Realizing Children’s Rights in Mexico
Mexico is among the 15 largest economies in the world and the second-largest economy in Latin America (World Bank, 2022). With a population of almost 129 million, it is one of the most densely populated Latin American countries, characterized by rich cultural history, diversity and abundant natural resources. In regard to children, those under the age of fifteen represent 26 percent of the total population (World Bank, 2020). Nevertheless, the focus on the rights and policies centered around children do not reflect this composition of the population and issues such as violence, malnutrition, and lack of access to education and health services pose a great threat to children.
Children’s Rights Index: 7,81 / 10
Orange level: Noticeable problems
Population: 129 million
Pop. ages 0-14: 26%
Life expectancy: 75 years
Under-5 mortality rate: 14‰
Mexico at a glance
Mexico is a country in the southern portion of North America neighboring the United States, Guatemala and Belize. Its population is composed of many ethnic groups, including indigenous American Indians (Amerindians), who account for less than one-tenth of the total, mestizos (62 percent) and others (31 percent) (Britannica, 2012). This wide range of ethnic groups contains a mosaic of complex ethnic traditions and strong ties with the land and with one another.
The Mexican economy is one of the most eminent in Latin America and it has grown rapidly since the 1970s. The country has a developing market economy that is strongly tied to the United States, with its major markets and sources of capital, even if the country’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) remains far below that of the United States (Britannica’s website). The Mexican economy depends largely on services which account for about two-thirds of its GDP. Manufacturing is responsible for about one-fifth of its GDP.
The agricultural sector represents a small component of GDP, even if nearly one-fifth of Mexican workers are employed in this sector. One of the strongest components is characterized by remittances from Mexican workers abroad, notably in the United States, which consequently bring billions of dollars into the economy each year (Britannica, 2022).
Today, the main challenges and threats for the children’s population are linked to extreme poverty which affect 44 percent of the total population (World Bank, 2020). Poverty is the main cause of problems in sanitation and access to water, malnutrition and access to health services, school dropouts and violence exposure. In fact, Mexico has the second highest number of children involved in high-intensity conflict zones (Stop the war on children, 2020), given the fact that the country is highly affected by drug trafficking, in addition to political, economic and social concerns.
Even though the country has been an electoral democracy since 2000, it suffers from severe rule of law deficits that limit full citizen enjoyment of political rights and civil liberties (Mexico’s country page in Freedom House Index, 2022). Violence perpetrated by organized criminals, corruption among government officials, human rights abuses (by both state and non-state actors), and rampant impunity are among the most significant challenges for the government of Mexico.
Considering the above elements, not all children in Mexico are able to enjoy all the rights enshrined in the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, and it is important to capture the current situation related to the main domains of child protection and children’s rights to ameliorate their living conditions and well-being.
Status of children’s rights 
A quarter (26 percent) of the Mexican population is composed of children, which amounts to approximately 33,310,119 citizens (World Bank, 2020). As mentioned previously, 44 percent of the total population lives in poverty and most of them are located in urban areas (81 percent vs 19 percent of people located in rural areas) (World Bank, 2020). Among them, 62 percent of the children population lives in urban areas, whereas 38 percent of them live in rural areas (INEGI, Encuesta Intercensal, 2015).
Poverty is the main cause behind the lack of access to health services, education, adequate nutrition and shelter, but it is additionally responsible for the perpetuation of harmful practices, such as child labour, early child marriage and pregnancy, and violence.
A study named SITAN, conducted in 2018, revealed a general improvement in children’s conditions compared to a decade ago, even if some goals are still far from being reached. Education, the right to adequate nutrition and clean water, and the rights to health represent some of the most urgent needs for Mexican children.
In addition to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (adopted by Mexico in 1990), the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs offer further indicators and goals to identify challenges and results in children’s rights and child protection. For instance, SDG1 focuses on the eradication of poverty, SDG2 targets the right to adequate nutrition, SDG3 is related to the right to health and wellbeing, and SDG4 is linked to the right to education. Also, SDG5 (gender equality) is crucial when it comes to the Mexican context, as well as the right to clean water and sanitation (SDG6) and the common goal of peace, justice and strong institutions (SDG16).
Addressing the needs of children
Right to education
The Mexican education system is organized into preschool, primary school and middle school. The former is optional and privately funded, and it is available for children starting at age three. Primary school is mandatory from age six to twelve, after which there is a middle school (also mandatory) for children aged twelve to fifteen. Mandatory schooling finishes with high school, after which attendance at a university is possible (The Mexican education system: An overview, 2017).
Social inequalities and gender gaps are two prominent drawbacks in Mexican classrooms. These ever-increasing gaps directly impact children’s participation and consequently, their ability to develop new skills, build on their social relations, and work towards their dreams and passions. The problem of low education participation rates was partly solved thanks to a government intervention in 2012 that made upper-secondary education compulsory for all children by 2020.
However, inadequate funding and administrative obstacles have thus far prevented universal implementation of this goal, particularly in marginalized rural regions and the Covid-19 pandemic has been an additional hindrance.
In fact, Mexico is among the few countries where schools remained completely closed for more than 250 days. According to a survey conducted by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography , at the end of 2020, over 1.5 million students aged 3-18 had not returned to school for the 2020/2021 year (UNICEF Country Report, 2021).
In spite of the social expenditure in Mexico growing significantly, social expenditure for children and adolescents as a proportion of this has fallen from 11.5% in 2019 to 10.2% in 2022. The budget allocations for the education sector were only increased by 1.9% in real terms from 2021 to 2022, and have not reflected the challenges and lessons learned during the pandemic or the promised investments in this sector.
Right to health
Rampant poverty is the main driver of the lack of access to adequate nutrition, education, health services, and shelter. In fact, 10 percent of children suffer from stunting due to malnutrition (Save the Children’s website), 14 children out of 1000 die before turning 5 (two times the U.S. rate) and about 8 percent of children are out of school (Global childhood report, 2020).
Moreover, violence against children and child trafficking are two of the main threats which hinder children’s rights. Amongst girls, 16 percent (ages 15-19) are married, and 1 in 17 gives birth (Los derechos de la infancia y de la adolescencia en México, 2018). In regard to child labour, 6 percent of children are involved and over 50 percent of children (ages 1-14) have experienced physical punishment and/or psychological aggression by caregivers (Los derechos de la infancia y de la adolescencia en México, 2018).
Moreover, according to UNICEF, 2.5 million are working children, 90 percent of whom perform work that is illegal because they are not old enough by law to work or are involved in hazardous tasks. One in four works to support their family economically and 351,113 children are forced to do housework instead of attending school (Children and the hotel industry in Mexico, 2017).
The direct effects of Covid-19 on children have imposed further challenges and threats. The mortality rate among children due to Covid-19 is 0.4 percent. Children have become even more vulnerable to its impacts, such as the decrease in household income, food insecurity and exacerbation of mental health issues. In fact, the poverty rate among children has increased from 50 percent in 2018 to nearly 53 percent in 2020 and extreme poverty increased by 1.9 percent in the same period. Violence, particularly against women and children, has continued at high rates (UNICEF Country Report, 2021).
Right to identity
The right to identity is essential for every human being: it guarantees a legal status, states the recognition of family and socio-cultural ties which characterize the individual and promotes the enjoyment of his/her rights. Moreover, birth registration documents are essential to promote and implement the right to family reunification in the case of migration processes. Identity documents and official registers may support public authorities to find the members of the family who are displaced and to help them to be reunited.
In Mexico, there is a significant number of “invisible” children, meaning the ones who are not recognized by Mexican law because their births are not recorded, especially those belonging to indigenous groups. To fight against this tendency, in the last ten years, the Mexican Government has taken several actions to promote birth registration and to overcome the difficulties of access to public identity registration services (Los derechos de la infancia y la adolescencia en Mexico, 2018).
In the context of migration flows, 2021 registered an increase in migration flows from and to the U.S. border. In February 2021, the US administration started to wind down the “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP) and 23,000 cases were expected to be processed, with 13,000 people finally able to cross to the US to process their asylum cases by August 2021. At the same time, Title 42 was implemented, allowing Covid-19 to justify the immediate expulsion from the US of over 1 million adults and 37 children.
Risk factors → Country-specific challenges
As mentioned before, poverty is the root cause of many other threats to children’s rights and child protection. It is directly linked to malnutrition and the lack of access to health facilities, but it is also the reason why child labour and child trafficking is still significant issue for the country. In Mexico, 44 percent of the total population lives in poverty and most of them are located in urban areas (81 percent vs 19 percent of people located in rural areas) (World Bank, 2020). Among them, 62 percent of the children population live in urban areas whereas 38 percent of them live in rural areas (INEGI, Encuesta Intercensal, 2015).
Indigenous communities are the ones that suffer from multidimensional poverty the most, because of their fragile living conditions, the discrimination which affects them, and their notable separation from the rest of the population. Indigenous children often see their most basic rights (right to education, health, nutrition, etc.), flouted. This in turn leads to serious consequences regarding their physical and psychological development. The rate of infant mortality, for example, is 60 times higher in indigenous communities than in non-indigenous communities.
Violence against children
Often living in poverty, Mexican children are vulnerable to violence both in the home and at school. According to UNICEF, over 50 percent of children (ages 1-14) have experienced physical punishment and/or psychological aggression by caregivers (Los derechos de la infancia y de la adolescencia en México, 2018).
Violence against children may assume different forms: abuse and neglect in the family, incest, sexual abuse, infanticide; bullying and other forms of violence in the school; corporal punishment; psychological aggression; child trafficking, sale of children, child sexual exploitation and other commercial sexual exploitation of children; child labour; various forms of cyber and online violence; recruitment as child soldiers, children recruited and exploited by terrorist and violent extremist groups, and many others (UNODC, 2019). Furthermore, street children also find themselves victims of violence at the hands of their employers or even traffickers who exploit them.
Early child marriages are very common in Mexico. It is estimated that over 16 percent of girls (ages 15-19) are married, and 1 in 17 gives birth (Los derechos de la infancia y de la adolescencia en México, 2018). Although the legal age for marriage in Mexico is 18, as it is in many other countries, young adults can marry before 18 with parental consent. Oftentimes, it is the parents who arrange the marriage without the consent of the young couple. In this sense, cultural traditions and economic considerations play a large role in the decision.
The consequences of early child marriage are serious for the young brides, in terms of health and well-being, psychosocial development, and future possibilities. They have little to no say in the arrangement and this does not empower them to work towards any dream they might nurture within themselves. This form of violence against children is one of the most difficult to tackle as part of its perpetration is based on a cultural basis which is difficult to identify and modify.
Written by Arianna Braga
Internally proofread by Aditi Partha
Last updated on 12 June 2022
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 This article by no means purports to give a full or representative account of children’s rights in Mexico; indeed, one of the many challenges is the scant updated information on Mexican children, much of which is unreliable, not representative, outdated or simply non-existent.