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Children Implementing Their Own Rights Present and Future Perspectives

The Convention on the Rights of the Child represents a quantum leap away from viewing the child as an object - the property of his or her parents - towards an understanding that the child is an independent human being and should be treated as a subject with his or her own inalienable rights, and with the capacity to relate actively to these rights. The Convention represents a powerful inspiration and tool for children and young people themselves to influence their own situations and to be involved in implementing their own rights.

The main clue to the Convention's child-centred approach is found in Article 3 that states the principle of the best interests of the child: "In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration". Another crucial principle is put forward in Article 12, namely that "the child has the right to have his or her views taken into consideration in all matters concerning the child." The Committee on the Rights of the Child has defined these as general principles of the Convention, which should always guide the interpretation of all the other articles.

To those who don't like the idea, one could say with Eugeen Verhellen: "The idea is not necessarily to treat children and adults in the same way, but to guarantee children that they can be themselves."

In addition comes, the inclusion of a number of civil and political rights, such as the right to freedom of expression, the right to freedom of religion, thought and conscience, the right to freedom of association, the right to privacy and the right to seek information. These rights are already established in other human rights treaties, but the Convention makes them explicitly applicable to children as well. Most reports on activities where children are involved in exercising and interpreting their own rights are anecdotal rather than analytic, and more often to be found in non-scientific than scientific publications. They provide, however valuable material and background for more analytic studies, and I would like to share some examples with you in the following.

Among the more visible activities - at least in terms of what catches media attention - are children's hearings or campaigns to promote children's rights. For instance, a campaign named Voice of the Children has coordinated children's hearings in various countries and organised international meetings with children in connection with major UN conferences such as the one on environment (Rio 1992) and on human rights (Vienna 1993). Children who had been working with the issues of, respectively, environment and human rights in their local communities or in their countries were brought together to share their experiences. They formulated their views and concerns and presented their conclusions to the participants of the "adult" conferences.

Another example is a national campaign in South Africa where child and youth organisations went together in a series of local consultations leading up to a South African Children's Summit in June 1992 with representatives from all over the country. The Summit focused on such issues as violence, family life, health and welfare, education, child labour and homelessness. The young delegates presented inputs at plenary sessions reflecting the problems, aspirations and demands of children in their regions. They demonstrated how the rights are violated and argued for remedies. One outcome of the Summit was the "Children's Charter of South Africa". This became an important background paper for the process of drafting a new constitution for the post-apartheid era.

In Peru, another kind of children's movement emerged which is known as MANTHOC, a movement of Christian working children and adolescents. MANTHOC consists of many small groups all over Peru. Inspired by the Convention, it organises child workers whether they live in the streets or not, and aims at protecting the interests of working children and improving their working and living conditions. Through its actions MANTHOC seeks to give working children self-respect by fighting for their recognition as workers.

A national street children's organisation developed in Brazil in the late 1980s. The basis of the movement was the activities of small groups of street children throughout Brazil having organised themselves with the assistance of "street educators" to improve their own situation. In 1986 a National Street Children's Congress was held in Brasilia, and a large amount of the time was spent in the National Assembly informing the lawmakers about the situation of street and working children in Brazil.

The Child-to-Child Trust movement works to involve children in health education and disease prevention. The organisation was not originally linked to children's rights, but the Convention has given the movement a great thrust forward by providing a legal as well as an ethical framework that strengthens its fundament. The idea is that a better standard of health can be achieved - and debilitating diseases prevented - by the direct involvement of children in training programmes and dissemination of health information in peer groups. Child-to-child projects take place in local communities all over the world, from children in one of the provinces of Zimbabwe learning how to promote an acceptable level of personal hygiene to children in Liverpool taking action to preserve their local playground and keep it free from dog excrements and other garbage that makes it a health risk to play there.

An activity of completely different nature is Children's Express, a children's news agency in the US. Its mission is "to give children a significant voice in the world" by providing them with the means and tools to disseminate their opinions as well as information that they consider important. In many ways Children's Express operates as a regular news agency, covering local, national and global issues, but where children decide which stories to cover and what approach to take.

How does this kind of involvement affect the participants, what does it mean to the children? One 13-year-old boy involved in Children's Express framed it this way: "CE has given me a voice. It has given me the chance to gain respect. It has given me a new sense of responsibility." One observer of the MANTHOC movement concludes that "it is not simply a question of participation but rather of self organisation and self management by children. It is a question of interaction and the power children have to exercise for their rights."

What makes children's participation important? In examples such as those I have mentioned above, the following reasons are given: Participation gives children a sense of self-esteem, independence, a feeling of mastering their own situation. Furthermore, it promotes the development of solidarity among children, and it gives them an experience of being useful. One particular effect of participation is the empowerment of children in especially difficult circumstances. According to Roger Hart, it helps them develop an understanding of their current situation as a basis for improving their own lives. It means recognising and supporting the resilience and creativity of the children themselves.

What are the implications of these for adults? Adults who guide or assist children in participation activities- need to balance carefully between encouraging children to make use of the traditional democratic channels in society, developed by and for adults, and respecting what are children's own ways of expressing themselves. It is crucial to avoid making children the token spokespersons for issues they legitimately have opinions on, but should not be made responsible for solving, such as environmental protection - as underlined by Sharon Stephens. It is also necessary, as Roger Hart stresses, to clarify various levels of child involvement in so-called participation projects. In order to facilitate and understand children's participation, adults must be able to distinguish what is child initiated and child driven participation from activities where adults use children to promote their own issues.

In order to analyse children's participation and involvement from the perspective of children, it might be an idea to ask children themselves and involve them in the research. Using children's drawings and other methods where children could express themselves through their own concepts was included in the methodology of their studies of street children in various countries, by Judith Ennew and Virginia Morrow. They stress that "we can, and should, find ways of incorporating children's accounts of their experiences and perceptions into discourses about them, so that they can begin to participate where now they are excluded."

Finally, children's participation can help draw the attention to an issue previously not in the focus of the public or the authorities, such as in the case of the Brazilian street children mentioned before. They succeeded beyond all expectations "because the children were so organised and articulate during the debates, the press responded with enormous enthusiasm and the congress became a landmark event in creating public awareness about the lives of street children," Roger Hart reports on their 1986 congress, "it was clear that the public and policy-makers had never before been shown the reality of street children's worlds."

Examples such as the ones I have reviewed show that children's rights are not only implemented for children, they could also be implemented by children themselves. This represents a great additional force to the process of implementing the Convention on the Rights of the Child in particular, and to the development of respect and understanding of human rights in general. Examinations of children's own involvement show that it is not only the question of participation as an exercise in itself. Children can be actively involved in, for instance, implementing their right to protection against economic exploitation, the right to health care, the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to health education, the right to information, to mention a few.

Activities involving children's participation need not be large and spectacular events at the international level and involving the top levels of leadership. Such events can play an important role in placing certain issues on the international agenda and give power to the claim that children have a voice. The most important activities, however, are those that take place in children's immediate environment. That is where their daily lives unfold, and that is where all children could and should be involved in exercising influence on what is going on.

Few - if any - of the drafters of the Convention had the visionary power to imagine a future where it could encourage children to make an input to the World Conference on Human Rights, inspire street children in Brazil to a hold a national gathering where congressmen were questioned on their policies, or to empower working children in Peru to take control over their own situation.

It might be a long way to go until the expectations that the Convention raises become the reality, or even seem obtainable for the majority of children of the world, but the direction is set, and the legal framework is there. What is important to note in this connection is that the Convention not only in its nature, but also in its practical implementation represents a new way of understanding children, and that realising this also must have an impact on the research approach to children and children's living conditions.

Sources and Suggestions for Further Reading:

Clampitt, R. (1994) 'Children's Express: by Children for Everybody' in E. Verhellen and F. Spiesschaert (eds) Children's Rights: Monitoring Issues. Gent: Mys & Breesch, Publishers.
Committee on the Rights of the Child (1991) General guidelines regarding the form and content of initial reports to be submitted by States Parties under Article 44, Paragraph 1 (a) of the Convention (CRC/C/5 30 October 1991) Ennew, J. and V. Morrow, (1994) 'Out of the Mouths of Babes' in E. Verhellen and F. Spiesschaert (eds) Children's Rights: Monitoring Issues. Gent: Mys & Breesch, Publishers.
Franklin, B. (1992) 'Children and Decision Making: Developing Empowering Institutions'. Paper presented at The International Conference on Children's Ombudswork. Towards the Realisation of Human Rights for Children. Amsterdam 22-24 January 1992.
Gomes da Costa, A. C. and B. Schimidt-Rahmer (1991) 'Brazil: children spearhead a movement for change' in The Convention: Child rights and UNICEF experience at the country level. Florence: Innocenti Studies, UNICEF International Child Development Centre.
Hart, R. (1992) Children's Participation: From Tokenism to Citizenship. Florence: Innocenti Essays No. 4, UNICEF International Child Development Centre.
Hart, R. (1994) 'Children's roles in primary environmental care,' in Childhood, 2(1/2)
International Journal on the Rights of the Child 1(1) 1993. South African children speak out.
Kufeldt, K. (1993) 'Listening to children: an essential for justice' in International Journal on the Rights of the Child, 1(2) 1993.
Miljeteig, P. (1990) 'Advocacy of Children's Rights - The Convention as More than a Legal Document'. Human Rights Quarterly. Johns Hopkins University Press, Vol. 12, No. 1, February 1990.
Miljeteig, P. (1992) 'Children's Participation: Giving Children the Opportunity to Develop into Active and Responsible Members of Society' in Social Education 56(4) 1992.
Milne, B. (1994) 'Children's Economic Lives: paying interest on centuries of short change'. Paper presented at the XIII World Congress of Sociology, Bielefeld, 18-23 July 1994.
Newell, P. (1994) 'Children's Civil Rights in the Family'. Paper presented at the Symposium on "The Right to a Family Environment" organised by the Consortium on Children, Families and the Law in Charleston, South Carolina 14-18 May 1994.
Stephens, S. (1994) 'Children and Environment: Local Worlds and Global Connections,' in Childhood, 2(1/2)
Swift, A. (1991) Brazil. The Fight for Childhood in the City. Florence: Innocenti studies, UNICEF International Child Development Centre.
Tay, A. K. B. (1989) "Child-to-Child" in Africa: Towards an Open Learning Strategy. Paris: UNESCO-UNICEF Co-Operative Programme, Digest 29.
Torres, N. (1994) 'Working Children, Leading the Struggle to Obtain and Defend their Own Rights', in E. Verhellen and F. Spiesschaert (eds) Children's Rights: Monitoring Issues. Gent: Mys & Breesch, Publishers.
Verhellen, E. (1994) 'The Search for the Achilles Heel. Monitoring of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and Its Implications for the States Parties' in E. Verhellen and F. Spiesschaert (eds) Children's Rights: Monitoring Issues. Gent: Mys & Breesch, Publishers.

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