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Tuesday, 12 October, 1999, 11:11 GMT 12:11 UK
What happened to global children's rights?
Fabiana da Silva with Nigel Wrench
Former street child Fabiana da Silva now runs a shelter for people like her
By PM programme presenter, Nigel Wrench

The BBC celebrates the 10th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child with a series of reports on Radio 4's PM programme.

Joyce is a slight girl of 12 with sloping shoulders. The day I met her, she wore a green dress and no shoes. Her manner seemed diffident and shy, not the sort of child to pick a fight.

And yet she had just spent three years with a gun in the African bush forced to fight with the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), the guerrilla movement based in Sudan that has an army of several thousand child soldiers.

Joyce was abducted from her village in northern Uganda, force-marched across the border, taught how to fire a gun and taken into battle.

She told her story in a monotone, pausing only for translations: how she was beaten, how the abducted girls were divided into those who would serve as 'wives' for teenage 'commanders' and those who would fight, how she learned how to take apart and reassemble a gun.

We sat in a resettlement camp in the town of Gulu, where children, who have escaped from the LRA, are accommodated before being returned to their homes.

I had with me a copy of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 38 says: "You have a right to protection in times of war. If you are under 15, you should never have to be in an army or take part in a battle."

As Joyce began to tell a particularly harrowing story about a skirmish with soldiers of the Ugandan People's Defence Force, the UPDF, that right seemed almost nonsensical.

"When I shot my gun, they were also shooting at me.

"The person next to me fell. But someone said, 'if you run I am going to shoot you'."

Both Uganda, from where the children are abducted, and Sudan, which backs the LRA, are signatories to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. That didn't help Joyce.

The words of the document in my bag did not protect her, they did not save her from sustaining a serious wound to the stomach during that battle with the UPDF.

"What can we do," said the Resident District Commissioner, Peter W'Ocheng, the local representative of the Ugandan Government, "invade Khartoum?"

His tone of helplessness was to become a familiar one throughout our travels, making these programmes.

Little action

Whenever we put to those responsible the notion that children's rights, guaranteed under the UN Convention, were being flouted, there was almost always an expression of emotion, but precious little in the way of action.

However, the Vice Governor of Rio de Janeiro state, Benedita da Silva, suggested future international loans to Brazil should be given only on condition that children's rights really be guaranteed, not just on paper, but in practice.

Nigel Wrench with Brazilian street children
Presenter Nigel Wrench plays marbles with former street children in Rio
She is not alone in believing that it is time for international pressure to protect children.

Officials in non-government organisations elsewhere believe children's rights should be brought up every time an international aid package is discussed.

In the case of Brazil, we had just spent a morning with three children from one family, who grew up living on the back of an abandoned lorry. Rafael was 11, Daniel, nine and William, seven.

I played marbles with them in the front yard of a house owned by the São Martinho project, which works with children living on the streets or abandoned by their parents.

Rafael said, "My biggest dream is to see my mother again."

Article Seven of the Convention says: "You have the right to have a name, and when you are born your name, your parents' names and the date should be written down. You have the right to a nationality, and the right to know and be cared for by your parents."

If the experience of Rafael, Daniel and William is at odds with the second part of that right then the day-to-day work of Siro Darlan illustrates how even the first part, the right to a name, is not ensured either.

He is the Rio-based judge whose job it is to be an advocate for children's rights. Each week he is called upon to supply names to abandoned babies that will fall under his department's care.


Even in the West, in Frankfurt, one of the richest cities in Europe, we found that there was no right to the sort of education that the Convention ambitiously suggests should be the norm.

It says: "The purpose of your education is to develop your personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to the fullest."

Our interviews illustrated vividly that that sort of education is available only to those with the resources to pay the fees of one of the most expensive schools in Frankfurt.

Olara Otunnu, the Ugandan UN Secretary General's Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, told us: "I use the Convention as a tool for advocacy. I am the first to say that words on paper do not save children in peril. We - governments, NGOs, the media - need to mobilise for what I call the era of application.

"I do not rule out sanctions. We need to make it clear that we will not do business with people who abuse children."

For more information on the BBC World Service series on the rights of the child, go to

The BBC's Nigel Wrench reports
from Uganda
Nigel Wrench
on children's rights in Brazil
Nigel Wrench
talking to children in Manila, Philippines
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