12 Million Girls Still Endure Child Marriage, UNICEF Deputy Director Stresses, Citing New Forms of Sexual Exploitation
Growing numbers of indigenous peoples are succumbing to extreme poverty amid a spike in land evictions and loss of traditional livelihoods brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Nations expert charged with assessing their well‑being told the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) today, as delegates raised questions and concerns about their plight.
José Francisco Calí Tzay, Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, was among the four United Nations special-procedure mandate‑holders updating delegates in a series of online interactive dialogues focused on the rights of children and indigenous peoples.
“Indigenous peoples are rarely taken into account in contingency plans,” Mr. Calí Tzay said, as he delivered findings from his first report. In most countries — if they are included at all — it is only in the late stages of the Government’s response to COVID-19. “As a result, their needs and requirements are not adequately taken into account and addressed by national programmes and policies,” he added, emphasizing the importance of free and informed prior consent in decisions affecting their lives.
The virtual dialogues covered topics ranging from children’s access to health care and education, to COVID-19’s blunt and vast impact on indigenous communities, with experts describing increases in child labour and poverty, or the emergence of new forms of sexual exploitation of children through technology.
“If the world united to realize children’s rights, and not only on paper, maybe the new generation of children would grow up understanding the meaning of children’s rights and human rights,” said Luis Ernesto Pedernera Reyna, Chair of the Committee of the Rights of the Child, quoting a 17-year-old girl from Iraq.
Indeed, COVID-19 has made the reality of her words more distant than ever, he said, pointing out that while children may not have been largely affected by the disease itself, they remain gravely affected by its aftermath, especially in terms of their physical, emotional or psychological needs.
Delegates participating in the related online dialogue highlighted the need to protect children from online harm and uphold their rights to health care and education. Mexico’s representative asked the Chair about his vision for implementing the Optional Protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Mama Fatima Singhateh, Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, including child prostitution, child pornography and other sexual abuse material, drew attention to the surge in new forms of sexual exploitation, both offline and online, during the COVID-19 lockdowns. She called for guaranteed access to justice, reparations and rehabilitation of child victims.
On that point, Charlotte Petri Gornitzka, Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), pressed Governments to develop a safe and inclusive digital agenda that places children at the centre of digital policy. She also addressed the issue of child, early and forced marriage, stressing that new reports are emerging of a spike in child marriage as a result of the pandemic’s economic impact. An estimated 12 million girls per year still endure the practice.
The Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 13 October, to continue its virtual interactive dialogues.
Interactive Dialogues – Rights of Children
The Committee began the day with two interactive dialogues held under the theme “Rights of Children”, which featured presentations by: Luis Ernesto Pedernera Reyna, Chair of the Committee on the Rights of the Child; and Mama Fatima Singhateh, Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, including child prostitution, child pornography and other sexual abuse material.
Mr. PEDERNERA REYNA said all children in all countries are affected — physically, emotionally and psychologically — by the COVID-19 pandemic. For many of them, its consequences will have a lifelong impact. As the crisis has unfolded, children’s access to food, water, health care, life-saving vaccinations and education has deteriorated, which in turn, has increased their exposure to violence and exploitation, as reflected by the growing incidence of child labour, female genital mutilation and child marriage. He expressed concern over the slow ratification of the three Optional Protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, noting that over the last year, no States ratified or acceded to the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict, or the Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography. He referred to the Committee’s eighty-fourth extraordinary session in Samoa (2 to 6 March 2020) as “a historical moment”, which provided children with a lead role in shaping the agenda. Drawing attention to the Committee’s draft General Comment on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment, he stressed the need to clarify how this rapidly evolving environment affects the full range of children’s rights — both positively and negatively. He further underscored the need to identify measures that promote and protect children’s rights in the digital environment.
During the interactive dialogue, delegates discussed the Convention’s Optional Protocols, highlighting issues such as children and armed conflict, and children’s sexual exploitation, as well as new challenges triggered by the COVID‑19 pandemic. An observer for the European Union asked about the actions States can take to ensure that principles are upheld and that the work accomplished by the Committee over the last 30 years is not lost.
The representative of Afghanistan likewise asked Mr. Pedernera how the pandemic has impacted the Committee’s work.
In a similar vein, the representative of Bangladesh said “we cannot allow the pandemic to become a children’s crisis,” as he underscored the importance of protecting children from online harm and upholding their right to education. He asked Mr. Pedernera how to involve more children in the United Nations’ work.
Iran’s representative said COVID-19 has exacerbated pre-existing challenges, resulting in a spike in inequalities and driving more families into extreme poverty. He underscored Iran’s determination to promote and protect the rights of children, especially through providing quality education.
Mexico’s representative said her country this year will present its sixth and seventh reports on the implementation of the Convention, noting that it has held virtual consultations with children around the country to identify challenges. She asked Mr. Pedernera about his vision for the implementation of the two Optional Protocols.
Mr. PEDERNERA responded briefly, noting that COVID-19 has underscored the importance of the digital environment, as today’s meeting would not have happened without technology. The online format also facilitates access to education. Noting that the digital environment holds both potential and risks, he said children’s exposure to “the screen” — and the impact of this behaviour on mental and physical health, advertising, cyberattacks or online harassment — represent a real challenge that must be studied and addressed. Children may not have been largely affected by COVID-19, however, they are gravely affected by its aftermath. As such, he pressed States to provide resources: “Investment in children should not be seen as an expense,” he clarified. More than ever, access to basic services must be guaranteed as part of a holistic response to the pandemic that likewise takes into account education, sociology and psychology.
Also speaking in the dialogue were representatives of the Republic of Korea, Spain, Belgium, Slovakia, Russian Federation, United Kingdom, Hungary, Switzerland, Syria, Israel, Mexico, Japan and Algeria.
Sale, Sexual Exploitation of Children
Ms. SINGHATEH said the reported surge in violence against children and new forms of sexual exploitation and abuse, both offline and online, during the COVID-19 lockdowns is eroding conditions for millions of children worldwide. The pandemic is not only exacerbating the already precarious socioeconomic situation of children, it is threatening to reverse hard-won achievements. Due to the lockdown and travel restrictions brought on by the pandemic, children are spending more time online, she said, emphasizing the need to tackle online child sexual exploitation and abuse. Her first thematic report to the Human Rights Council will address the long-term effects of COVID-19, she said, noting that she plans to integrate a gender perspective throughout her work by exploring the gender dimension of the sale and sexual exploitation of children. “Access to justice, reparations and rehabilitation of child victims of sale, sexual abuse and sexual exploitation is an important aspect in addressing this scourge,” she stressed.
In the ensuing dialogue, many delegates echoed the Special Rapporteur’s concerns that the pandemic is amplifying the plight of children and risks setting back years of progress made towards achieving the 2030 targets.
With that in mind, the representative of the United Kingdom expressed concern over warnings by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) that the global incidence of child labour is on the rise, setting back 20 years of progress. Robust protection for those at risk of abuse and exploitation is a priority for the United Kingdom. It will be important to understand the impact of COVID-19 on child sexual abuse and she asked the Special Rapporteur about best practices for preventing such harm.
Israel’s similarly asked about the impact of COVID-19 on the sexual exploitation of children online.
The representative of the United States, meanwhile, stressed the importance of preventing child trafficking in all forms and effectively prosecuting child traffickers. The Internet has provided predators a new platform and she asked the Special Rapporteur to recommend best practices for addressing this issue.
The representative of India underlined the need for strong legislation, prohibiting child marriage or guaranteeing the right to compulsory education. “The biggest threat to children is terrorism and Pakistan is the representative of terrorism,” he stressed.
An observer for the European Union, welcoming Special Rapporteur’s gender perspective, expressed support for her plan to strengthen children’s participation. Children are positive agents of change, she said, asking about the challenges encountered in the digital environment.
Ms. SINGHATEH, replying, highlighted the utter importance of country visits. She also called for a child protection mechanism, especially for forced birth registrations, stressing that “we need to be able to keep track of the children.” States need a robust legal framework to guarantee children’s protection. Regarding interaction with children, she said “only children would understand the problems they face and the only way of finding solutions is to consult with them”. She also called for access to justice for victims and for the successful prosecution of perpetrators, notably through international cooperation. Silent sexual exploitation of children transcends boundaries, she stressed, underscoring the need to share information with law enforcement agencies.
Also speaking in the dialogue were representatives of Morocco, Mexico and the Philippines.
Rights of Indigenous Peoples
In the afternoon, the Committee heard a virtual briefing by José Francisco Calí Tzay, Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples. It was followed by a broad interactive discussion during which delegates shared their national experiences and posed questions.
Mr. CALÍ TZAY noted that today marks his first briefing to the Committee since taking up the post of Special Rapporteur in May amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Underscoring the profound fear, sadness and hardship currently being felt all around the globe, he nevertheless stressed that “indigenous people feel particularly forgotten and left behind”. His first annual report to the General Assembly is therefore dedicated to the pandemic’s impact on indigenous communities and calls for greater preparedness for future crises. Indigenous peoples are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, largely due to inadequate access to health care, escalating numbers of evictions from their lands, and high rates of poverty. In most countries, indigenous communities have only been included in COVID-19 policy responses — if at all — at a late stage in their development.
Pointing out that he has already received more than 150 responses from Member States to questions he posed about measures taken to contain the pandemic and protect populations, he called for response efforts to be collaborative. Indigenous communities must guide policy development hand-in-hand with Governments, and traditional knowledge should be employed. They must be granted free, prior and informed consent before any measures are taken that may impact their lives. The recognition of indigenous people’s land rights is also essential to their survival “and to the survival of us all”, he stressed. Looking ahead, he pledged to continue to monitor the impact of COVID-19 on indigenous communities, while also tackling such issues as conservation and climate change; indigenous peoples’ human rights; the impact of forced and bonded labour; and the realization of indigenous peoples’ rights in urban areas.
In the ensuing discussion, many delegates reaffirmed their Governments’ commitment to supporting indigenous communities — including those who practice self-governance — in living lives of health and dignity amid the pandemic. Some called for improved housing, education and health care policies as long-term solutions to deeply entrenched challenges, while others outlined more immediate and emergency measures developed in response to COVID-19.
The representative of Canada agreed with other speakers that COVID-19 has only exacerbated the existing inequalities and systemic racism facing indigenous peoples around the globe. Noting that indigenous groups have demonstrated strength and resilience during the pandemic, he asked Mr. Calí Tzay for specific recommendations on how Governments can improve their responses — with a focus on the safety, health and wellbeing of indigenous peoples — as they move into a second wave of COVID-19.
The representative of Denmark, speaking on behalf of the Nordic-Baltic countries, joined several other speakers in voicing support for the right of indigenous peoples to participate in all United Nations meetings — including those of the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural). In that regard, he asked Mr. Calí Tzay how that inclusion can be harnessed to lead to more tangible results.
India’s representative noted that there remains disagreement among Member States on the definition of indigenous peoples. Indeed, some countries do not agree that they have any indigenous communities, and the concepts being discussed today are therefore not applicable to societies where diverse ethnic groups have lived together for thousands of years.
The representative of Brazil, spotlighting the breadth and diversity of his country’s indigenous communities, said that the massive scale of heterogeneity has led to significant challenges amid COVID-19. Outlining a range of innovative health and outreach measures, he asked Mr. Calí Tzay to outline measures that can guide States as they support self-governing indigenous communities in the context of the pandemic.
Striking a similar tone, Mexico’s representative asked whether any best practices have been identified to ensure the right of indigenous peoples to their own visions of health care — including the use of traditional medicine — while at the same time ensuring their access to national health care systems.
The representative of Iran called for more attention to indigenous communities living in marginalized conditions in developed countries, who often suffer the most from discrimination, poverty and other serious challenges.
Mr. CALÍ TZAY responded briefly to those questions and comments, telling the representatives of Canada and Mexico that, in a possible second wave of COVID-19, Governments should closely study the lessons learned during the first wave. In many cases, that includes better communication with indigenous leaders and fully recognizing the value of traditional knowledge. He noted that, in Chile, indigenous medicine was even integrated into treatment in national hospitals. Turning to the representative of Denmark, he said more funding is needed to foster the meaningful participation of indigenous peoples in meetings at the international level. He also asked a wider range of countries — especially those in Asia and Africa — to accept his proposals to visit their countries.
Also participating in the discussion were representatives of Chile, Russian Federation, Venezuela, Colombia, China and Algeria, as well as the European Union.
Rights of Children
The Committee then resumed its discussion on the rights of children, concluding an interactive discussion on the briefing delivered on 9 October by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on violence against children, Najat Maalla M’jid. (see Press Release GA/SHC/4291). Many delegates said COVID-19 has exacerbated threats to children, including at home and in the cyber realm, and asked the Special Representative to share best practices. Others expressed concern that children and adolescents remain largely left out of global discussions and decision-making spheres where they could add their voices to both long-term and immediate solutions.
Japan’s representative said COVID-19 is causing a “human security crisis” which could also evolve into a children’s rights crisis. Citing his country’s development of a national action plan aimed at ending all violence against children, he asked the Special Rapporteur whether any best practices have been developed to guide cooperation with civil society, the private sector and other actors towards achieving this goal.
The representative of Portugal asked how countries can make their voluntary national reviews to the United Nations more child-sensitive and inclusive of children’s views. Noting that COVID-19 has brought added challenges to realizing the rights of children, he spotlighted the importance of “peer-to-peer support” in the context of the pandemic and asked how minors can be encouraged to participate in the process of “building back better”.
An observer of the European Union asked the Special Rapporteur to share her observations related to online and cyber challenges, such as bullying and access issues, as many schools around the globe have moved online during the pandemic.
Ms. MAALLA M’JID recalled that, even before the pandemic, countries were largely not on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals indicators related to the rights of children. She echoed speakers’ concerns that family violence against children, like other types of domestic violence, has been on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic. She also spotlighted the critical nexus between violence against children and violence against women, which are linked to such issues as job loss and isolation, as well as the serious and potentially long-term effects on children’s mental health. The latter must be addressed in the context of Governments’ universal health coverage schemes and form a core part of their COVID-19 response plans, she said, calling for “peer-to-peer support” mechanisms as an important tool in that regard.
Also participating in that discussion were representatives of Morocco, Russian Federation, Austria, Qatar, Belgium, Slovenia, Costa Rica and Mexico.
CHARLOTTE PETRI GORNITZKA, Deputy Executive Direct of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), then took the floor to introduce three reports of the Secretary-General. Citing important strides made in advancing children’s rights in recent decades — including through national legislation and the broader participation of children themselves in decision-making — she nevertheless said that climate change and environmental degradation, humanitarian crises and now COVID-19 are posing new and serious challenges. Countries must build child protection systems that are inclusive of migrant, refugee and other marginalized children, and work to develop a safe and inclusive digital agenda that places children at the centre of digital policy. She also cited the Secretary-General’s call for a universal recognition of children’s rights to a clean, sustainable environment.
Turning to the Secretary-General’s report on the issue of child, early and forced marriage (document A/75/262), she said reported instances of those phenomena have been decreasing in recent years as a result of new legislation, increased awareness-raising and community sensitization programmes. However, it is still estimated that 12 million girls per year endure child marriage, and new reports are emerging of a spike in child marriage as a result of the pandemic’s economic impact. Indeed, the world’s most disadvantaged children still suffer from serious rights violations, she said, stressing that 150 million children are estimated to live in high conflict zones and more than 42 million are likely to be pushed into extreme poverty as a result of COVID-19. This could be among the pandemic’s most lasting consequences for society as a whole, she warned.
As delegates took the floor to share their perspectives, Mexico’s representative praised UNICEF’s efforts to achieve sustainable development targets related to the rights of children. Spotlighting the many challenges facing young people, she said Mexico is among the countries that has tabled a General Assembly resolution on global access to medicine, vaccines and equipment to tackle COVID-19.
The representative of Italy also focused her intervention on the serious challenges posed by COVID-19, noting that her country has enacted a series of exceptional measures to protect both children and families. Those include extraordinary leave for parents and increased financial support during 2020.
Meanwhile, the representative of Luxembourg was among speakers who expressed support for the Secretary-General’s call to more closely link the rights of children to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals.
Ms. GORNITZKA thanked the Committee for its endorsement of UNICEF’s work and pledged to bolster support for children during the pandemic.
Also participating were representatives of Morocco, Poland and Azerbaijan, as well as the European Union.