The Hong Kong government has formed the Commission on Children on 1 June 2018 after continuous advocacy from the civil society for over two decades. In its Terms of Reference, the Commission “envisions to ensure that Hong Kong is a place where all children’s rights, interests and well-being are respected and safeguarded, their voices are heard, and where all children enjoy healthy and happy growth and optimal development so as to achieve their fullest potentials.”
In order to achieve this, the Commission will
- develop policies, set strategies and priorities related to the development and advancement of children, and oversee their implementation;
- enhance and monitor integration and rationalisation of children-related policies and initiatives under different bureaus/departments and with advisory bodies;
- review children-related services by the Government and non-governmental organisations, foster cross-sector collaboration, and identify areas for better integration and improvement;
- promote and promulgate children’s rights as articulated in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and engage with children on matters that affect them;
- manage funding schemes for promotional and public educational projects which should have children’s and stakeholders’ participation, and organise other promotional activities; and
- develop a framework with indicators to monitor and evaluate the extent to which the vision is achieved.
This Child Rights Review comes as a timely investigation. In this Review, we attempt to explore the meaning of child’s well-being and demonstrate the existing gaps now in Hong Kong. We hope this Child Rights Review could serve as a good reference for the Commission on Children in steering the policies and plans for the good of every child in our city. In this review, we would also refer to the good practices and tools from overseas on how child well-being could be practically measured.
A common reaction to overseas examples is: “This is not Hong Kong, we cannot do this”. Or: “This is not Hong Kong, it is not directly applicable on our situation”. While it is true that we cannot directly copy and paste the foreign model to local situation, there is still a lot that we can learn. For example, from our analysis, we can see that both Australia and the United Kingdom take a holistic view of child well-being and base their analysis and policy decision-making on evidence and research. We can see that the government of both countries facilitate the cooperation of different stakeholders so that they can enhance child well-being in their own setting. We can also see that throughout this entire process, all child-related professionals and children are informed. Australia for example has one-stop portals that allow parents, teachers and different stakeholders to access information they need easily. In the UK, they have also developed child-friendly materials to let children know what the government policies mean to them. These are undoubtedly things that could be done in Hong Kong and could improve the well-being of children in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, we might face different problems such as student suicide and child abuse, however, there is no excuse for us to not do anything. It is crucial for government and child-related professionals to start taking a holistic approach on child well-being and to ACT NOW.
Why Child Well-Being Matters
Most people, including the government, would not hesitate to say that child well-being is important. But do we truly think in terms of child well-being? Does it orient the way policy makers think when they design and evaluate policies and services? This question is important, because if it doesn’t when many claim that it does, this inconsistency may imply that there is a system gap/failure that hampers the effectiveness of our child-related policies and prevents us from solving many of the burning child-related issues in Hong Kong.
Budget research is important in answering this question, because the way key child-related government bureaus and departments spend money on children reflects the true priorities of our child-related policies and whether these policies can take care of the different aspects of child well-being.
Child-Related Policies in Hong Kong Are Fragmented and Problem-Driven
Hong Kong does not have a unified policy for children. Policy-making and evaluation in the area of children is fragmented in Hong Kong and is driven primarily by specific problems rather than the vision to improve the well-being of children as a whole. Often times, remedial measures would only be taken when the problem has become visible. However, by the time when a problem has become visible, it may already be too late. Without a clear and holistic Child Policy and assessment of children’s well-being in Hong Kong, it is unrealistic to expect that government policies are adequate in addressing the needs of all children in Hong Kong.
In this information saturated world, there are too many issues that catch our attention, so in the end, only the most dramatic stories would stand out easily. Therefore, it would be very easy for society to focus on specific issues and for the government to respond to their concerns leaving the whole child well-being picture untouched of. Very often, the imminent needs of marginalized children would fail to capture media and public attention and would easily be neglected and fallen into system gaps as a result. Nonetheless, it is only by considering child well-being as a whole could our policies and services truly satisfy the needs of all children.
From a Problem-Driven to a Value-Driven Approach
Not only can the consideration of child well-being ensure that our policy can take care of the specific needs of every child in Hong Kong, focusing on the well-being of children instead of the problems they face is in fact a trend in the academic field. “The work of psychologists is moving from an emphasis upon the troubles, the anxieties, the sickness of people, to an interest in how we acquire positive qualities, and how social influences contribute to perceptions of well-being, personal effectiveness and even joy.” (Kelly, quoted in McAuley 23).
This is especially true for children as they are still growing with unlimited possibilities: “The optimism about growth and development has permeated research on children’s development and well-being. There is a growing understanding that children can change their behavior of adversity, including the impact of rejection, separation and loss, provided they have subsequent experiences that help to build their resilience.” (Schaffer, quoted in McAuley 24). It is therefore time for policy makers and advocates to recognize the potentials and well-being of children in addition to the problems they face.
A Government that Focuses on Child Well-Being is a Government that Makes a Good Investment
From the above analysis therefore, it is evident that the government should consider comprehensively the well-being and needs of children in its policies. In fact, a government that focuses on child well-being is a government that makes a good investment. If a government spends money on children, the effect of that amount of money would snowball to the next generation and even further. As elaborated by the scholar Ben-Arieh, the central purpose of paying attention to child well-being is to make an investment in the future, in the “well-becoming” of children (Ben-Arieh, quoted in McAuley 21). Renowned scholar James J. Heckman repeatedly proved the importance of early childhood and the support to at-risk children is an effective strategy for reducing social costs (Heckman, 2017). The UNICEF Innocenti Research Center even asserts that “the true measure of a nation’s standing is how well it attends to its children – their health and safety, their material security, their education and socialization, and their sense of being loved, valued, and included in the families and societies into which they are born” (UNICEF, quoted in McAuley 23). This shows that children’s health is a nation’s wealth. Child well-being matters because it is what a sound government that has a vision for the future should invest in.
Hong Kong is Obliged to Invest on Children
In fact, not only do we have a good reason to invest on children, we are also obliged to do so. Since the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) has come into effect in Hong Kong since 1994, our government has the obligation to build a society that respects the rights of children. It should consider the Best Interest of the Child and listen to the voice of children when making and implementing policies related to them.
Recommendation: Value-Driven Policy-Making with Clear Standards and Frameworks
In recent years, more and more children under the age of 18 are suffering from mental health and emotional problems in Hong Kong. Many even resorted to suicide which has greatly shaken the society. On the other hand, the needs of marginalized children, such as the children with disabilities, children with special needs, ethnic minorities, and those living in low income families, continue to be a matter of concern in our society. As the Hong Kong government has announced the formation of Commission on Children on 1 June 2018, we hope that the Commission would place child well-being and the best Interest of the child at the center of policy-making and government budgeting so as to truly reflect the needs of the 1.1 million children under the age of 18 in Hong Kong.
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