The German parliament's Commission for Children's Concerns this week discussed including children's rights in the constitution. In light of recent cases of deaths due to neglect, it's becoming a pressing issue.
"Strengthening children's rights helps in taking action against neglect"
DW-WORLD.DE spoke with Rudi Tarneden, a spokesman for UNICEF Deutschland, the German branch of the United Nations Children's Fund, about what would change in Germany if children's rights were part of the constitution.
DW-WORLD.DE: Let's assume that children's rights will become part of the constitution at some point. How would those rights be guaranteed?
Rudi Tarneden: This past August, during an event hosted by UNICEF Germany and the Deutscher Kinderschutzbund (a German lobby organization for the protection of children), Chancellor Angela Merkel said for the first time that she could envision including children's rights in the constitution. This fall, Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen stressed the need again following the cases of child neglect and killing that have recently come to light.
There is a growing awareness of children's rights in Germany
Putting children's rights in the constitution would strengthen young people's position in society, especially in terms of new policies being drafted -- policies that concern children, but also those that affect immigrants and even issues like urban design to make cities more child-friendly.
It would also mean that youth offices could take legal action more quickly and easily in cases of child neglect. Currently, youth office agents are very reluctant to get involved in a family's private sphere. Parental rights are more respected than children's rights.
Also, there be would a change of attitude from "raising children is a private, family matter and we'll get involved only in an emergency" to "children and the raising of them are a social concern whereby both the state and parents bear responsibility."
Yet, in the recent cases of child deaths due to neglect, youth offices knew that at least some of the families were high-risk, but they didn't get involved. Weren't those emergencies?
Experts warn that child neglect and abuse occur in all levels of society
That's the problem. Those are the cases in which everyone is aware of what's going on, but no one does anything. If the state were to get more involved, people in society would take a closer look and take action, and vice versa.
UNICEF recently published a report that focuses on child abuse in industrialized countries. For Germany, the report shows that on the average, two children die per week as the result of abuse or neglect. But that's just the tip of the iceberg -- there are plenty of children who manage to live, but who suffer physical and psychological violence as they grow up. They, of course, are not included in those numbers.
I should make clear that laws will not stop child neglect and abuse, but that new laws could give agencies more possibilities for taking action. Things have improved in the past few decades, but child mortality rates due to neglect are still too high.
If laws can't do it all, how can people's attitudes become more attuned to the needs of children?
In 2000, a ban on physical punishment to reprimand children was drafted. There were major discussions on the issue and whether or not parents should be forbidden to spank or slap their children. But the fact is that this new law helped to readjust people's attitudes toward children -- namely, that the social norms of respect and grace that adults expect in their dealings with one another should also be expected in behavior towards children. Such laws herald long-term processes in which attitudes toward children gradually change for the better. One shouldn't underestimate their psychological effects.
You said adding children's rights to the constitution will not prevent child abuse. Isn't money also an issue -- as budgets for kindergarten care have been drastically cut and employment is high?
All kids need good schools, Tarneden said
The gap between the rich and the poor is widening dramatically in Germany. More and more children are being socially excluded and are growing up in poverty and in families in which long-term unemployment reigns. These children don't have the role models they need because their parents have resigned themselves to dreadful circumstances, or because they can't get the training they need, or can't attend decent schools. It's precisely in the "bad" city districts where good schools should be located. A crisis is brewing here, and we believe that tackling these problems now should be a priority.
Why do you believe the push for improving children's rights is coming now?
The ratification of the UNICEF Convention on the Rights of the Child a decade and a half ago has had effects over time. Also, people in Germany are now discussing the social exclusion of children and how children are growing up in poverty. We're realizing that we just can't afford to leave kids by the wayside. We see that in all the talks about poor education in this country. The third reason, of course, is that all the media attention on these horrible cases of child abuse has prompted politicians to say that action needs to be taken to make Germany a more hospitable place for children.
What do you mean exactly by "we're realizing we can't afford to leave children by the wayside."
One in 10 German students leave school without a degree
Right now, 10 percent of each class of school kids quits before receiving a degree. That translates into tens of thousands of young people each year. What are they going to do later? How are they going to live? We're living on borrowed time. Not only does that mean major problems for the kids themselves in finding a job, but it presents a huge problem for society as a whole.
Would there be a list of requirements to ensure that children are being protected? Who would keep track of upholding the law should children's rights be enshrined in the constitution by 2009, as some expect?
That's the big question right now and the major issue that must be discussed. Should there be some sort of agency in each German state to oversee whether children's rights are being upheld? Who will report back on the issue? How will proposed laws be reviewed as to whether they would help or harm children? Those are the really exciting questions, but we haven't reached that point yet.