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Universal Children’s Day: SL commitment to children’s rights

Universal Children’s Day: SL commitment to children’s rights

21 Nov 2023 | BY Mohammed Mahuruf

Universal Children's Day, celebrated yesterday (20), is a vital global observance focusing on the rights and welfare of children around the world. This day commemorates two significant milestones in the history of children's rights.

On 20 November 1959, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly (UNGA) approved the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, marking a pivotal moment in the global recognition and protection of children's rights. Then, on the same day in 1989, the UNGA adopted the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), further solidifying the commitment to children's rights. This day serves as a powerful reminder of our collective responsibility to safeguard and enhance the wellbeing of children everywhere, urging Governments, organisations, communities, and individuals to work in unison for a brighter future for all children.

The significance of Universal Children's Day lies in its commitment to providing children with a nurturing and secure environment conducive to their growth, learning, and development. It is a day dedicated to advocating for policies and actions that protect children from exploitation, abuse, and discrimination, and to ensuring that their voices are heard and valued.


The UNCRC is an international human rights treaty that outlines the civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights of children. Adopted by the UNGA in 1989 and entering into force in 1990, it is a comprehensive framework for the protection and promotion of children's rights. As a signatory, Sri Lanka has pledged to uphold these rights, reflecting its commitment to the welfare of its younger citizens.

The convention encompasses 54 articles, with the first defining a child as any individual under the age of 18 unless an earlier age of majority is recognised by a country's law. The subsequent 41 articles cover a wide array of children's rights, including, but not limited to, the right to life, survival, and development; the right to a name and nationality; the freedom to express opinions and be heard; and the right to education, healthcare, and social services. These articles also provide protection against abuse, neglect, and exploitation, and safeguard children in armed conflicts. The remaining articles focus on the implementation of the convention, underscoring the roles of Governments, international organisations, parents, and communities in upholding children's rights.

Four core principles

The UNCRC is grounded in four core principles: non-discrimination; the best interests of the child; the right to life, survival, and development; and the right to be heard. These principles guide the interpretation and implementation of the rights set forth in the Convention. Sri Lanka has made notable progress in protecting and promoting these rights, but challenges persist. Efforts to eliminate discrimination and ensure equal opportunities for all children are ongoing, yet issues of inequality and marginalisation remain. The country has taken steps to prioritise the best interests of children; however, improvements are needed in areas like child protection, quality education, and healthcare. The right to life, survival, and development is often compromised by poverty, child labour, and child marriage. Despite advancements in promoting child participation, the further empowerment and inclusion of children in decision-making processes are essential.

Non-discrimination – a fundamental principle of the UNCRC – mandates equal treatment and protection for all children from violence, abuse, neglect, and exploitation. In Sri Lanka, specific groups of children – including those from minority ethnic or religious backgrounds, children with disabilities, and those from displaced or economically and socially excluded families – often face discrimination. This discrimination denies them equal access to education, healthcare, and other essential services, thereby increasing their likelihood of experiencing poverty and exclusion. Such treatment directly contradicts Article 2 of the UNCRC, which emphasises the principle of non-discrimination.

Ensuring the wellbeing and development of children should be paramount in decision-making processes affecting them. This principle – known as the best interests of the child – should underpin all aspects of policy making, legislation, and programmes related to children. In Sri Lanka, the best interests of the child are enshrined in the Constitution and have been incorporated into legislation such as the Children and Young Persons Ordinance and the National Child Protection Policy. Nevertheless, challenges persist in effectively implementing this principle, particularly in child custody, adoption, child abuse and sexual exploitation, and child labour. This shortcoming indicates a failure of the State to fully uphold Article 3, which states that the best interests of the child should be the primary consideration in all actions involving children.

SL’s progress and challenges

Sri Lanka's journey in implementing children's rights, as outlined in the UNCRC, reveals both progress and challenges. The nation has made strides in addressing some key areas but continues to face hurdles in others. The effort to ensure non-discrimination and equality has been significant, yet disparities persist, particularly for marginalised and vulnerable groups. The commitment to prioritise the best interests of children is evident in various policies and legal frameworks. However, the practical application of these policies often falls short, particularly in areas related to child protection, access to quality education, and healthcare services.

In addressing discrimination and inequality, Sri Lanka has focused on creating opportunities and removing barriers for all children. Despite these efforts, challenges remain in fully realising the principle of non-discrimination. Children from minority groups, those with disabilities, and those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds often face barriers to accessing education, healthcare, and other services. This inequity not only contravenes the UNCRC but also hinders the country's overall progress in child rights.

The principle of the best interests of the child, while recognised in law, faces challenges in its implementation. Issues such as child custody, adoption, child abuse, sexual exploitation, and child labour reveal gaps in the system. These challenges highlight the need for stronger mechanisms and more effective policies to ensure that the best interests of the child are always prioritised.

In terms of child protection, Sri Lanka has established legal frameworks and policies. However, the enforcement and effectiveness of these measures are often lacking. Challenges in the child protection system – including inadequate resources, limited awareness, and insufficient coordination among the relevant agencies – impede progress. Ensuring the safety and wellbeing of children requires a more robust and responsive system.

The right to education, healthcare, and social services is fundamental to the development and wellbeing of children. Sri Lanka has made commendable progress in improving access to education and healthcare. However, disparities persist, particularly in rural and underserved areas. Addressing these disparities is crucial to ensuring that all children, regardless of their background, have equal opportunities to thrive.


As we observe the Universal Children's Day, it is crucial to reflect on the journey that Sri Lanka has undertaken in upholding children's rights. While significant progress has been made, the path ahead remains challenging. It is essential to continue efforts to address disparities, strengthen child protection systems, and ensure that the best interests of the child are at the heart of all decisions.

This day serves as a reminder of our collective responsibility to create a world where every child can grow, learn, and develop in a nurturing and supportive environment. Together, we can make a significant impact on the lives of children and pave the way for a brighter, more inclusive future.

(The writer is the Executive Director of Protecting the Environment and Children Everywhere/End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism Sri Lanka, which is a non-Governmental organisation focused on child protection by way of ending the sexual abuse and exploitation of children)


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.

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