The rights of the child, although being among the most essential of human principles, are also the most frequently disregarded and deep concern has been expressed about the increasing number of violations of human rights of youth in some important sectors. One of the main reasons for this is that the ability of parents to nurture the child has been weakened. Social upheavals and economic crises have undermined family structure and brought under pressure the primary responsibilities of parents, causing the dilution of traditional sustenance and support for millions of children. There are many - orphans, refugees, abandoned children, the offspring of broken homes - who are not protected at all by the family or the community. Other suffer from physical malnutrition; tragically, in some countries food and medical care are sometimes used as an instrument of political pressure.
General human rights provisions of constitutional or statutory law are, as a rule, not specifically made applicable to children. Also youth is the sole component of society which is deprived of any direct representation of its own interests. A social policy for youth is necessarily a "filtered" policy, an asymmetric one, in which there is no dialectical confrontation between the concerned parties. Some legal disabilities and sanctions imposed by municipal law on children are not justifiable in terms of child protection, whatever the intent behind them, but amount to repressive and unfair treatment of children collectively. This differential treatment of children as a class is tantamount to discrimination against them on the ground of non-age. The administration of justice in the case of young offenders is very important for the full enjoyment of youth of the right to life. Recourse to detention for an indefinite period, sometimes adopted even for unusual behaviour not involving any breach of the penal law, is today considered contrary to human rights.
Perhaps more prevalent than discrimination against children as a whole is discrimination against particular groups of children. There is the practice of differentiating between the sexes for purposes of the minimum age for marriage and similar gender discrimination with regard to access to education opportunities. The law in some countries favours male children for inheritance purposes. Discrimination on account of birth status (whether born within or out of wedlock) is still widespread and covers such matters as legal rights to inheritance and maintenance, as well as pension, insurance, and welfare benefits. Adopted children still encounter similar problems.
At least 40 million young people around the world have no possibility to enjoy their right to freedom of opinion and expression; at least 30 million young people face serious difficulties in the exercise of their right to freedom of though, conscience and religion and at least 90 million young people have no possibility to enjoy their right to freedom of association. At least 70 million young people are confronted with extraordinary obstacles and difficulties in the exercise of their right to leave and to return to their country. In the 20 years preceding 1988, it has been estimated that there were at least 950,000 young victims of summary executions or enforced or involuntary disappearances, usually disproportionate because young people are very courageous and much more decided to fight for liberty. In the 10 years preceding 1988, at least 3 million young people were victims of wars or other military conflicts; and at least 49.5 million died of hunger, most of them in Africa and the least developed countries. In some countries, one young person in four is illiterate, and the absolute numbers of illiterate have risen to 818 million in 1988, as against 742 million in 1970 -- some 76 million more illiterate children in the world during the course of almost two decades.
In several countries governed by tyrannic dictatorial political regimes, the officially promoted thesis is that anyone who dares to have his own opinions and to express them commits a political crime, deserving severe punishment. Many young people are astonished and bewildered by the fact that entire nations have been deprived for so long of freedom of thought; how was it, how is it still possible, they ask, that dogma which deserves only derision is enshrined in bound volumes and that thousands of people are obliged to learn it by heart. How has it come about that millions of people think one thing but say something altogether different. What can justify calling those who try to speak the truth criminals or mentally disturbed and isolating them behind bars from the rest of the world ? Seeing what happened to those who dared to have their own opinion and to express them, seeing them subjected to heavy punishment together with their families, many young people opt for survival, even if that means giving up their integrity, giving up the truth and justice. This also explains why many young people are no longer accustomed to using their own heads, to think on their own and to express their views.