Commitment to children's rights pays off in Sweden

Alex Duval Smith
Wednesday 14 February 2007 01:00

Just as the world's strongest girl, Pippi Longstocking, can lift her horse above her head, it is unsurprising that her country holds its head high in the child well-being stakes. Sweden's success in the Unicef study reflects years of commitment to the rights of the child. It tops the study in terms of children's material wellbeing, health and safety and behaviour and risk.

When I grew up in Sweden in the 1970s and 1980s, I would hear British grandparents say children should be "seen but not heard". At the same time in Sweden, smacking had been banned and children began wearing bicycle helmets. Britons found this ridiculous.

Ikea pioneered play areas by their store entrances and later came up with the idea of designing furniture especially for children. That was not a cynical marketing ploy but the reflection of a society in which children are central. Ever-expanding parental-leave rights are part of the trend.

The worst thing about growing up in Sweden was the ban on war toys. That meant my godparents abroad had to send me Action Man accessories in anonymous brown packages, which sometimes did not get through Customs.

Like so many things Swedish, the country's wholehearted focus on the child, including extensive investment in sports and music activities, is born of the country's relatively recent memory of extreme poverty and child mortality. When this harsh reality was reversed after the Second World War, the well-being of the Swedish began to be seen as a mirror of the health of the society.

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