Child rights and Islam

Interpreting, and applying, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is complicated. There are international organisations whose mandate is to interpret the meaning of children’s rights and monitor the Convention’s application in individual countries. However, the norms and standards set by international bodies are also debated by national government officials, civil society activists and intellectuals.

Religious leaders often play a pivotal part in this process. They have a strong influence in many societies and guide the thinking and action of millions of believers. They possess the moral authority to influence social opinions and behaviour especially in regard to marriage, family life and education. This is true not only for a country like the Islamic Republic of Iran, where since 1979 religion has become the political foundation of the state, but also in societies where state and religion have been separated.

It is important for the worldwide application of child rights to foster deeper understanding about them and Islam. UNICEF has entered into dialogue with Islamic scholars by highlighting congruencies between Islam and international standards. This dialogue started before the adoption of the CRC in 1989. In 1985 a study was undertaken by Al Azhar University in Cairo on child care in Islam. In 2005 a joint report by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO) and UNICEF underlined common goals in realising children’s rights. The focus of these studies was mainly on social rights, leaving aside the more controversial areas of civil and political rights.

In Iran now, UNICEF is collaborating with Mofid University in Qom in a comprehensive research project: the analysis of the different articles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child from an Islamic perspective. The research is based on the Koran, relevant hadiths, fatwas and other religious and scientific sources and aims at generating and contributing to a comprehensive body of theological guidance and interpretation for Islamic researchers and academics on child rights.

It is not only important that Muslim religious leaders increase their understanding of international child rights standards. The non-Islamic world needs to benefit more from Islamic thinking on this matter. Therefore we must make the most of opportunities for international dialogue between Islamic and non-Islamic, religious and non-religious thinkers, researchers and practitioners on child rights and on the more difficult issue of women’s right.

A greater engagement of Islamic thinkers and researchers with child rights is overdue as Western legal experts and academics have largely dominated international interpretations of human rights norms. There is also rich Islamic thinking on matters related to child rights and social justice which can help to advance the realisation of social rights of children in many countries of the world. International human rights institutions therefore should maximise opportunities for dialogue on children’s and women’s rights. In my experience there is a space for such a dialogue between child rights advocates and Islamic leaders. The common ground for improving the situation of children is much larger than the areas where differences exist.