For quite a while now I have been interested in children’s rights and how they can support our work with children and young people. Years ago, when I first told people I was doing my doctorate about children’s rights, I was surprised by how many reacted with comments like, “What about our rights as the adults?” or, “Children today have too many rights”. Why such a reaction, I wondered? So, I started to think about what difference knowing about children’s rights would it make to us in our work with and for children? The best place to start answering these questions is to ask the children themselves, which is one of the most important rights — children have a voice and we, the adults, need to listen and, beyond that, consider what they say, which is different to doing what they want.
This was brought home to me when I worked in a multidisciplinary team on developing a children’s submission about the Vulnerable Children’s Act. We went into early childhood services, schools, visited youth justice centres, child and protection units, and youth groups up and down the country.
The overwhelming messages from children were:
- whānau and friends were really important
- that they often felt that teachers, social workers, and other professionals who work with children talked about them without talking with them.
They wanted to be asked about things that affected them, like school rules, and they hated it when people made decisions about them without asking them what they thought. The one thing that this did was undermine trust. And trusting relationships are what it is all about, especially in education.
While most children really like school, they were very vocal about what it felt like when a teacher didn’t like them. We can all relate to comments like, “It’s not fair when the whole class is blamed because of what one person did”. And, when the adults are making plans for a child, lots of children’s feelings can be summed up in the following comment: “Ask me if you want to know what I think. It’s weird, why wouldn’t they ask me?” One of the most powerful comments from a young person in care was, “Don’t just listen, do something.”
The place to start finding out about children’s rights is the Children’s Convention published by the United Nations. This is a typical UN document. The language is formal and not that easy to understand at first. Like most human rights documents, it represents a compromise of ideals between the east and the west, between the first world and third world countries. When it first came out in 1989, it quickly became the most widely signed and ratified human rights treaty. There are only two countries in the world that haven’t signed-up: Somalia, because they have not been able to form a government; and, the United States of America, because it believes granting children social, political, economic, and cultural rights would undermine their Constitution.
A Bit about the Children’s Convention
The Children’s Convention is based on four general principles that apply to all children, all the time:
- Non-discrimination — their rights to be protected from all forms of discrimination, regardless of their parents’/guardians’ race, colour, ethnic, or social origin (Article 2).
- Best interests — their right to have their best interests as the primary consideration in all actions (administrative and legislative) that affect them (Article 3).
- Their right to life, survival, and development to reach their full potential (Article 6)
- Children’s views — their right to express their views in all matters that affect them (Article 12).
The general principle articles apply across all of the other articles in the Children’s Convention, which cover all aspects of children’s lives (for example, there are rights about education, recreation, cultural identity, healthcare to name a few). To complement the general principles are articles about governments’ responsibilities to implement the Children’s Convention “to the maximum extent of available resources (Article 4)”. Referred to as the general measures of implementation, these articles provide guidelines for governments to ensure compliance with the Children’s Convention in an ongoing, progressive manner.
How does the Children’s Convention work?
Every five years or so, our government is expected to report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (UN Committee) on compliance with the Children’s Convention. As part of the same process, the UN Committee hears from the non-government organisations (NGOs), and children and young people themselves. They want to know what it is really like for them:
- at home
- in their early childhood services and at school
- in their communities
- at work.
The last reporting cycle was completed in 2016. At the time, the NGO story was not particularly pretty. Children were worried about child abuse, child poverty, homelessness, and discrimination, especially for Māori children and children who belong to a minority group. Here are some of the comments they wanted our government to think about:
“Poverty (as an issue to address), because children are going to school and they can’t learn if they haven’t had breakfast or lunch.” MAX, 12
“My brain structure is part of who I am, so why is my disability invisible? You wouldn’t tell a kid with cancer to “toughen up”, why would you say that to me? Why would you take advantage of the fact that I have panic attacks when people start shouting? Why would you deny me my support tools in class? Why am I ashamed?” CAITLIN, 18
“If I could, I would remove the wealth gap and make sure all schools (facilities, teachers, environment) were of a high standard, eliminate prejudice, make streets safer so children could walk to and from school, and support parent relationships so they never have to be raised in broken homes. If I could.” DUNCAN, 16
Governments had made little or no progress despite clear recommendations from the UN Committee, and in 2016, they were clear, very clear, during the formal, face-to-face hearing with our government officials (from the previous Government), that this was not OK.
So, what can we do?
When faced with such seemingly complicated issues all at once, it is hard to decide how to broker solutions. That said, the climate at the moment is very focused on child-centred practices, and there are genuine attempts to put the Children’s Convention into legislation. We have a courageous Children’s Commissioner who is not afraid of promoting children’s rights. While this is something to celebrate, the general lack of awareness about what the principle articles mean and how these play out in our day-to-day practices is still of concern. There are two recommendations that the UN Committee made that, I think, are a good place to start:
- Awareness and training about the Children’s Convention
In general, there is a lack of awareness about children’s rights and what they mean. The Children’s Convention is widely misunderstood and, therefore, its potential to support improving children’s lives remains untapped. The UN Committee has, since 1995, recommended awareness raising and training in the public service and in civil society. It is especially needed for adults who work with and for children.
- Listening to children and take their views into account
When it comes to respecting children’s views, the UN Committee recommended that our government develop toolkits for public consultation on national policy development which, as a matter of course, consult with children in a genuine, and realistic way.
Two final points
For the last part of this blog I want to highlight a couple of points:
- that children’s rights are indivisible and interdependent
- that the Children’s Convention to be part of the conversation —especially in education.
Chidren’s rights are indivisible and interdependent
The rights in the Children’s Convention cover all areas of all children’s lives. In a way, we can use a well-known early childhood education curriculum metaphor of a whāriki to visualise how the principal articles, the general measures of implementation and the articles about health, education, welfare etc, are interwoven. That means that even though we can highlight one type of rights — say, children’s rights to have a say about matters that affect them — we also need to consider the other rights at the same time.
For example, when inviting children to participate in, say, what they would like to find out about, I like to ask myself:
- ‘How are the best interests of the child being served by my questions?
- Am I genuinely inclusive (non-discriminatory)?
- Do my actions support children’s development?’
- And, when I ask children for their point of view, whose agenda am I pursuing?
That doesn’t mean I’m right or wrong. As the grown-up, I have some clear advantages — I know more, and I have some influence over my life. But, I also have responsibilities to ensure that children’s rights can be realised, and this means that even if the choice is not really a choice, I can explain why. For example, going to school regularly, learning to get along with others, and understanding our history, matters. At the same time, children, too, have responsibilities. Rights don’t ever come without these.
Children’s Convention to be part of the conversation
I want to advocate for the Children’s Convention to be part of the conversation, especially in education. We are already on the way here with a lot of research now focused on children’s agency, or their ability to influence their own experiences. The trick here, though, is to ask about the context in which ‘agency’ takes effect. Where, for example, does the power really lie? Unless we think about how power relations play out in classrooms and in early childhood services, we fail to fully consider the big picture of children’s lives. Very often, asking children to contribute is based on an assumption that if they have a say, they will feel they have a stake in the outcome. Offering children a choice needs to be real. So the good part is that children are asked; the not-so-good part is that the child’s rights to not participate, or to more information, or to privacy, or to deciding who and where and when to talk to others, are often overlooked.
Therein lies a genuine human rights dilemma – rights, including children’s rights — are aspirational, and how they are enacted depends on the situation. We need to remember that children’s rights are about real issues that affect them. That means we always need to think about how we get better at understanding children’s rights and how we can use these to enhance their wellbeing.
A highly respected child rights leader, Professor Michael Freeman, once described rights as like arms and legs — children are born with rights; they are not privileges to be earned or taken away. They exist. He also said that the most important right is to respect the rights of others — a good place to begin and to end this blog.
Challenge: Why are you asking children to join in? How are you inviting their participation? Please add your comments below — be a part of the conversation.
UNICEF/Save the Children (2016). Our voices. Our rights. Supplementary Paper submitted to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. Retrieved from https://daks2k3a4ib2z.cloudfront.net/59bef78dd0c4540001fa1706/5a28b1fa5a27480001dee695_OurRightsOurVoices.pdf