The Children's Rights Problem

All of the material for today's discussion came from a PDF document on a website called www.worldwewant2015.org. The PDF is called, "What Does 'Equality' Mean for Children in Relation to Adults?"

So for our discussion today I have three questions that maybe ask the same thing:
Can the concept of ‘equality’ be meaningfully applied to relationships between children and adults?
How do we raise children in a way that acknowledges the cognative/developmental limitations of children while at the same time respecting children as autonomous individuals?
Do children have certain inalienable rights?
Is there a better way to ask these questions?

Below are some aspects of the issues raised by the questions to think about.

‘Non-discrimination’ is invariably thought of in terms of equality among children, not as equality between children and adults, while discrimination by adults against children is an accepted social norm.

Unequal power relationships between children and adults
There is no equivalence in the responsibilities placed on children and adults. Adults are required to protect and care for children; children are in most societies expected to respect and honour adults, which makes for unequal power relationships. The view of children as incapable continues to be used to deny them equal rights, though the concept of ‘the evolving capacities of the child’ offers a more pragmatic solution.

Are relationships necessarily reciprocal?
Relationships between children and adults cannot be entirely reciprocal in terms of rights and responsibilities. For example, it is generally understood to be the responsibility of adults to protect or “safeguard” children, but children have no equivalent responsibility to safeguard adults.

Legal discrimination against children by age
Discrimination by adults against children is an accepted social norm. There are laws in all countries that stop children doing things that adults are free to do: seeking employment, driving cars, standing for president, voting in elections etc. The specific things children are prohibited from doing and the age limits applied vary from country to country, but the principle holds true everywhere.

“The belief that the adult human being is intrinsically superior to or of greater worth than the child, and the child, by default, inferior or of lesser worth”.
The term also describes social structures, practices and behaviours based on these beliefs.
These beliefs find support in a persistent view of the child as an object, and not a human rights holder.
This construction of the child as an object can be found in both its traditional form, which views the child as property of his or her parents and a source of cheap labour…
A Nicaraguan NGO leader explained it thus: “Children are seen as an extension of the family’s property. In the same way as the father considers himself owner of the smallholding, the cow, the pig, the hens; at this cultural level, he is also owner of the children. Children are reified – seen as a thing, an object, as labour, guaranteeing to the parents that the labour force continues.”
...and in a more modern manifestation where the child is treated as an object of social interventions ‘in its best interests’ without being given the chance to express an opinion or to have his or her specific needs recognised and taken into account”.

Honor the Parents, but not Honor the Children?
The Nicaraguan Children and Adolescents Legal Code states that:
“The following are duties and responsibilities of children and adolescents, according to their age and provided that these do not damage their rights, liberties, guarantees or dignity or contravene the law: (a) to obey, respect and express affection towards their mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers or guardians”.
Further sub-clauses of the same article list many more such duties including helping with the housework, studying hard, respecting teachers and school officials, respecting the beliefs and ideas of elders and respecting national heroes.

In Christianity for example, the fifth commandment requires children to honour their parents, and other religions have similar injunctions of one form or another. Whilst these are ancient ideas, built into the spiritual roots of many societies and so having a profound influence on cultural values and beliefs about child- rearing; the counterpart, the idea that there is a corresponding requirement for parents to respect their children, is by contrast a novelty, no older than the UN Convention itself.

Three Aspects to Equality in Relations between Children and Adults
1. Equality of Rights
Some things that equality in relations between children and adults does NOT mean:
▪ It does not mean that adults and children can be expected to fulfil identical or even equivalent social roles (though sometimes circumstances may force them to);
▪ It does not mean equivalence between the responsibilities adults have towards children and those that children have towards adults;
▪ It does not mean that the power held by children and adults can be completely equalised (though power difference can certainly be reduced);
▪ It does not mean the question can be avoided as children will grow up to be adults soon enough;
▪ It does not mean equal rights and liberties before the law. Laws will continue to be made prohibiting children from doing things that adults are permitted to do.

The problem of capacity & incapacity
Some older theories of rights hold that in order to be a rights-holder,
a person must have the capacity to act autonomously in claiming or exercising their rights.
Others hold that
in order to be afforded rights one must assume a corresponding set of responsibilities or obligations to others.
Whilst children’s rights discourse has moved on in over two decades of the UNCRC, these old ideas persist and continue to influence everyday thinking on children and their social status throughout the world. From these positions it is possible to argue that children, seen as lacking capacity and therefore unable either to demand compliance with their rights or to assume the required obligations, do not have rights, or at least are not entitled to the same rights as adults.

Much research effort has been devoted to demonstrating that in fact children do have more capacities than were previously recognised, in order to argue for greater respect for their rights and freedoms, particularly participation rights.

On the other hand, where there is a focus on children’s right to protection, the need for protection is founded on their supposed incapacity, and so the capacity issue, now turned on its head, continues to dominate the debate one way or another.

Power, Powerlessness and Rights
Federle suggests that the question of children’s capacity or incapacity is fundamentally irrelevant to arguments about children’s rights, and that recognising this allows us to move towards an alternative approach based on notions of power, powerlessness and empowerment:
“Ensuring that the most powerless have rights is to accord them respect and acknowledge their value, to recognize and hear their claims; in turn, making claims mitigates exclusion and alters hierarchy... A right, in its fundamental sense, is power held by the powerless."

…the rhetoric of rights can rarely empower children”… a focus on the obligations of adults towards children would provide better outcomes for the latter.

The concept of evolving capacities thus makes it clear that at least for younger children, their ‘right to exercise their rights’ will in reality be circumscribed by the direction and guidance provided by parents and guardians. If this is the case, how can it be claimed that adults and children have equal rights?

Children's liberation
“...that the rights, privileges, duties and responsibilities of adult citizens be made available to any young person, of whatever age, who wants to make use of them”.

For Holt these included the right to vote and take full part in political affairs, to travel and live away from home, to choose with whom to live and/or make one’s own home, to receive the same state benefits as adult citizens and “the right to do, in general, what any adult may legally do.”

One of the problems with the children’s liberation approach is that it does not provide adequately for children’s right to protection, or recognise the extent to which children freely exercising their liberty may make themselves vulnerable to harm and exploitation. This can be seen clearly in relation to sexual abuse, which it must be said was little understood in the 1970s. Legally imposed ages of sexual consent (varying from country to country, but found everywhere) can be described as a discriminatory imposition that restricts children’s rights and constrains their equality. Removing the legal age of consent thus liberates children to freely explore their developing sexuality. It also, however, permits adults to manipulate, exploit and abuse them.

2. Equality as ends and not means
The principle that every human being must be treated as an end in her- or himself, and cannot be used as a means to some other end, was formulated by Immanuel Kant in the 18th century.

A new way to conceptualise ‘equality’ in child-adult relations: The idea that the child and the adult are of equal worth; neither is superior or inferior to the other. The obvious differences between child and adult are recognised and respected, but a more fundamental, underlying equality can be posited.

3. Equality of human dignity
Children and adults are equal in having inherent human dignity. The idea of human beings equal in dignity is another old and venerable concept. It is found in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

It can be argued that in much of the ‘non-Western’ world it is traditional ideas of human dignity that provide the basis for promoting and ensuring justice and equity between people, rather than the concept of human rights founded in western liberalism. What is clear is that in much of the world the idea of dignity is more readily recognised, understood and internalised than that of rights. Equality of human dignity – in this wide-ranging, culturally flexible sense – is thus a third key element of our alternative concept of equality between children and adults.

Reconfigured in this way, it means children and adults have equality as holders and defenders of human rights (albeit with specific rights for children and specific responsibilities for adults acknowledged and understood). It means no human being, adult or child, can be used as a means to somebody else’s end. And it means that wherever they live, and whatever the reality of their daily lives, adults and children are equal as holders of inherent human dignity.