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Why children should be seen and heard

The children's parliament: respect for children's views is a core principle of the convention

(Keystone)

Children's views need to be taken seriously and their voices heard, Unicef Switzerland has said.

A report issued by the organisation on the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child on Friday, says that there are still gaps in the protection of Swiss children, even though the convention was ratified by Switzerland in 1997.

Of course, there have been definite improvements in children's rights in the last 12 years, Michael Marugg, of the law and politics section of the youth support organisation Pro Juventute, told swissinfo.ch.

The special needs of children are being taken into account in many areas of life.

"In cases of divorce, for example, the rights of children to be represented and listened to have been strengthened. The court will now note their opinions," he explained.

And he pointed out that a number of major cities have created offices with specially trained staff to take care of children's interests. But these are isolated examples, Marugg warns. "There is no strategy to ensure that the convention is applied as a whole."

Elsbeth Müller, manager of Unicef Switzerland, agrees. "The gaps are not in the legislation, but rather in the implementation," she told swissinfo.ch.

Thus for example, although children have the right to be heard during divorce cases, in practice it is quite rare for this to happen. In fact, only in one case in ten are children's voices effectively listened to, according to the Unicef report.

"What is needed is awareness-raising and training for the judges, and so on. It takes time for the law to be completely implemented," Müller said.

But she is quick to point out that there is no lack of interest or goodwill on the part of the authorities.

However, there are genuine problems in implementing the legislation. For example, one requirement of the convention is that minors should be held separately from adults during criminal investigation. But in Switzerland these investigations are handled at cantonal level, and given the relatively low numbers involved, building separate facilities needs time and requires cantonal cooperation. The process is now underway.

Cantonal cooperation – or the lack of it – is a major stumbling block, which those involved in children's rights refer to repeatedly. And yet many areas which are central to the lives of children, including education, are handled at cantonal level.

"Switzerland's federal system makes coordinated, effective action more difficult," said Müller.

Legal obstacles

That is not the only problem: the convention covers all areas of human rights, so it is also very broad, says Muriel Langenberger, in charge of the section dealing with children, young people and the elderly at the Federal Social Insurance Office.

There is therefore a huge range of players to coordinate – and the central government's competence is limited by law.

"It can coordinate at federal level, it can make proposals to the cantons and support them in their actions, improve the exchange of information between them, but it cannot impose measures," Langenberger explained.

A fundamental change in legislation to give the federation more direct power in youth matters would take many years; instead, plans to revise the current law are underway which will at least clarify the role of central government.

Child-friendly communes

Langenberger accepts that there is still a lot to do to meet the points levelled by the Child Rights Network Switzerland, a coalition of 54 non-governmental organisations active in the field. Much of this affects immigrant children, particularly those without legal papers.

Reaching the most vulnerable members of society is by definition always a challenge. The government has a little money to finance awareness-raising programmes, but Langenberger admits that there is a need for more targeted projects.

"There's a question of access, a question of language, a question even of knowing that the information is available. But there are lots of NGOs working with paediatricians and midwives – that's how you reach everyone."

Unicef Switzerland has launched a "child-friendly commune" label. The first winner, officially announced on Friday, is Wauwil, in canton Lucerne, where children have been encouraged to participate actively in the life of their school and village, and to take responsibility for the environment in which they live.

The hope is to build up a network of such communes. "These communes won't ignore marginalised groups of children, but will make them visible. And this visibility will make it possible to improve their situation," Müller explained.

"In the final resort, children's rights must be implemented in the place where they live."

Julia Slater, swissinfo.ch

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

The convention came into force in 1989.

It has been ratified by 193 states, the largest number for any human rights treaty.

Only the US and Somalia have not ratified it, although they say they intend to. Switzerland ratified it in 1997.

The convention guarantees children the right to a name, a nationality, the highest possible standards of health and protection from abuse and exploitation.

In a 20th anniversary report, Unicef says deaths of children under 5 dropped by 28% between 1990 and 2008 thanks to the convention.

But children are still dying of preventable diseases, and many still suffer violence, neglect and exploitation.

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Children's rights in Switzerland

Tasks of safeguarding children's rights are spread over many ministries and federal offices, including:

The foreign ministry: draws up reports for international organisations.

The ministry of justice and police: not only criminal law but also civil law, including arranging guardianship, dealing with kidnappings and international adoption.

The police office: child trafficking, organised crime against children, cyber-paedophiles.

The health office: anti-alcohol and drug dependency, suicide prevention.

The sports office: promotion of sport for children, prevention of abuse in sports clubs.

The office of professional education: work safety for apprentices.

The social security office – family allowances, maternity leave, creches.

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