UNICEF and other child rights organizations* have a long history of partnering with religious communities of all faiths on a wide range of issues that affect children. Religious communities are uniquely positioned to promote equitable outcomes for the most vulnerable children and families. Their moral influence and extensive networks give them access to the most disenfranchised and deprived groups, those that international organizations and governments are sometimes less able to reach effectively. They are also grounded in philosophical frameworks that shape their call to community service into long-term commitments to achieving peace, justice and social equality.
Several key elements of the Convention on the Rights of the Child – the most widely ratified and comprehensive legal instrument for the protection of child rights – reflect values shared with the world’s major religious traditions. These include:
• A fundamental belief in the dignity of the child.
• An emphasis on the family as the best place for bringing up children.
• High priority given to children and the idea that all members of society have rights and duties towards them.
• A holistic notion of the child and a comprehensive understanding of his or her physical, emotional, social and spiritual needs.
Aside from the potential benefits that religious actors bring to partnerships, spirituality and religion can have a profound influence on children’s development and socialization and have the potential to reinforce protective influences and promote resilience. The beliefs, practices, social networks and resources of religion can instil hope, give meaning to difficult experiences and provide emotional, physical and spiritual support. Impact can be far-reaching when child rights efforts are grounded in the protective aspects of religious beliefs and practices in a community.
In spite of the positive roles religious communities can play, it is important to acknowledge there are sometimes concerns about working in partnership with these groups. Although the fundamental values of all the major religious traditions uphold the dignity and right to well-being of children, some beliefs, attitudes and practices associated with religions promote or condone violence and discrimination against children. Whether these are actual religious tenets, or religion is misused to justify harmful beliefs and practices, they can violate a child’s physical, emotional and spiritual integrity. There may also be apprehensions that faith-based organizations will pressure aid recipients to convert or only provide aid to those with similar religious views.
* In this guide the term ‘child rights organizations’ refers to non-religiously affiliated NGOs and networks. Child rights organizations that are affiliated with religions are included here under the term ‘faith-based organizations