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The History of Children's Rights: Whose Story?

It is impossible for any welfare agency, at any level, to ignore the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). All policy and program planning for children claim to be "rights-based," and this Convention is inscribed into the mission statements of intergovernmental agencies and non-governmental organisations. It justifies the existence of a myriad of child rights organisations and specialists. All this has happened within the space of just over two decades, so that it appears as if the history of child rights is recent, modern and novel.

Child Rights, Adult Heroes

As if to illustrate the axiom that history is always written by the "winners," the heroes and heroines of the history of children's rights are adults. Indeed, this history narrates how and why the CRC was written, rather than the development of children's rights. It is also essentially grounded in the histories written by the dominant nations of the North.

Early European notions of what would now be recognised as children's rights emphasized both children's need for special protection and their place in society within families and schools, but not in the workplace. Although these ideas were current throughout the nineteenth century (in child labor reform for example) the first identification of children as subjects of rights, rather than objects of concern, is usually associated with the work of Eglantyne Jebb. One outcome of this splendid Edwardian lady's experiences in charitable work with the Macedonian Relief Fund during the Balkan War of the early twentieth century was that, at the outbreak of the First World War, she declared herself a pacifist. This was not a popular decision among the jingoistic British public, but she remained stalwart, insisting that "all wars are waged against children."

Miss Jebb was the prime mover behind both the Save the Children Movement and the International Peace Union. The former organisation, set up in 1919, was dedicated to child protection and operated under a Declaration of Child Rights. This was the first global charter protecting the rights of a particular section of the community focused on children. It was taken over almost without alteration by the League of Nations in 1924 as the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child, and with some additions and amendments by the UN in 1959.

Children had already been mentioned in the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which established the modern human rights principle of interference in the affairs of other sovereign states. Article 25, Paragraph 2 of the Universal Declaration states that "Motherhood and children are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection." Other Declarations and Covenants, both of the UN and of other inter-governmental bodies, such as the Council of Europe, the Organisation of African Unity and the Pan-American Organisation, have echoed this concern about protection, which is based on the perceived developmental immaturity of young children. (Byrne, 1998) Indeed, the original 1924 Declaration was based on ideas of child welfare, rather than child rights, assuming that children require adult protection in order to ensure the exercise of their rights. These ideas persisted through the re-drafting of the Declaration during the lifetime of the League of Nations, as well as in the 1959 UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child. Thus children continued to be seen as objects of international human rights law and not as subjects of rights.

Another children's rights agenda, which goes beyond protection to considering children as full subjects of human rights, including rights of self-determination, became part of the international community's consciousness in 1979, the UN International Year of the Child, during which the UN Commission on Human Rights began to consider the Polish government's 1978 proposal for a CRC based on the text of the 1959 Declaration. The fact that the proposal came from Poland, at a time when the Iron Curtain still split Europe into two different worlds is often attributed to the life and work of Janusz Korczak, a pioneer of child welfare who, in 1942, died with orphan children from the Warsaw Ghetto. (Olczak, 1965)

Poland can also claim a current child rights hero in Professor Adam Lopatka, who is sometimes referred to as the "Father of the Convention" and served as the President of the Working Group on the CRC. This assembly of government representatives met annually in Geneva between 1979 and 1988. It was responsible for the painstaking process of turning an original 19-point draft into the 54-Article human rights instrument adopted by the General Assembly of the UN in November 1989. That the drafting process took the best part of a decade was due to the many social and legal differences between states. A paragraph on children born outside wedlock, for example, became a topic of debate because of the diversity of forms of marriage and marriage laws. Articles on adoption and fostering raised the completely different perspectives on these issues in Islam and Christianity. (Detrick, 1992)

The resultant text is imprecise, but has the advantage of covering the whole range of human rights notions -- not only civil and political, but also economic, social and cultural rights. The imprecision may be irritating from the point of view of international agencies, such as UNICEF, which look for universal standards that can be easily encompassed by global programming. Some rights, such as protection against sexual exploitation, might never have been part of the CRC if the Working Group had not constantly sought consensus. A further advantage of the relatively vague wording is that it makes it possible for regional instruments such as the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child to be drafted. Few African countries participated consistently in the drafting process for the CRC, although African countries were among the first to submit reports. The OAU felt that in the face of local economic, social and political conditions, a complementary instrument was necessary in order to implement the CRC in African countries. Thus the African Charter was first drafted in 1988 at a regional meeting to discuss a final draft of the CRC, and is designed to "retain the spirit as well as the substance of [the] letter" of the UN Convention, while making "special provisions guided by the ground situation in Africa." (Organisation of African Unity, 1990) The same considerations apply to the implementation of the UN instrument through its incorporation into the domestic law of ratifying states.

Nevertheless, it is notable that the main input to the drafting process came from the nations of the North, which has resulted in accusations of cultural bias as well as renewed debates about whether human rights can be applied universally. As anthropologist and child rights campaigner Jo Boyden has pointed out, globalisation is not just an economic concept, but applies also to the cultural imperialism that underpins economic structures: the images of childhood favored in the industrial North have been exported to the South. The view that childhood is a fixed notion, "defined by biological and physiological facts" rather than culture or society, is explicit in international children's rights legislation. The rights lobby is in the forefront of the global spread of norms of childhood that are integral to the history and culture of Europe and North America.

Human Rights and Children's Rights

There is a weaker myth holding sway outside human rights circles that UNICEF invented, wrote and controls the CRC, but the drafting process of the 1980s was driven by the non-governmental sector. UNICEF is recorded as showing a "total lack of initial interest in the exercise" and did not send strong delegations to the Working Group until 1986, by which time it had become clear that in time the text of the CRC would be put before the UN General Assembly for adoption. (Cantwell, 1992)

Nevertheless, UNICEF was instrumental in promoting the widespread ratification of the UN Convention through organising the 1990 World Summit for Children. This meeting of 71 world leaders in New York was the largest ever meeting of heads of state and had the objective of obtaining their signatures to this new human rights document. In this respect it was supremely successful. It is part of the overall myth of the CRC (appearing to be a compulsory preface to any account -- historical or otherwise) that no other piece of human rights law has come into force so rapidly, nor received quite so much public attention.

A second objective of the Summit was to ensure that children actually enjoy the rights provided. The meeting ended with agreement on a Plan of Action that included twelve broad goals to be achieved before 2000. All signatories promised to develop national plans of action to this end, and to report on progress at five-year intervals. Yet it is clear that in this respect the Summit was unsuccessful. In some cases the narrowly conceived twelve Summit goals have obscured, or well nigh obliterated, the much broader range of rights in the CRC. In others, national plans of action have been drawn up but not provided with a budget sufficient for implementation. Sometimes the only changes made are legal. In some cases, nothing has happened at all. As Belgian lawyer Eugeen Verhellen has pointed out, it often seems as if there is more concern to protect children's rights than to protect children.

Children have not always been on the human rights agenda as a separate group. Indeed, the human rights agenda itself is a relatively recent historical phenomenon. The question of children's rights was not an issue for the French Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1780. Children were regarded as a residual category of person, lacking full human rights. At that time European societies simply thought of children as the property of their parents, and not particularly valuable property at that. According to Blackstone's 1758 legal commentaries in England, for instance, child abduction was not theft in the legal sense unless the child happened to be dressed. The thief was regarded as having stolen the clothes. Apart from that, child theft was tantamount to stealing a corpse. In the case of both a dead body and a live child, no legal person was involved.

The modern era of international human rights law can be said to begin with the establishment of the UN system after the 1939-1945 Second World War, specifically with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The Declaration clearly established the principle that nations that are members of an intergovernmental body, such as the UN, can intervene in the domestic affairs of other states to ensure that citizens' rights are respected. A number of other treaties followed the Universal Declaration, dealing with different groups of persons and rights. But rights are indivisible. The CRC is only conceivable, and can only be implemented, if it is seen in the context of the international human rights agenda in its entirety. In the Preamble to the Convention this is made clear through reference to preceding human rights instruments. Rights that are not spelt out in the CRC, but which applied to children before it was drafted and adopted, include consideration of their special needs and vulnerability in times of armed conflict, as well as protection against trafficking, exploitative work, torture and prostitution.

During the 1980s, many (even some child rights activists) claimed that, as children are human beings and the subjects of all human rights, they did not need a special human rights instrument devoted to them as a group. Yet it is clear from current histories of child rights that children are viewed as objects of rights in a discourse of welfare concern more often than they are recognised as subjects of rights. The CRC is innovative in making it clear that, with respect to international human rights law, children are active subjects. They not only require certain forms of protection in addition to the "normal" entitlements of human rights law, they also require special forms of protection because they are in a vulnerable position, both legally and developmentally. These entitlements include the right to have their opinion taken into consideration when adults take decisions on their behalf (Article 12), to express their views (Article 13) and to join or form associations to represent their own interests (Article 15).

Children in the History of Child Rights?

Thus the accepted current histories of child rights are based on what adults have done and should do for children. They do not provide information about actions children might have taken toward their own self-determination. As the historical record has been almost entirely in the hands of adults, this is not surprising. Still, the record is not entirely blank. Royal and aristocratic children have had a place in history, often wielding power well below the age at which they would be able to vote in elections, but more often under the tutorship of adults who exercised power on their behalf. In 1212, Children's Crusades mobilised thousands of children eight years old and older to march across Europe from France and Germany to recapture the Holy Land for Christianity. They were not led by adults, but by boys, Stephen of Cloyes in France and Nicholas from Cologne, both 12 years of age. Nevertheless, even the number of fictional accounts of this movement is small compared to the literature on other crusades. (Gray, 1897; Munroe, 1914)

Most of children's political actions in Europe concentrated on schools. (Hoyles, 1979) A petition for better school discipline was presented to the English Parliament in 1669 by a boy believed to be linked with the Levellers, a group associated with ideas of social equality. (Ennew, 1986) Adults rarely seem to have taken this type of action seriously. Children's strikes for better education and discipline in England in 1889, 1911, 1914 and the 1920s all tended to be trivialised by the media. Likewise, schoolchildren who formed unions in France and the United Kingdom in activities associated with the student movements of 1968 that produced the now largely forgotten Little Red Schoolbook (Hansen & Jensen, 1971) were either assumed to be mimicking university students or regarded as requiring more effective adult control. Children have also organised outside formal schooling. In 1899 New York newspaper boys formed a union to combat wage cuts imposed by newspaper barons. In 1902 in the USA, children went on strike together with adults to draw attention to child work in mining. (McKechnie & Hobbs, 1998) Children and youth in Ghana took independent action against agricultural employers in the 1960s and 1970s. (Van Heer, 1982) Since the mid-1970s, some groups working with street and working children, particularly agencies with a background in workers' rights rather than in child welfare, have also promoted the development of political and organizational skills among children. Even though these efforts pre-dated the adoption of the CRC they are clearly in the spirit of Article 15, the children's right to form associations, especially in view of the universal ban on children joining trade unions.

Children's independent assertion of their views and rights is not only frequently trivialised by adults -- it can also be violently suppressed. Examples of suppression abound in countries in the South, where the division between adult and child is often more blurred than in the North. Children were at the forefront of the fight against Apartheid in South Africa and in the intifada in Palestine, suffering death, injury and imprisonment alongside adults, and frequently initiating political action. Yet, in the peace processes following these struggles there is a resurgence of the tendency to undervalue their contribution. Adults no longer treat the former child fighters as heroes, preferring to pathologise them as traumatised victims, assuming that their future contribution to the societies they helped establish will be negative. Children may be permitted to make history, but they are excluded from making policy. They can be very perceptive about the way adults colonise and reinterpret their activities. Thus, when adults began to take over the environmental movement called set settal that had been initiated by Senegalese children and youth, the young people voted with their feet and the movement failed.

History Since "The Convention"

Over a decade has passed since the CRC came into force, and the history of child rights has not stood still. One major change has been a new attitude on the part of professionals in child welfare, and some radical changes of action among child welfare organisations. UNICEF, for example, once managed through setting health goals for universal achievement, makes explicit in its 1996 Mission Statement that the organisation's work begins from a child rights perspective. At the start of the twenty-first century it is no longer possible for policies concerning children to be developed without at least nominally taking children into account as subjects of rights, however mistaken or hostile some notions of child rights may be.

This change has had three main consequences:

A new approach to children and childhood, in which children are seen as subjects of rights, with their own perspectives;

The realisation that children are not simply passive objects of concern or victims but that they make important contributions to society;

A demand for more and better information about all aspects of children's lives.

Perhaps more importantly, the CRC has given rise to a wide range of new, supplementary international human rights agreements concerning children. These include Optional Protocols to the Convention itself, on sexual exploitation and children in armed conflict. In addition, Convention 182 of the Interna-tional Labour Confe-rence on "worst forms" of child labor and the 1997 Convention on land mines have both been the subject of widespread debates that would almost certainly not have taken place without the stimulus of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Other, less well known, international treaties and agreements that have been drawn up for children during this period expand the rights provided for children in the spheres of justice, adoption and education.

One of the more interesting tendencies in child welfare circles over the past decade has been a vast flowering of organisations advocating child participation (variously defined) using the provisions of Articles 12, 13 and 15 of the CRC to give a child rights gloss to their activities. These organisations have organised quasi-political meetings of children, such as children's parliaments, at both national and international levels. A number of well-established nongovernmental organisations in developing countries have children involved at all levels of decision making including, in most cases, what are normally considered to be "adult" activities like fundraising and project management. Youth representatives have attended some parts of well-publicised international conferences on the environment, human rights, social development and child labor. Although the children usually have adult accompaniment, they are said to prepare their own presentations and speeches. Nevertheless, children tend to participate through adult selection rather than as child representatives, it sometimes seems that any child's voice will be regarded as having a special authenticity, as long as it is heard on a public platform and applauded by adults. It is important to realise that visibility does not equal participation. (Woollcombe, 1998) At this point, there is little evidence that the views of young people have had any effect on policy making. Indeed, with respect to child workers from the South who ask to be accorded the dignity of work, their views are regularly drowned out by adult-orchestrated cries for the elimination of child labor.

Thus, the history of child rights continues to be the history of adult actions. This will be the case as long as adults fail to take into consideration their fundamental duties under Articles 12, 13 and 15 of the CRC and invite children to the tables at which policies are decided and evaluated, facilitating debates in which children can take their meaningful and rightful places.

References & further reading

Boyden, J. (1990). "Childhood and the Policymakers," in Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood. James, J., & Prout, A., Eds. London, New York, Philadelphia: Falmer Press. Pp 184-215.

Byrne, I. (1998). The Human Rights of Street and Working Children. London: Intermediate Technology Publications.

Cantwell, N. (1992). "The Origins, Development and Significance of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child," in The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child: A Guide to the "Travaux Préparatoires." Detrick, S., Ed. Dordrecht, Boston, London: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. Pp. 19-30.

Derrick, S., Ed. (1992). The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child: A Guide to the "Travaux Préparatoires." Dordrecht, Boston, London: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.

Ennew, J. (1986). The Sexual Exploitation of Children. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Gray, G.Z. (1897). The Children's Crusade, London. Hansen, S., & Jensen, J. (1971). The Little Red Schoolbook. London.

Hoyles, M. (1979). Changing Childhood. London: Writers and Readers Publishing Collective.

McKechnie, J., & Hobbs, S., (1998). Working Children: Reconsidering the Debates. Amsterdam: International Working Group on Child Labour.

Munroe, D.C. (1914). The Children's Crusade. American Historical Review, XIX.

Olczak, H. (1965). Mister Docto: The Life of Janusz Korczak. London: Peter Davies.

Organisation of African Unity. (1990). Report of the InterGovernmental Group Meeting on the Draft African Charter on the Rights of the Child, 17-21 April, 1990. Addis Ababa.

Van Hoer, N. (1982). Child Labour and the Development of Capitalist Agciculture in Ghana. Development and Change, 13, pp 499-514.

Verhellen, E. (1997). Expert Evidence. Report: First Public Hearings of the International Tribunal for Children's Rights. International Bureau of Children's Rights. Montreal.

Woollcombe, D. (1998). Children's Conferences and Councils. Stepping Forward: Children and Young People's Participation in the Development Process. Johnson, V., Ivan-Smith, E., Gordon, G., Pridmore, P., Scott, P., Eds. London: Intermediate Technology Publications. Pp. 236-240.

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