rights and the well-being of future generations.