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Universal Children’s Day: Minority children are left behind

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Minority children in Southeast Asia have less access to rights guaranteed by the Convention on the Rights of the Child than the general population. Cooperation from all sectors of society is required if the ideals of child rights are to be turned into a reality for all.

Universal Children’s Day falls on 20 November each year. It is a day to promote the ideals of the Declaration on the Rights of the Child (DRC) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC,). Both were adopted on this date, in 1959 and 1989 respectively1. They set out access to rights such as education, health, citizenship and a life free from discrimination. On this day, the Ethnic Minority in Southeast Asia Programme reflects on the needs of ethnic minority (EM) and indigenous peoples (IP) children in Southeast Asia. In this region, EM and IP children’s access to human rights as guaranteed to them in the CRC and DRC lags behind the general population.

In Southeast Asia, EM and IP children are less likely to receive an adequate education. With public and private schooling usually only available in the dominant language, children are denied their right to learn in their first language. Children that do not speak the language of instruction are immediately put at a significant disadvantage in the classroom, and will, as a consequence, often face discrimination and prejudice. Girls face particular difficulties in relation to education. Where financial concerns are an issue, parents will often seek to have their sons educated ahead of their daughters. These general difficulties are often rendered more acute for EM and IP girls. In Cambodia, for example, head scarves are banned in schools, making the pursuit of an education even more difficult for Muslim girls in a predominantly Buddhist country.

Accessing basic healthcare is another major challenge for EM and IP children. A high population of EM and IP children live in remote areas, where health services are not available and infant and maternal mortality is high. Children grow without immunizations, as they are simply not available or too expensive for families to afford. In Laos, for example, it is estimated that less than 20% of children are immunized.

Personal legal status is a very serious issue for EM and IP children all over Southeast Asia. In Thailand, for example, receiving birth registration is particularly difficult for indigenous and tribal peoples in the north of the country. It is estimated that around 500,000 people do not have citizenship in Thailand, despite having lived in the country for generations. Without citizenship, access to public services is limited and people are treated as foreigners in their homeland. Similarly, children of asylum seekers are locked detention centres like prisoners, their parents having come illegally from countries such as Laos and Cambodia in search of a better life. These children suffer for a decision that was not theirs.

Discrimination is prevalent for EMs and IPs in all Southeast Asian countries. From government policies that demote traditional practices to public attitudes that look down on EMs and IPs, discrimination causes untold damage to children. To grow up in an environment of discrimination leaves children with a lack of self confidence and self worth.

It is unacceptable that human rights are less accessible to EM and IP children than to the rest of the population. Changing this situation will require cooperation from all members of society, including governments, the private sector and the general public. This is necessary to promote human rights for all children, especially those who are born into disadvantaged communities.


1 United Nations, Universal Children’s Day website