The UNCRC, Children's Rights and Whether They Need to be Protected From Making Decisions in their Lives.
Should children have the right to participate in decisions that shape their lives or should they be protected from decision making?
Within our society children tend to be dependant on adults for care and guidance due to them having less knowledge, skills, power and autonomy. This means that, depending on the child's age, adults are able to do a lot to shelter children from the hardships of the adult world. Although when doing this adults generally mean well and have children's best interests at heart, protecting them to much can also put children at greater risk of abuse or exploitation.
In order to help protect children and to give them protection in the event of any abuse or exploitation children have been granted specific additional rights under the UN Declaration of Human Rights. These also aim to ensure that children have access to many things they need so they can grow and develop into well rounded adult members of society.
In 1989 The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) was introduced with the aim of protecting children all over the world and to give them access to things they need specifically because they are young, still developing and more vulnerable than the majority of adults. Currently the UNCRC has been signed and adopted all over the world with only the USA and Somalia not agreeing to sign it. The introduction of the UNCRC has lead to governments having to provide certain rights and services to children and has given extra protection and help that is available to children should they find themselves in difficult or troubling situations. This could include situations such as becoming refugees, being involved in war or if they have committed a crime.
Acceptance and conflict
Although the introduction and widespread acceptance of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child has undoubtedly improved the lives of countless children all over the world it has also caused difficulty and conflict. The convention fails to account for differences within the many cultures and societies of the people it applies too. What is practical and right for a western child maybe impractical or even impossible for children living in other countries. It also fails to account for the huge variation of individual customs and beliefs that are followed worldwide. In order to make the UNCRC more realistic and workable, some parts of the world; such as Africa have developed their own charters that are used in addition to the UNCRC.
These individual charters deal with issues that are relevant to the specific culture within which they are being used. The African Charter for example, has sections relating to matters such as apartheid, refugees and children in war as well as recognizing the difficulties faced due to Africa's depressed economic state. One major difference between the UNCRC and the African charter is that the latter talks about the rights, and responsibilities of children rather than just what adults should have to do for the children. For example article 27 of the UNCRC states that children have a right to an adequate standard of living and that the child's parents (or other guardians) are responsible for providing this. In contrast the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child has no equivalent article and states that children have responsibilities towards their families, society and the state. In African society rights come with responsibilities and children are expected, depending on their age and ability to respect their parents and elders at all times, serve their community and to preserve and strengthen the independence, integrity and unity of Africa and it's cultural views.
The UNCRC views adults as caregivers that children need and rely on whereas the African Charter views families as interdependent , children and adults rely on each other and so both have rights and responsibilities to each other. This is more fitting with the African way of life.
The Four P's
Within the UNCRC children’s rights are divided into four groups, known as the four p's. These are:
Provisional rights – Right that enable children’s growth and development including rights to adequate housing, food and education.
Prevention rights – Enable systems to be put in place to protect children from abuse or infringement on their rights. These include the right to legal representation.
Protection rights – These protect children against exploitation and abuse and allow intervention when either occur. For example children who are abused at home can be removed by the state.
Participation rights – Rights that enable children to take part in decisions that involve or effect them and also includes the right to an opinion.
The majority of people would not argue against children having somewhere safe to live, safe and nutritious food to eat or that they have access to education and health services but other sections of the four p's have created a lot of controversy. One issue that people have found it hard to agree on is whether children have a right to a say in matters and issues that affect or involve them. Different views exist on children's right to participation and also on whether it is right, fair on or in the best interests of the child to give them this right. Not only may children and adults disagree on whether children should be allowed to participate in decisions but they may also clash on what is the best outcome of those decisions, causing further conflict and bad feeling within the family.
Giving children the right to make decisions about their lives challenges the traditional view of a child's place within the family and society and means people must view children as having their own thoughts and opinions as well as the ability to know what is good for them or not, rather than seeing them as helpless and dependant beings who need adults to chose everything for them.
People's views on children's rights and specifically children's ability to make decisions for themselves will depend on how they view children and childhood. Supporters of the romantic discourse see children as naturally good and believe that they should be free to enjoy childhood without the issues and stresses associated with the adult world. This discourse states that children learn through experience and therefore should be protected by adults from things that may cause them harm or that are deemed unsuitable due to the possibility that it may corrupt children or teach them how to be wicked or evil. Therefore it is likely that supporters of this discourse of childhood would believe children should be protected from having to make life decisions in case it causes them upset or exposes them to things that may affect their moral development. In actual fact the romantic discourse may make it easier for children to be exploited or abused as adults have full control over every aspect of their lives and having never really thought for themselves children may lack the knowledge, experience and confidence to speak up or ask for help.
In contrast the Tabula rasa discourse of childhood views children as blank slates who will be shaped by experience and information given to them. Followers maybe more likely to support children making their own decisions as it will help to give them confidence and teach them about responsibility and how their individual choices effect them and others around them. These experiences and knowledge should help them grow into well adjusted adults. Of course depending on the child's age and abilities it maybe necessary to help and guide them or even have complete control over some decisions in their lives. Allowing children choices doesn't mean giving them a free rein to do as they please.
Supporters of children's rights such as John Holt argue that children aren't incompetent but are made incompetent by adult attitudes and not only are they able to understand and participate in many decisions, they have a right to be consulted on matters that are going to have an effect on them. Allowing children to participate in things that matter to or effect them teaches them responsibility, boosts their self esteem and gives them confidence in their abilities, thoughts and feelings. If children are allowed to make choices then they can learn and become more able to make future decisions. It's unfair to never allow children choices and a part in decision making and then when they reach a certain age expect them the do it all for themselves just because society now views them as adults.
On the other hand it can be hard to know if an individual child really is capable of making informed choices about their lives. Age is often used as the deciding factor but this comes with problems of it's own as even within the same age group children vary so much emotionally, mentally and in what they can or can't understand. If children do not fully understand the world around them they may need protecting from the consequences of their actions and decisions. At times like this participation and protection rights can clash and it maybe necessary to override participation rights in order to protect the child from harm or infringement of their other rights. As an example, if a child is being abused at home it maybe necessary that the state intervene and remove the child from their family in order to fore-fill their duty to protect tchildren, regardless of whether it has been discussed with the child or is what they want. Protection rights may also need to override participation rights in cases of emergency interventions such as after a nature disaster or during war to ensure children are safe and protected.
Protection and participation clash
A good example of protection and participation rights clashing can be found by looking at Article 28 of the UNCRC. This article gives children the right to compulsory education. Because it is compulsory children aren't allowed to refuse to attend and so their right to participate in the decision about whether they attend school or not is taken away from them.
Another example of protection and participation rights conflicting and children potentially not being granted their right to participate arose in Vietnam in 1997. In Vietnam many children migrate from the countryside alone into the city to find work. Due to concerns that living alone and away from their families, working was not in children's best interests the Vietnamese government set up a programme to return these children to their families. The aid agency PLAN International trained outreach workers to help and believed that it was in children's best interests that they return to their families. A fourteen year old called Hiep objected to the programme and wished to stay in the city as he felt that although he was young and working, it was his own choice and in his view he was better off than if he lived with his family in the countryside. Hiep felt that this protectionist approach to his welfare prevented him from properly participating in society and was unfair as having been working on the streets for two years he had already proven that he was able to care for himself. He had also been able to send money home to help his parents and pay to continue his education, as school is only free in Vietnam until children are eleven years old. Hiep also made the good point that the education he was receiving in the city was better than he would in the countryside. Despite his protests Hiep's right to make decisions for himself, even though he was obviously competent enough was denied and he was returned to his parents home. Only a few months later Hiep returned to the city but due to what he felt was unfair treatment he didn't want any involvement with government agencies in the future. In this particular case, although the government had set up this programme meaning to help children, for Heip it meant that he was now less likely to seek out any help and support that may be available to him for fear of how he would be treated.
Do children want to be able to chose?
Another matter to be considered in the debate about children and decision making is that children may not want to have to make important decisions for themselves. They may feel they don't know enough or that the decision is putting pressure or to much responsibility on them.
Additionally children may worry that they will upset others with the choice they make, especially if it is different to what the adults involved think is best for them or they are choosing between two adults differing views. Children faced with difficult choices such as those regarding medical treatments or where they should live if their parents separate may wish that they didn't have any say and that the choice could just be made for them.
The matter of whether children should be allowed to participate in decisions that affect them is a complicated one with no easy and definitive answer. What may work for one child may not be right for another, especially when you take in to account cultural variations.
In some circumstances giving a child the right to something may not be in their best interests, though for the majority of children allowing them to participate in choices about themselves and respecting their wishes where possible will aid their development and help them feel valued and secure as they know that they will be informed and consulted on aspects of their lives as well as having their opinions valued.