Role of family and State
The family is recognised as playing a unique and vital role in the lives of children. These national laws all reflect the UN Convention views that the family is the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of its members.
However, the family can only fulfil their role if the government creates the necessary environment for the protection of children’s rights. For example, while parents have the primary responsibility for ensuring the health of their children, they can only do this if the government fulfils its responsibilities to provide access to health care, clean water, sanitation and housing. Such assistance may include, for example, free health care for children under five years of age, or cash transfers to vulnerable families including those with disabilities.
The aim is to strengthen families’ capacities to take care of their children. Parents, for their part, must then respect their child’s right to health by complying with the law.
Activity 2.2: Balancing the rights of the child with the rights of the parents
Read the following case study.
Baby John was only six months old when he developed a very high fever. However, the parents, being strict followers of a church that emphasised faith healing, would not take him to hospital. They said that their faith in God would heal the baby and, even if he died, that would be the will of God. The authorities forcibly removed the baby and took him to the hospital because the parents insisted that they would not give the baby any medicine even if they were jailed. The parents were later prosecuted in a court of law for denying the child his right to health.
Now answer the questions below.
- Look again at your UN Convention resource. What rights does baby John have that are relevant in this story?
- What does this case study tell you about the responsibilities of the parents and the State for the rights of the child?
- Do you think the balance between the rights of the parents and the rights of the baby were dealt with appropriately? Explain why you answered the way you did. If you are working in a group discuss this question.
- Rights that are of relevance to this case study are:
- The right to life
- The right to optimum development
- The right to the best interests of the child being a primary consideration
- The right to the best possible health
- The right not to be harmed by traditional practices prejudicial to a child’s health.
- Although parents do have primary rights and responsibilities in relation to the care of their children, these rights are not absolute. They apply only for as long as the parents are acting in the best interests of their child and not placing them in situations where their health and well-being are at risk. If the parents’ actions are leading to neglect or serious harm to the child, then the government has a duty to intervene to protect the child and override the rights of the parents.
- This story involves a balance between the rights of the parents and the rights of their child. Clearly, parents have the right to determine when their child needs medical treatment and to give or to refuse consent to that treatment on behalf of a child, at least until the child is competent to exercise that right for herself or himself.
However, if the exercise of parental rights is likely to lead to the death or the serious ill-health of that child, then the right of the child to life and to the best possible health must override the parental rights. Again, the best interests principle must apply.
It seems clear that in this story the local authorities were correct in using the law to prioritise the rights of the child. Failure to have done so could have led to the child’s death. Although the parents are entitled to their own beliefs, they do not have the right to impose those beliefs on the child if doing so will result in harm.