The need for a healthy balance and perspective when discussing relationships between adults and children is urgent and glaring, not least because of the acutely material social, spiritual, moral, physical and economic inequalities that lie at the heart of such matters. How have the People of Ireland fared during the Children’s Referendum deliberations?
This article will focus on the need to acknowledge how limited and inadequate our present culture of thinking about children’s rights is. I will be urging us all to embrace new and socially innovative ways of strengthening the place of children as participants in society. In so doing I will draw particular inspiration from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which Ireland ratified in 1992.
However, my starting point is the late Elise Boulding, a sociologist, pacifist feminist and scholar. She warned that: ‘We may be unnecessarily sabotaging our present, and our children’s future, by being blind to the inconsistencies and irrationalities of adult-child interaction in family and community in this century. Mass media programmes about the right to a happy and secure childhood and to a happy and secure retirement cannot substitute for the actual experience of frank and honest confrontation between generations when perceptions, needs and interests differ, in a context of mutual acceptance of responsibility for each other’.
Writing in 1979, Elise went on to assert that whatever the merits of special programmes undertaken for children, they can never substitute for joint community projects carried out by adults and children together in which ‘the capacities of the young to contribute to the welfare of all receives full recognition’.
There is no doubt that the Children’s Referendum has been fruitful. The discussions and debates engendered by it have at best served to clarify important issues; at worst they have allowed individuals to vent their spleen, in the process revealing deeply prejudiced views and sentiments alongside much else.
In one Irish Times article entitled ‘Parental rights for State will undermine family’ the author claimed that ‘the question facing us in this referendum is not whether to give children constitutional rights, but whether to reallocate existing family rights so as to give the State enhanced powers to interfere in family life’. Remarkable!
Deeply cynical interpretations and attitudes have featured strongly in discussions concerning the Referendum; polarizations and aggressive beliefs, crude perceptions and unnecessary confrontations, not to mention the misleading effects of language, have all influenced the outcome. Against this backdrop, the recent Supreme Court ruling that the Government had ‘acted wrongfully’ in spending public money to espouse a particular side in the campaign came as no surprise to many and probably most of us.
The profile of children has clearly been raised in recent weeks and by effecting constitutional change, the Referendum itself represents a catalyst for action that will help to ensure we remain focussed on maximising the visibility, legitimacy and credibility of children and children’s rights.
Strengthening these rights in Irish society through child protection legislation such as the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Adults) Bill 2012 and the Children First Bill 2012 draws attention to a vital need for common sense and balance to ensure that vetting and reporting procedures for organisations do not amount to bureaucratic nightmares.
But society also needs to engage in socially innovative and impactful mechanisms that develop and implement strategic visions aimed at improving the participation of children in Irish society. A comprehensive legislative framework to support such initiatives is also required.
Why? For a start, participation is the only means by which a truly democratic foundation in society can be established. Participation in society, and not merely through the ballot box, is the fundamental right of citizenship. By voting ‘Yes’ to the Children’s Referendum, the People of Ireland have helped to ensure Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – the right of children to be heard and have their views taken seriously in all matters affecting them – will be fully ingrained into the highest law of the land.
The Committee on the Rights of the Child is the independent body entrusted with monitoring the UN Convention. It publishes its interpretation of the content of human rights provisions in the form of General Comments. These comments cover thematic issues such as children’s rights in juvenile justice, adolescent health, the rights of children with disabilities and protection from corporal punishment.
General Comment 12 – The Right of the Child to be Heard, published in 2009 – acknowledges that practical implementation of Article 12 is still impeded by many longstanding practices and attitudes. Throughout the world training for professionals on children’s rights is far from comprehensive and it is very clear that those most urgently in need of such training include teachers, social workers, health professionals, care workers, the police and judges.
Article 12 is a substantive provision but also a general principle of the Convention. It is accompanied by a cluster of participation articles that, interpreted together, provide the argument for the child’s right to participate. An underlying philosophy of the Convention is therefore that children should have their views taken into account, not only because this is a fundamental right, but because it improves decision-making.
Every child possesses, like every human being, a unique voice. Children are the experts in their own lives. They are skilled communicators, entitled to participate fully in life and to make informed choices as they do. Participation can generally be taken to denote the process of sharing decisions that affect an individual’s life and that of the community in which he or she lives.
So, for example, every professional whose decisions influence the lives of children is, by virtue of the Convention, required to listen to them. The fundamentals of childhood are clearly defined by the Convention and so too are the obligations of individuals, parents, communities and governments to meet the needs of children and fulfil their rights.
By insisting the child’s voice must be heard and given serious consideration, the Convention, and now the Irish Constitution, is seeking to ensure that children actively contribute to the formation of law, policy and practice regulating and influencing their everyday lives. Emphasis therefore needs more than ever to be placed on the role of the child as an active social agent who shapes their own social circumstances as well as being shaped by them.
So how do we ensure participation makes the leap from policy promise to an irreversible, widelyunderstood norm in society? Commitment, imagination and courage are essential requirements in bringing about this cultural change to ensure the views, experiences and dignities of all ages are respected.
Back in February of this year I had the good fortune to attend the Trinity Economic Forum (TEF). I heard President Michael D Higgins speak in person for the first time and bore witness to his skills as a politician, poet and perhaps most notably of all, a sociologist. I was particularly struck by the passion of his conviction: ‘More than ever before, we need people…with the confidence to question the failed assumptions, the imagination to consider bold new strategies and the idealism to care deeply about the kind of Ireland that you and your children wish to live in’.
Efforts to develop and solidify youth communities in Ireland spring to mind. SpunOut (www.spunout.ie) for example, is a youth-led national charity working to empower young people between the ages of 16 and 25 to create personal and social change. Through its web-based platform this charity provides an interactive online community for young people providing a space for them to share their views and opinions by writing articles for the site or commenting on pieces written by other young people. It is an important source of health and lifestyle information that has reached over 386,000 unique Irish users online so far this year – an example, par excellence, of the innate value of participation!
Ireland very recently won a seat at the Human Rights Council which, it is very much hoped, will incentivise the development of human rights-based initiatives and models in this country. To quote Shulamith Koenig, the 2003 recipient of the UN Human Rights Award, a real democracy is a means of delivering a system that encompasses ‘the holistic vision and practical mission of human rights as a way of life’. There is nothing naïve about this aspiration and for a nation such as Ireland, as I am confident our President would agree, it is a fully realisable goal.
As reported in The Irish Times (Wed November 14), Michael D Higgins has acknowledged from the outset of his presidency that the crisis facing Ireland is not just an economic crisis but one caused by a failure of ideas. Echoing his passionate appeal back in February at the TEF he emphasized ‘the failure of policy-makers and influence formers to adequately challenge prevailing assumptions and models’ and asserted that there is ‘general consensus that never again should we repeat the hubristic mistakes of the Celtic Tiger’.
Ireland is one of the most socially enterprising nations in the world but perhaps it is now time for it to engage in a revolutionary process of social innovation and entrepreneurship. This would entail collaborating with, but never again placing absolute reliance upon, potentially ruinous institutions. For my part, the holistic vision and practical mission of human rights, of children’s rights, as a way of life, as a value system, ought to be at the centre of this revolution.