By youth activists Isabelle Mathews and Sivitha Sivakumar and members of the Eco-club of Manchester Enterprise Academy Central with Claire Cameron (IOE)
20 November 2019 is the 30th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. What does this landmark framework for global and local children’s rights mean to young people themselves?
At UCL we brought together young people, activists, researchers and policymakers to debate the the future outlook and current state of children’s rights and participation in matters of importance to them.
For youth activist Isabelle Mathews, the conference demonstrated the importance of allowing young people to have the opportunity to discuss and develop their opinions on topics which intrinsically concern them. As the keynote speaker, Children’s Rights Consultant Gerison Lansdown, pointed out: the purpose of the UNCRC is to ensure the dignity, integrity and respect of children, not just to enhance their wellbeing. But while the impact of the UNCRC has been impressive over 30 years, said Lansdown, there is still a long way to go.
To the authors of this blog – children’s rights mean:
- ‘Having a say in things adults have a say in, a right to be accepted for who you are.’
- The right to a ‘happy and normal childhood. No matter the circumstances, one person’s childhood should not lack or be different when compared to another child’s’.
- ‘The basic standards of life that every child, regardless of any discrimination, despite the vast inequalities present in society should expect’.
- ‘We deserve a right to vote – it’s our future. If we can get arrested at a young age, then why can’t we vote?’
- ‘Freedom. To not fear constraint. To not fear oppression. To not fear about tomorrow.’
Sivitha Sivakumar reflected that the greatest gain is ‘the empowerment that we have within ourselves through knowing our rights over our lives, decisions and body. I think that we have more participation in the decision-making over our own lives as we realise that it isn’t the rights of the adults involved in the decision making process which are being questioned, but ours’.
Isabelle argued that harnessing the power of social media has been an important mechanism for young people. ‘The growth of the climate strikes and the platform of young figures like Emma Gonzalez [who survived the school shooting at Stoneman Douglas high in Florida] would not have been possible without social media and millions of young people being connected so easily. Furthermore, social media gives young people the opportunity to discover what they are passionate about and support these causes: Amika George’s #FreePeriods campaign growing from a petition shared online is just one example. Young people now have a platform to make their voices heard and find commonality globally’.
Manchester Enterprise Academy (MEA) Central students, all Year 9s, thought young people now can ‘say when they don’t feel safe and mental health is taken more seriously at school. Children are better at expressing our own opinions, and we expect our views to be viewed as equal to the views of an adult’. In addition, ‘society has also become more welcoming and more accepting of LGBTQ young people’.
But they were disappointed to learn that ‘children’s rights aren’t as good as they seem. There aren’t as many rights as there should be.’
For the future, conference participants had a long list of political actions that would improve children’s lives. Sivitha thought there should be more support for low income families struggling to house and feed their children. ‘All children should know their rights as part of the school curriculum or through programmes such as UNICEF’s OutRight or Rights Respecting Schools’, said Isabelle. She hoped ‘to see further progress towards bridging the gap between the legislation and implementation of children’s rights, despite the increasing backlash from fundamentalist, right-wing and religious lobbies’.
According to the MEA Central students, children should be able to vote at 16, or perhaps earlier, and have a say in ‘public debates and controversial matters such as Brexit’. The age of criminal responsibility should be raised; children ‘should not be arrested and tried as adults at age 10’, they said.
Finally, there was emphatic concern about climate change. MEA Central students, who gave a presentation on environmental risks and hazards in their local area, had a direct message:
‘Government should ban fuel cars, reduce the price of hybrid cars and make it easier to take public transport and cycle. We need special attention to people living in poverty – it shouldn’t only be the rich who can be environmentally-friendly…
‘Adults are leaving a world that is damaged and destroyed. Kids are speaking out but still adults don’t take us seriously’.
The conference was organised by Claire Cameron and Kirrily Pells (Department of Social Science), in collaboration with the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (part of Just for Kids Law), the UCL Access and Widening Participation Office and the Foundling Museum. It was financially supported by the UCL Grand Challenge of Justice and Equality. Reporting by Isabelle Mathews, UNICEF Youth Advisor, Sivitha Sivakumar, CRAE Steering Group, and Manchester Enterprise Academy Central Eco-Club, with Catherine Walker, University of Manchester, and Ben Allon, MEA Central.