Realizing Children’s Rights in Uruguay
Children of Uruguay are still not fully aware of their rights, despite significant efforts from the government to improve the lives of children over the past two decades. The children persist to struggle with not only a lack of information, but also some of the highest incarceration rates in Latin America, domestic and gender violence, as well as life steeped in poverty that pushes them to earn an income. (United Nations, 2020)
Children’s Rights Index: 8,80 / 10
Yellow level: Satisfactory situation
Population: 3.4 million
Pop. ages 0-14: 20.34 %
Life expectancy: 78 years
Under-5 mortality rate: 7.8 ‰
Uruguay at a glance
Uruguay is situated in the south of Latin America, bordering Brazil in the north and Argentina in the west. The Atlantic Ocean coast on the east draws tourists from across the world, as a result of its beautiful wild beaches. Nearly half of the population lives in the capital Montevideo. More than 40% of citizens declare as Roman Catholics, followed by 11% of Christians and 0.5% of Jews. A pleasant subtropical climate leads to warm summers and mild winters with steady rainfall. (World Data, n.d.)
National parks and wildlife reserves are spread across the country with animals such as venomous snakes and insects forming a part of Uruguay’s rich flora and fauna. Uruguay has a strong agricultural presence, but like every country, was still not immune to the financial crisis caused by Covid-19. The authorities are still doing their best to protect the most vulnerable ones, namely children and the elderly. On the other hand, the challenges in society regarding discrimination based on sex, age, and race remain some of the glaring issues. (The World Bank, 2022)
Unlike in other Latin American countries, instances of extreme poverty are quite rare. More than 60% of the population in the country belongs to the middle class, which paves the path for equality. South America’s second smallest country is mostly inhabited by Spanish and Italian immigrants.
Considering the country was occupied by Spanish, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the official language is Uruguayan Spanish. The country went through a series of political instabilities and fights for independence that eventually led them to victory and the first constitution in the XIX century. (National Geographic Kids, n.d.)
Status of children’s rights 
Although the children population in Uruguay is slowly declining, the government took the necessary steps to protect the youth under the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990. A study conducted in 1994 showed how most of the children in the country grow up with basic household essentials, including those from rural areas. (United Nations, 1995) Authorities in Uruguay use a framework from 1934 under a Children Code, which clearly indicates that “the best interests of the child must guide all the practical measures and legal procedures affecting children.” (United Nations, 1995)
In 2008 Uruguay ratified the agreement to include a more enhanced framework that would serve to boost inclusive education and help children with disabilities attend school. Teachers, psychologists, and educators systematically attend workshops and training to improve their technical skills. New textbooks are rolled out to thousands of students to help support their learning styles. This way, all students are given access to a curriculum and education, which helps them achieve both academic success as well as build self-confidence. (UNICEF, 2022)
According to the UN Committee, Afro-Uruguayan children face racial discrimination in the country. It has been observed that most of these children have very limited chances to enroll in college after secondary school. The dropout rates are also significantly higher compared to other ethnic groups. Most of the students live in the poorest neighborhood, which is why they are oftentimes marginalized and stigmatized.
“The Committee is also concerned about the disproportionate vulnerability to poverty of women, persons of African descent and children, particularly those under 6 years of age.”– CRIN, 2013
Uruguay ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2009, however, both children and adults lack access to health services. Humanitarian organizations propose that the country adopts methods to educate the public on the importance of inclusive societies. Uruguay is also notorious for numerous instances of fathers officially refusing to take care of their children, which in turn leaves women and children on their own, which by itself is a social stigma in the country. (CRIN, 2013)
Addressing the needs of children
Both indigenous and black children in Uruguay face are facing a myriad of difficulties in the educational system. According to the data, these students are more likely to leave school due to various reasons. Some of them will have to start working young to help their families, while others fall victim to discrimination and harsher punishments.
Girls are also dropping out of school to become mothers, which might be dangerous and detrimental to their reproductive health at their sensitive age. In order to progress and improve the status of children in school, the country should tutor society on the benefits of education. (CRIN, 2013)
Most families in rural areas are not financially stable, and they also often lack access to basic needs. Poverty combined with unsanitary school conditions makes the situation worse. The authorities are working on initiatives that will draw the children back to school, where they will learn about the dangers of teenage pregnancy, and avoid engaging in child labor activities. (CRIN, 2013) On the bright side, almost 98% of children in Uruguay complete primary education, whilst 44% proceed to graduate from high school. (United Nations, 2020)
Even though attending elementary school is free and accessible to most all children, the learning poverty results still show the low quality of education. It is estimated that 44% of children finish primary school without the ability to read and write. The learning crisis is ought to have negative consequences on the country’s ability to build human capital.
Luckily, it is still not too late to take action, as the “learning Poverty in Uruguay is 8,6% points lower than the average for the Latin America and Caribbean region.” However, Uruguay still falls 28,5% points behind the average for high-income countries. (The World Bank, 2022)
Children in conflict with the law, children with disabilities, and child trafficking victims do enroll in special programs that teach them not only school subjects, but also communication and real-life skills, such as cooking, and growing their food. Due to the presence of support projects in the neighborhood, these children stand a better chance of breaking a vicious circle by acquiring new skills at an early age. (World Council of Churches, 2018) Some non-governmental organizations in Uruguay offer working positions and internships for children from these areas. By transforming their living conditions, the foundations hope to promote life-changing opportunities for children.
Instances of teenage pregnancies are on the rise, as most girls in rural areas tend to marry before they turn eighteen. The country doesn’t have educational frameworks in place to teach the youth about the negative consequences of early marriage and parenthood. This unhealthy practice directly correlates with a high number of school dropouts. This is why the government should introduce scholarships and encourage young girls to pursue education and better career opportunities. (CRIN, 2013)
Children in high school are in greater danger of succumbing to drug and alcohol addiction. Instead of seeking help from friends, family, or specialists, some of these students slip into depression and commit suicide.
“In 2019 there were 34 suicides among adolescents.”– United Nations, 2020
Additionally, teenagers who suffer from mental health issues do not have the means to seek assistance, simply because there is no division in the health system ready to help patients their age and profile. It is important for Uruguay to prevent and protect young students through adequate and personalized health support.
Although the country doesn’t struggle with large numbers of AIDS/HIV patients, there has been a steady increase in new cases. Street children and young drug addicts are most likely to contract the virus. Orphans who lost their parents due to the disease are not only discriminated against but also have a higher chance of living a life in extreme poverty. Children who beg or work in the streets should receive help and support from social services and humanitarian organizations. It is crucial for their physical and mental health to have access to sanitized households and schools. (SOS Children’s Villages, n.d.)
Right to protection
Women and children in society suffer from various forms of discrimination and have limited access to health and education services, especially in poor areas. There is no effective procedure in place for victims of violence, nor are there enough shelters for them to stay in. To make matters worse, girls with disabilities are commonly mistreated and subjected to sexual exploitation. It is additionally likely that the perpetrators will get away with the crime, as the local police don’t do a good job of investigating and punishing culprits. (CRIN, 2013)
Racism in schools is directed at particular groups that consist of Uruguayan children of African descent. Most of the population in the country comes from Africa, Europe, and indigenous tribes. The Africans were brought to Uruguay during the slave period in the XVIII and XIX centuries. Europeans followed in after slavery was abolished, and they now form a majority among the three. It is also important to note that within the education system, children are often taught from a perspective that favors white children. (Bucheli M, 2018)
Public policies have proven to be a successful way to combat racism, but the problem didn’t go away just yet. Economic prosperity and stability entice people to become more inclusive and understanding. Latin America is struggling to maintain a high standard of living, and many countries in the region haven’t even reached that stage yet. (Bucheli M, 2018) Uruguay is outlining a national plan to encourage inclusive and non-discriminatory education for all, as Afrodescendant children still have lower graduation rates and higher school dropout quotas. (United Nations, 2020)
Risk factors -> Country-specific challenges
Uruguay is considered one of the most developed countries in South America, with a strong democratic system and fairly distributed wealth. In spite of its success, child poverty and poor infrastructure remain a reality. About 10% of the population, children included, live in poverty in what used to be known as the “the Switzerland of Latin America.” (SOS Children’s Villages, n.d.)
According to the government’s reports, after the Covid-19 pandemic, an additional 772 children and their families lost their homes. Some of them ended up in family shelters, and others had no option but to live on the streets. Even during the pandemic in 2021, there were fewer children without the roof over their heads. This increased rate of poverty in the country creates the most negative influence on the youngest generation, particularly children under the age of six. (Martin R. A, 2022)
“In 2020, a child aged 0–5 was nine times more likely to live in a household living below the poverty line than a person over 65.”– UNICEF, 2021
The overall situation was worsened not only by the pandemic but also by an influx of refugees from neighboring countries. The government has put the focus on helping the children in the capital as well as in the region bordering Brazil, as the data shows that most families live below the poverty lines in these specific areas. The authorities are committed to protecting both Uruguayan and immigrant children through fair housing and other valuable initiatives that are yet to be realized in the future. (UNICEF, 2021)
Similar to Brazil, thousands of children in Uruguay live in slums. Most of these households don’t have access to clean water, electricity, or hygiene services. Families survive working on recycling garbage and selling paper and plastics.
Most children drop out of school as they can’t seem to blend into societal norms. Instead, they can only rely on the help of the local psychologists and educators who try to improvise a healthy school atmosphere through classes and workshops. To make matters worse, gang and domestic violence form a large part of children’s everyday lives. (World Council of Churches, 2018)
The government in Uruguay failed to implement the consensus solution to child labor. There are no laws in place that protect children who are oftentimes forced to work in order to make ends meet. The mounting number of child workers stems from many roots. Many of them are involuntarily involved in human and drug trafficking activities, as well as sexual exploitation. The victims usually fall prey in the tourist areas, or near the borders with other countries. Unhygienic conditions in which the children find themselves often cause health problems, leading to further discrimination and higher drop-out rates from school.
“In Uruguay, more than 60 percent of employed children ages 15–17 are engaged in hazardous work, with approximately 20,000 children working with their parents in collecting and sorting garbage.”– U.S. Department of Labor, 2017
“The Children’s Code sets the minimum age for employment at 15 years, and at 18 years for hazardous work.”– Bureau of International Labor Affairs, 2016
Hazardous work refers to the type of labor that is known to be difficult, dirty, and dangerous. These types of engagements are prohibited by law because children’s mental and physical health is put in danger. The perpetrators are required to either pay hefty fines or go to prison. Parents who subject their children to labor risk having their children taken away by social services. (Bureau of International Labor Affairs, 2016)
Numerous initiatives were launched in 2016 with the aim of protecting children against child labor and raising awareness. The government drafted measures to tackle cases of child violence and harassment. The law enforcement agencies came up with action plans to help keep children in school and educate the families about juvenile health. In 2016, Brazil and Uruguay strengthened their cooperation to supervise illegal activities that frequently pass under the radar on the borders. Tourism industry workers were likewise encouraged to report any incidents of child labor without delay. (U.S. Department of Labor, 2017)
“Uruguay has the second highest rate of incarceration of the overall population in the Latin American and Caribbean region.”– United Nations, 2020
In 2018, it was estimated that 45% of the prisoners were adolescents, which is a 15% improvement from 2016 when children made up almost 60% of detainees. (United Nations, 2020) Most of the culprits are young boys who carry the burden of poverty, some sort of violence, mental issues, and other forms of discrimination.
The bottom line is, that children should not get punished in jail. Police officers are notoriously famous for inflicting injuries on unarmed and vulnerable children. There are reports of children being tortured at juvenile detention centers in developed urban areas, such as the capital of Montevideo. The authorities should follow up on all cases of child molestation and prioritize their safety. All children have the right to protection under the juvenile justice system. (OMCT, 2015)
To make matters worse, the government passed a new law in 2022, which grants police officers more power to handle the culprits. However, taking into consideration that the situation is already alarming, humanitarian organizations around the world are worried about excessive force and other instances of harming or torturing civilians, namely children. Ever since the new legislation was introduced, 34 people have been killed by the police in a span of 18 months. (UNHR, 2022)
The government failed to take care of injured prisoners as they were not taking responsibility for the incidents. It is hard to investigate and keep track of the increasing number of reports on violence in overcrowded prisons. Instances of suicides or self-injuries are not rare in conditions like this, which is also why prison relapse rates remain high.
“Children were exposed to ill-treatment and abuse, lack of therapeutic care, and lived in inadequate settings with a lack of staff. The deprivation of liberty was used as a first rather than the last resort for adolescents.”– UNHR, 2022
Written by Lidija Misic
Internally proofread by Aditi Partha
Last updated on October 5, 2022
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United Nations (2020) Economic and Social Council, Country Program Document: Uruguay. Retrieved from the United Nations at https://www.unicef.org/executiveboard/media/3211/file/2021-PL10-Uruguay_CPD-EN-ODS.pdf, accessed on October 3, 2022.
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World Council of Churches (2018) In Uruguay, hope glimmers for children despite violence in Barrio Borro. Retrieved from World Council of Churches at https://www.oikoumene.org/news/in-uruguay-hope-glimmers-for-children-despite-violence-in-barrio-borro, accessed on November 29, 2022.
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 This article by no means purports to give a full or representative account of children’s rights in Uruguay; indeed, one of many challenges is the scant updated information on the children in Uruguay, much of which is unreliable, not representative, outdated or simply non-existent.