Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 344 | Marzo 2010



Children’s Rights: From Paper to Reality

The Ortega government gets mixed grades on children’s rights. There have been positive advances in education and health, but its passive acceptance of children’s subordination and its failure to recognize them as rights holders, participating with their own opinions, is another reflection of its authoritarianism.

Manfred Liebel

Twenty years have passed since the United Nations General Assembly unanimously approved the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) on November 20, 1989. From that time onwards, children have been gaining recognition of those rights: the right to be protected from discrimination, exploitation and abuse; the right to free quality education and health services; the right to associate, be listened to, and participate in all matters concerning them. And they also have the right to demand compliance with these rights, which we divide into rights related to protection, promotion and participation.

The CRC is a binding treaty on the level of international law. It commits the signatory States to adapt their legislation and administrative norms to the Convention’s mechanisms for guaranteeing the rights of the child. The CRC has intensified the global-level debate on these rights, generating initiatives and the introduction of legal measures that have improved children’s legal position. A large number of initiatives have also emerged to propagate the Convention, which has helped increase interest in and awareness of their rights among children themselves. But despite all this, there’s a wide gap between the rights set out on paper and actual compliance with them. And this is the case in Nicaragua.

Nicaragua ratified the Convention
in 1990 and NGOs flourished

The promulgation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in Nicaragua coincided with the electoral defeat of the Sandinista revolution in February 1990. In April of that year, a neoliberal government came to power under President Violeta Chamorro. It not only opted for a policy of economic deregulation, which resulted in the rapid growth of social inequalities, but also largely shunned responsibility for socially and educationally disadvantaged groups. To fill the gaps in social policy and respond to the notable increase in poverty, a large number of NGOs emerged in Nicaragua starting in the nineties, almost always with international support. Many focused their activities on children, generating different aid projects, some with a charity-based orientation and others taking up the impetus provided by the CRC to become child rights defenders.

Influenced by NGOs with a child rights approach, Nicaragua’s National Assembly ratified the Convention in 1990 and many initiatives subsequently emerged aimed at recognizing and implementing the rights contained in the CRC. To increase their collective power, various NGOs federated into the Nicaraguan Coordinator of Non-Governmental Organizations that Work with Children and Adolescents (CODENI) in 1992. At the same time, the autonomous Movement of Child and Adolescent Workers (NATRAS) was created with support from educators working with street children and some NGOs.

These and many other initiatives were all geared to working towards greater child participation and, in certain cases, children’s self-organization, for example in local radio projects or following the child-to-child approach to promote preventive health projects. In some municipalities, Municipal Child and Adolescent Councils (CMNAs) were created that, while lacking decision-making capacity, did manage to exert pressure, so they were occasionally consulted on certain matters.

Many new laws, but no plans or budget

In 1998, following a long consultation process in which boys and girls participated, the National Assembly promulgated the Legal Code for Children and Adolescents, which largely followed the CRC guidelines. Other laws related to the rights of the child were also promulgated, the most important of which were the General Education Law (2005), reforms to the Adoption Law (2007), the Responsible Paternity and Maternity Law (2007) and the new Penal Code (2008), which stipulates punishments for crimes against the physical and sexual integrity of children and adolescents.

CODENI has been calling for a new Family Legal Code—the current one dates back to 1904—and a new Civil Registry Law, to facilitate the civic registration process by adjusting it to the current socio-cultural and legal context, and to help eliminate the barriers that hinder thousands of Nicaraguan children and adolescents from fully exercising their right to a name and nationality. Thirty percent of Nicaraguan children are not officially registered and have no identity documents.

To promote the implementation of the new Legal Code, the National Council for the Comprehensive Care and Protection of Children and Adolescents (CONAPINA) was created in 2000, with the participation of delegates from child and youth groups. In the same year, the National Assembly created the Office of Special Ombudsperson for Children and Adolescents, as part of the Office of Human Rights Ombudsperson. And finally, in 2005, the rights of the child were incorporated into Nicaragua’s Constitution.

All of this demonstrates that, up until the start of the second government of Daniel Ortega in January 2007, many practical initiatives and legislative and institutional adjustments contributed to—or perhaps it’s better to say would have been able to contribute to—the fostering and implementation of the rights of the child. Unfortunately, all of those laws were left without concrete action plans or budgets. They thus couldn’t halt the ongoing massive violation of children’s rights from the nineties on resulting from the imposition of neoliberal economic and financial policies tailored to the interests of wealthy elites that worsened the poverty and hence the living and development conditions of most children. For example, the privatization of the education and health systems seriously compromised the future of those children living in more difficult situations.

What the Ortega government inherited in 2007

It must be added that Nicaragua’s population still has a very limited knowledge of the rights of the child. In fact, many people reject them as “something imported from outside” that undermines the rights of parents and other authorities and generates a lack of discipline and even delinquency.

In its 2009 report, the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) criticized the fact that even National Assembly representatives show virtually no interest in taking the Legal Code for Children and Adolescents seriously and continuing to develop it. Until Ortega took office, the budget for the Office of Human Rights Ombudsperson was between 0.09% and 0.17% of the national budget, so it depended almost entirely on international donations, which clearly illustrates the Nicaraguan State’s limited regard for its own institutions.

Given this situation, the Ortega government inherited many problems from its three predecessors. But it also inherited a very active and creative civil society, which had been tackling the consequences of neoliberal policies since the 1990s and had accumulated a lot experience in developing different initiatives to implement the rights of the child.

Is the Love Program just good intentions?

Nicaragua has one of the highest proportions of children among its total population in the world. In 2008, 50.6% of the population (2.9 million people) was under the age of 19. While the fertility figure was far higher in previous decades, each woman had an average of 3.2 children (4.4 in rural areas and 2.6 in urban ones). The annual demographic growth was 2.6%. During the same year, 56.7% of all children were living in poverty (24%) or extreme poverty (32.7%), with 27% suffering chronic malnutrition. Only 9% of children lived in totally satisfactory conditions.

Two of the most important tasks taken on by the Ortega government were the fights against poverty and for food security. To that end, it has launched various programs as part of the 2008-2012 National Human Development Plan. One of the most important is the Zero Hunger Program, which while not focused directly at children is aimed at the rural population and prioritizes improving women’s economic situation and social position.

The government program directly aimed at the child population is called the Love Program. Its objective is to support poor families in urban areas whose children work in the streets to contribute to the family budget. It was launched with great fanfare by First Lady Rosario Murillo in 2007 and is implemented by the Ministry of the Family. One of its basic goals is to ensure that the mothers have a “decent job” with sufficient income. It also intends to reactivate the Child Development Centers created in the eighties and totally abandoned by the three subsequent governments, to guarantee professional care for the children while their mothers are working. Another of the program’s goals is to get 20,000 children and adolescents being cared for by a network of 200 day-care centers in community arenas in the departmental capitals. There were also plans to organize 12,000 young people in brigades and train them to help these children with their schoolwork and in games, sports and cultural activities. But this hasn’t happened because not enough resources have been assigned to the program.

Criminizalizing child labor

According to a survey by CENIDH, the mothers targeted associate the Love Program with the round-ups of children working at traffic lights. Their most common answer was “Nobody has come here. The governments just promise but don’t comply; politicians just lie.” The mothers interviewed stated that the only thing they saw was some Family Ministry official turning up from time to time accompanied by the police. In fact, there were various police round-ups at the end of 2008, in which ministry officials did participate: “They come by threatening to take the kids away or saying they don’t want to see kids begging at the traffic lights, but they do nothing to keep our children from being exposed to the sun or rain, cleaning cars or begging money for a bit of bread.”

CENIDH doesn’t see the program doing anything to dignify children’s living conditions. Instead, it’s a form of “criminalizing” poverty and child labor. So far the government hasn’t established any kind of cooperation with all the NGOs that have accumulated so much experience working with street children since the nineties.

This program brings back memories of the Traffic Light Plan, preached with the same hoopla by Arnoldo Alemán in 1996, at the start of his mandate. That supposed fight against poverty consisted of temporarily whisking the poorest children out of the public view. With support from the NATRAS movement, I learned from the children working at the traffic lights that “What we want is for the police to protect us from aggressive drivers and for the municipal government to make bigger strips between the avenue lanes so the cars don’t run over our feet. We also want them to put umbrellas up to protect us from the sun and allow us to rest.”

Ortega is repeating the same policy

According to official statistics, over 600,000 children under the age of 15—approximately 23% of the population of that age—were working to support their family budget in 2008. While that figure may be uncertain, the more exact figure is undoubtedly high. Many of these children work in exploitative conditions, placing their health and schooling at risk. Many “invent” some form of work, such as filling in highway potholes or keeping an eye on parked cars for their drivers, because they and their families need income but don’t want to beg.

The Ortega government’s child labor policy is the same as that of its predecessors: it’s trying to control the problem by prohibiting child labor, without listening to what the children themselves have to say. The government doesn’t treat children as rights holders, nor does it take into consideration possible alternatives, such as creating legal and decent sources of income, improving the conditions of the work they do or promoting joint economic initiatives, such as exist in Venezuela and Bolivia.

Nor does the education policy address the problem of child workers, much less their experience, despite well-founded scientific studies in which even current Education Minister Miguel de Castilla participated when he was a lecturer at Managua’s Central American University. One of those studies, conducted by Rafael Lucio Gil in 2002, discusses the reorganization of the education system in rural regions, where almost all children help their families in the fields and at home, pointing out that “When children learn doing useful things, they feel themselves to be creators not only of knowledge, but also of objects and means that can help them change their quality of life and become teachers in their homes and in the community.”

One of the consequences of Nicaragua’s growing poverty is mass emigration. The Ortega government is also failing to offer new approaches to this problem. Approximately 10% of Nicaraguans live abroad out of economic necessity. In 2008 alone, 875,000 people left the country to seek work, most of them in Costa Rica. The lives of the children left behind in Nicaragua—known as the “orphans of migration”—experience drastic changes as they aren’t properly cared for and are exposed to many risks. Nobody seems to be interested in their lives and everyone is banking on the money sent home by the emigrants, as remittances are the only source of income for many families.

Advances in free school education

One of the first measures taken by Daniel Ortega’s government was to reestablish by presidential decree free primary and secondary school education, as established in the Constitution. The gradual privatization of the education and health systems was one of the big problems it inherited from the previous governments. At the World Bank’s suggestion, they had introduced school enrollment fees in the name of “school autonomy,” in addition to other “voluntary” contributions from the parents. This increased the rates of both school dropout and unschooled children.

Despite the change decreed by the new FSLN govern¬ment, there are still enormous challenges in the area of school education. A total of 40% of the population (2.35 million people) are of school age, which means that every year there should be enough new school places for one in every ten Nicaraguans. Although 500,000 children still remained outside the school system, particularly in rural regions and among families living in extreme poverty, 1.6 million children entered the public and private school system in 2008 thanks to the free schooling, including 100,000 who enrolled for the first time—a 7% increase over 2007. Furthermore, the dropout rate fell to 8% in 2007 and to 6% in 2008. By comparison, over 36% of children between the ages of 3 and 18 received no schooling from 2003 to 2006 and between 12% and 20% dropped out prematurely. It should be pointed out that, as in the past, children from indigenous and Afro-descendent minorities of the Caribbean Coast still see their right to education very restricted. A total of 25% of them don’t go to school and the implementation of the bilingual education programs that have existed for many years is still very deficient.

Another aspect that has contributed to these generally good results was the introduction of school lunches and the provision of free backpacks and exercise books, particularly in primary schools, although the government often gives them out as an act of charity. The requirement to wear a school uniform has also been relaxed and in some cases uniforms have actually been provided.

What’s lacking and what’s been lost

A particularly serious issue is that the levels of violence against children in the country’s schools are still very high. Teachers use different methods of punishment to maintain discipline. Students mention getting hit with rulers on different parts of the body, having their ears pulled, having to kneel in front of the blackboard, being placed in a corner, standing up in the middle of the classroom, or having to stand in the sun for hours. Sometimes they are denied recess, thus depriving them of the right to play, or they aren’t allowed to go to the bathroom. One survey conducted in 2006 in 85 schools revealed that all the children had been hit or humiliated.

Although many things have improved, the schools are still badly equipped. The education budget has been cut three times since Daniel Ortega took power, as a result of both the world economic crisis and cuts in international cooperation following the fraud committed in the 2008 municipal elections.

Mid-2008 saw the conclusion of a curricular reform and the introduction of new school textbooks. The curricular plans are now more demanding, but not much more consistent with children’s actual lives or their specific conditions and needs. At least a second language, computer studies and the teaching of certain trades were planned for introduction starting last year.

The education policy is still far from the programs of the revolutionary eighties, such as the Rural Education-Work School project, which had to be abandoned as a result of the war and the economic blockade imposed by the Reagan-Bush governments. That project integrated agricultural work into the curriculum of rural primary schools in such a way as to make children’s autonomy a very important part of the learning process. The idea was to create a dynamic relationship between school and the community in order to integrate the pupils into tasks that were useful for society and would help develop their community. The children could take the produce they had harvested home or sell it at cost in the community. The parents also got to try the produce at school. This concept significantly helped improve the precarious food situation in many communities, as well as improving the children’s learning.

Advances in public health,
but increased violence

The government has also made major efforts in the area of preventive health. Immediately after taking office, it reintroduced free health care in public hospitals and in three years has created, remodeled or re-equipped many rural health centers. It’s still not possible to say to what extent this benefits children. It is a fact, however, that the social class structure in health care—first- and second-class medical care—still hasn’t been touched, just as the government hasn’t altered the unequal distribution of land and property. Medicines and medical insurance are thus still out of many people’s reach.

Another enormous problem with public health conse¬quences is violence against children, particularly sexual violence against girls. Some 95% of sexual abuse cases occur within the family. The UN Population Fund estimates that 1,400 girls under the age of 13 became pregnant in 2008 as a result of rape, particularly in rural areas. In a study by the NGO Save the Children, 54% of the children interviewed said they had suffered acts of violence within their family at least once and 14% said they had been the victim of sexual abuse, a situation fueled by the machismo that dominates gender relations in Nicaragua and the authoritarianism towards children displayed by grownups. Bearing all this in mind, the abolition of the right to therapeutic abortion is fatal. The FSLN’s legislative vote sealed the criminalization of therapeutic abortion to ensure the Catholic Church’s support during the 2006 elections.

Countering such daily violence will require a cultural revolution that modifies the relations between grownups and young people and between men and women, engender¬ing mutual respect and recognition of the diversity and rights of all. And although a few very humble attempts were made to get this off the ground during the eighties, the current government’s authoritarianism and disrespect for citizens’ civil rights have ended up undermining and annulling whatever survived of them.

Child prostitution

The Ortega government is focusing above all on what is termed “child prostitution,” a reality that is explicitly condemned. But child prostitution isn’t just the work of criminal bands that earn a lot of money trafficking in people, as pointed out by Special Ombudsperson for Children and Adolescents, Norma Moreno: “Many girls ‘disappear’ to then appear in illegal brothels.”

Above all, prostitution is the fruit of poverty and the search for “alternative” sources of income. Together with the Police Stations for Women and Children—created in response to pressure from the women’s movement—the Ombudsperson’s Office is waging a specific fight against the trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of children. The activities, however, are largely limited to public campaigns to generate a feeling of outrage about this situation and demand more police action. No child protection strategies are directly aimed at raising awareness among and strengthening affected children and adolescents.

And the right to participation?

And what about children’s right to participation? The Ortega government has no proactive policy on this issue. In its Fourth Report on the Situation of the Rights of Children and Adolescents, prepared for the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, the right to participation didn’t even fill a single page of the 106-page document. The report only refers to existing laws and says that “the cultural, artistic, religious and historical values relevant to the social context of children and adolescents are respected” in the education system.

Different approaches emerged from civil society to promote children’s participation and self-management in the early 1980s, with the triumph of the Sandinista revolution, and subsequently during the nineties. Some grew out of the concepts of popular education and others from street education, but none have been taken back up. The Municipal Child and Adolescent Councils have disappeared, and in 2007 the government dissolved the National Council for the Comprehensive Care and Protection of Children and Adolescents (CONAPINA) without a word.

The Ortega government talks a lot about “direct democracy” and brags about fostering “citizens’ power,” but in practice its authoritarianism restricts the population’s freedom, stripping such declarations of any credibility. The government doesn’t take child and adolescent movements and initiatives seriously, let alone foster them, unless they can be manipulated in favor of its own interests, as has already happened more than once with the youth gangs. At certain moments, the government has armed such gangs and used them to repress opposition demonstrations, later presenting them as the “revolutionary vanguard.” This destroyed the joint efforts over many years by the Police and a number of NGOs, with the participation of the youth gang members themselves, to find nonviolent solutions to their problems.

An initial balance sheet

With all this the Ortega government has an ambiguous balance sheet with respect to the rights of the child. On the one hand, it has recognized that poverty—tacitly tolerated and even provoked by the policies of the previous three governments—is a serious and central problem. It has also taken seriously the rights to education and health, fostering them with concrete and positive measures, although these are often cancelled out by clientelist practices, repression, human rights violations and misogynist propaganda.

To guarantee compliance with human rights, the state entities must be the first to respect them and this implies having an autonomous and independent judicial system. In Nicaragua, the steps taken so far to create this condition have been incipient at best and immediately wiped out by the omnipresent corruption.

Instead of fostering critical awareness and working toward the emancipation of children and adolescents, the Ortega government has instead given out presents and created new dependencies. Accepting and tolerating children’s subordination—without trying to tackle it—and disregarding their opinions is another reflection of its authoritarianism. Children aren’t recognized as rights holders who can exercise those rights by themselves. The rights of the child aren’t a priority for the Ortega government, other than in a propagandistic, instrumentalizing sense. The understanding of the rights of the child—if there is any at all—is limited to a paternalistic interpretation. 

Manfred Liebel is a sociologist and educator who advises child and adolescent workers’ movements in Latin America.

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