What are children’s rights and how do they differ from the adult’s rights? What is the difference between ‘Human Rights’ and ‘Rights of the Child’? Not every person is a child, but every child is a person. Moreover, every person either once was a child, or is one now. It is not a coincidence that the very first article of the fundamental human rights document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, declares all people free and equal in rights from the moment of birth, meaning from earliest childhood.
Unfortunately, in practice, to be somebody ‘from birth’ and to benefit from one’s rights in childhood (particularly in early childhood) are completely different. It is sufficient to remember the rights of citizens: not all citizens participate in the political life of their country, only those who have reached a defined age which is considered sufficiently ‘adult’. However, there have been and still are different understandings of what constitutes ‘maturity’ amongst different peoples and at different periods. I have somehow become used to the words of one grandfather say of his grandchild ‘Six years old – you’re almost a grown up!’ The Ancient Greeks considered all free men adult and of full value from the age of twelve. Recently in Europe, people were considered mature after having reached twenty one. Now, however, in the majority of countries it is considered sufficient to reach eighteen years old to receive the right to vote, material powers, permission to marry or to serve in the army.
Yet however early or late the period of ‘acknowledged adulthood’ may be, it is evident that all peoples and cultures to a certain extent restrict children in their rights and allow them far from as much is allowed to older people. Therefore it is clear that the declared rights ‘of every citizen’ and even ‘of every person’ concern children with certain exceptions. Partly, these restrictions are connected with concern for the young: a young child is inexperienced and may involuntarily jeopardise his life and health; uneducated people, including untrained people, often underestimate the importance of learning, do not strive with hard work to gain knowledge without which their future may prove to be dark and dull. The great humanist and pedagogue Yanush Korchak said that children are no less intelligent and no less valuable than adults – they simply lack experience. In his famous book about the child King Matiusha I, Korchak shows how hard it is for children to take responsibility themselves for the complicated and contradictory world of political and social life.
Ideally, the limitation of children’s rights must apply to only those questions in which their inexperience may actually harm the children themselves or other people. Unfortunately, in practice, the relationship of adults and children is too often built on the model of ‘authority to subordinate (who has no rights)’. At the same time, the power that adults have may be not only unwholesome, but also destructive for the child, who at times understands his needs better than anyone but does not have the opportunity to defend himself or stand up for his own opinion.
Children are not only less experienced, but also weaker than adults. Therefore, their rights must be protected by special additional measures – such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This convention was ratified on 20th November 1989 and became law in almost two hundred countries. The convention endorses fundamental universal human rights concerning children and charges the state with additional responsibility for all children up to the age of eighteen, living on the territory or in subordination to countries which have ratified the convention (one of which is Russia).
Children have the right to life (Article 6), to worthy treatment (Article 19), to protection against torture and violence (Article 37 and others), to protection against discrimination (Article 2), to a standard of living adequate for physical, social-economic and cultural development (Articles 24-31), to relations and contact with members of their families and people close to them (Articles 9-10), to express their views in questions of conscience and ideology (Article 12).
The Interests of the Child
One of the key principles of the Convention, ‘The best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration’ (Article 3), would be better worded as: ‘The interests of the child must always be priority.’ The observance of this principle, in questions concerning any decisions or actions in relation to the child, is obligatory for all public agents, state institutions, courts and private children’s institutions. The interests of the child may be understood in various ways. Unfortunately, many parents and tutors use ‘the interests of the child’ to justify intentionally harmful or even cruel forms of behaviour towards children. Physical punishment – flogging, beating, hair-pulling – has been justified in the opinion of many adults with the words ‘it is for their own good’.
The danger of such an approach is not only that falsely understood pedagogical duty may compel tutors to take extreme measures ‘out of the best intentions’, but also that they are likely to abuse their power using violence and insults freely, and finally sadistic tendencies may form in both the tutors and the children. A vicious circle is set up: the permissibility of force in public opinion leads to its promotion by its ‘supporters’, which again forms public opinion and the norms of behaviour of adults and, correspondingly, the ideas of young people growing up in this system. Therefore, the principle of ‘always acting in the interests of the child’ must exist not only for its own sake, but also in conjunction with other Articles acknowledged and declared by the Convention on the Rights of the Child (such as protection against force, the right to contact with the family, the right to fair and humane treatment in the event of imprisonment, and others).
Violence is forbidden, whatever form it may take
The position of the UN in relation to the question of all forms of violence is absolutely defined and clear: any kind of violence towards children must be forbidden: physical, sexual and psychological. ‘Violence against children is never justifiable. Nor is it inevitable.’ These words of the United Nations Secretary-General could become a slogan for a world campaign against physical punishment of children.
Physical violence is understood as any kinds of blows, smacks, hair-pulling, ear twisting, and also any kind of deliberate infliction of pain or harm to the health of the child (traditional operations, pulling or grinding of teeth, bandaging of the foot and other similar methods of ‘correcting’ the natural physique).
The problem of sexual violence against children concerns as much any action or contact of a sexual nature as the coercion of children to lead a sexual life against their will – including the forcing of children to marry early. In some African countries, girls are married from the age of five years onwards, which causes them both physical and psychological suffering. The problem of early marriage is acute in many traditional communities, including Romani communities. It must be observed that the practice of forcing children to lead a family life at the age of 11 or 12, and at times (in rare cases, it is true) even at the age of 8 or 9 years, can still be observed even in communities living currently in the Russian Federation. There is no doubt that this custom harms children: they cannot finish even primary education, their stage of childhood games is broken with too early, and early fatherhood and motherhood harm the health both of adolescent parents and of their children. The majority of children who are forced to marry too early suffer psychologically from the relationships imposed upon them, from the lack of opportunity to choose their own partner, and from the harsh demands made of the married children by their elders (especially by the mother and father in law). Unhappiness in marriage often causes violence within the family.
Psychological force is yet another form of unacceptable treatment of children. This form of violence includes derision, offensive names, any verbal insults or intentional causing of offence. All children are different, it cannot be otherwise. However, uniqueness itself – any kind of trait which marks out a child – is most often the target of insults and persecution. The reaction of people around him to any distinctive feature, whether physical (‘ginger’, ‘fat’, ‘lame’, ‘four-eyes’, ‘lefthander’), connected with his background (from a national minority, a refugee, homeless or from a children’s home), or to do with his self-determination (religion, sexual orientation, ideology) can cause a child psychological trauma.
The second – fundamental – Article of the Convention reads: ‘States Parties shall respect and ensure the rights set forth in the present Convention to each child within their jurisdiction without discrimination of any kind.’ Children are diverse and their rights are equal. To guarantee all children in equal measure the benefits that they are entitled to is just as complicated as it is to allocate chairs to children of diverse growth and development. The solution is the same: those who are smaller must be given higher chairs, those who cannot walk must be given wheelchairs, and so on. The same applies to rights: children whose abilities differ from the norm on account of life circumstances or because of natural causes must be given additional rights in order to guarantee their access to the basic benefits of life. This is called ‘affirmative action’ or ‘positive discrimination’.
The phrase ‘We do not discriminate at all – to us, all children are equal’ is very commonly heard. The danger of this seemingly neutral position is that ignoring difference most often leads to discrimination against ‘others’, those who cannot or do not want to be like everyone else. Since everyone is the same, why not set athletic standards for everyone, and if somebody is not capable, expel them from school? Since everyone is the same, let everyone speak only Russian and take part in Orthodox prayer on 1st September. If somebody speaks to his brother in Romani, it must be forbidden; if somebody refuses to pray, it is considered defamation (as was the case this year, when a first-former in the Voronezh region was beaten for his refusal to participate in prayer).
The rights of children with particular features – physical, cultural, or ideological – are also strengthened by human rights regulations. The Convention on the Rights of the Child guarantees the right to a worthwhile and full value life for children with physical or psychological disabilities, the right to their own language, culture and religion to children from social minorities, and the right to protection and aid to child refugees, child prisoners and homeless children.
In addition, there exist other conventions concerning both children and adults’ rights. In the UN there are conventions forbidding all forms of racial discrimination and all forms of discrimination against women, and conventions on social-economic, cultural, political and citizens’ rights. In the Council of Europe there is a separate Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. It should be understood that the necessity for the acceptance and fulfilment of all these vitally important international documents is connected precisely with the present real inequality amongst people – between children and adults, between men and women, between authoritarians and dissidents, between rich and poor, and of those representing national minorities. It is essential to guarantee all these people not only declared ‘equal rights’ but also genuine equal opportunities for an active, independent and full value life. It is only possible to do this if one allows for and respects difference. The refusal to acknowledge and appreciate what distinguishes a person is also a form of discrimination.
Inequality is also often defined by such factors as difference in place of residence. This is sometimes called ‘geographical discrimination’. The residents of rural locations often lack the opportunity for contact with the cultural benefits which are accessible to city dwellers. On the other hand, city dwellers suffer from pollution of the air and water. To some extent or another, such inequalities in the distribution of benefits is unavoidable for the time being (in the same way as, unfortunately, the evidently more profitable situation of wealthy people and their children in relation to the poor is unavoidable in our society). But the most essential minimum must be guaranteed: the genuine availability of access to schools and hospitals, an environment safe for the life and development of the child, the opportunity to maintain personal hygiene, play and rest – all these must be available to absolutely all children, wherever they may live, whoever their parents are, whatever their social and government status. Unfortunately, many children are still deprived of these most elementary conditions, and the whole world community bears responsibility for the non-observance of their rights. This concerns both hundreds of thousands of children in the Russian Federation – the homeless, those in prison, patients of certain hospitals and residents of boarding schools, refugees, and also simply children from deprived and difficult to access regions, from polluted areas, from poor and neglected communities of nomadic peoples and national minorities.
The right of the child to their own opinion
The last point which I would like to explore is the right of children to their own opinion. This is probably the most difficult for adults to acknowledge. Article 12 of the Convention for the Rights of the Child guarantees ‘to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child.’ This opinion should be taken into consideration in the making of any decisions concerning the child. It is clear that almost all decisions concern children, whether they concern politics or economics, culture or ecology, life in the family, at school or in the community. The implementation of this right may facilitate school and youth parliaments and all kinds of children’s discussions and elections. However, experts see danger in the coercion of children to participate obligatorily in debates and discussions, since this may in itself be a form of enslavement and pressure on children. (How can we forget our own pioneer childhood and all those tiring group meetings!) The participation of children in decision making, in the discussion of problems and questions concerning them, must remain particularly voluntary and independent. To organise a pseudo-democratic display may be worse than simply leaving children in peace.
In my opinion, the most vital and most difficult task in the realisation in real life of the principle of children’s participation is changing the awareness of adults regarding this question. In society, in the family and in the state, power is in the hands of adults. To accept the influence of children’s rights on this power is an enormous challenge for the majority of us. It is first of all necessary to renounce the conviction so characteristic of many, ‘I am an adult, and therefore I am right.’
In the words of the Dutch specialist in children’s rights, Geraldin Van Buren,
‘Refusing or allowing children to participate is often regarded as conditional not upon the child’s maturity but upon the child’s behaviour or upon the child’s ability to avoid making mistakes. If the latter criteria were equally applicable to adults there would be few who would be free to exercise their right to freedom of expression.’