By Susanna Rustin
It doesn’t help the cause of children’s rights that many people have never heard of them. Almost a century after the first “children’s charter” was drafted by the English social reformer Eglantyne Jebb, the phrase “children’s rights” still has an abstract ring. Reach for a utopian vision of liberated children in charge of their destinies and you bump up against William Golding’s dystopian Lord of the Flies.
I’ve visited schools whose walls are plastered with the text of the UN convention on the rights of the child. But it’s striking that even when young people are subjected to grotesque violations – such as the tortures allegedly inflicted by David and Louise Turpin on their children in California – we rarely frame efforts to protect and empower them in terms of advancing their rights.
This week, one key children’s rights issue is back on the agenda, following the announcement that 16-year-olds in Wales will, like their Scottish peers, be allowed to vote in local elections . But in Conservative-run England, children’s rights are under attack, even if this is barely noticed. Imagine the outrage if the post of women and equalities minister had been abolished in the recent reshuffle. Yet this is what happened to the minister of state for children’s job, when Robert Goodwill was sacked and his responsibilities passed down the chain to parliamentary under-secretary Nadhim Zahawi – a previously obscure politician now notorious for his attendance at the men-only Presidents Club dinner.
It may seem crude, or even tasteless, to link child abuse with voting rights, but crimes against children follow from their powerlessness. While the UN convention does not demand votes for children, it does insist on their right to speak and be heard.
Children’s living standards in the UK are declining, with child poverty forecast to reach record levels by 2022. Young people are losing out in relation to other age groups as a result of increasing house prices, tuition fees many will never pay off, and an uncertain jobs market.
In 2004, the Labour government responded to the murder of Victoria Climbié with the Children Act, which created a new post of children’s commissioner for England and reorganised children’s services. Ten years later, Gordon Brown called children’s rights “the civil-rights movement’s unfinished business”. But while David Cameron’s and Theresa May’s governments have supported progressive legislation in some areas – gay marriage, trans rights, new laws against domestic violence – further progress on children’s rights has been blocked.
It’s not hard to see why. Just as the backlash against #MeToo is easy to understand when you recognise that more power for women means less power for men, so more power for children means less power for adults. And in siding with the grownups, Conservatives are also signalling their distaste for the state.
Families, not governments, should have authority over children, say rightwing politicians who defend the right of parents to hit their children, or keep them out of school without letting local councils know they exist, or send them to the inadequate private religious schools recently highlighted by Ofsted. Such ideas find their most extreme expression in the US – the only UN member state not a party to the children’s rights convention – where campaigners for “parental rights” are seeking an amendment to the constitution, and insisting that no new regulation of home schooling is necessary since the “private school” where the Turpins imprisoned their children was a one-off.
There are important ways in which children’s rights could be strengthened. Children’s commissioners are important advocates but lack teeth since they can only carry out formal investigations when the government says so. Just as the Equality Act imposed a duty on public sector bodies to eliminate discrimination against women and minorities, so a new children’s act could require them to consider young people, and to engage them in meaningful consultation. When did an education secretary, for example, last seek children’s views on the national curriculum?
I used to be against votes at 16. Let them be children, I thought. But the thing is, we don’t. The Scottish children’s commissioner, Bruce Adamson, has called “absolutely ridiculous” the situation in which children are held criminally responsible for their actions almost a decade before they are allowed to vote. Meanwhile teenagers are expected to pay adult prices for almost everything, from train fares to clothing, while youth services of all sorts shut up shop. We only need to look at the environment to see how disastrously we adults are failing future generations. Votes at 16, absolutely, but that’s just a start.
Published on The Guardian on January 30, 2018
The Convention on the Rights of the Child sets out the rights that must be realized for children to develop their full potential, free from hunger and want, neglect and abuse. It reflects a new vision of the child. Children are neither the property of their parents nor are they helpless objects of charity. They are human beings and are the subject of their own rights. The Convention offers a vision of the child as an individual and as a member of a family and community, with rights and responsibilities appropriate to his or her age and stage of development. By recognizing children's rights in this way, the Convention firmly sets the focus on the whole child.