By Sarah Roberts, Families Outside
International Children’s Day on the 20th November marks the 25th Anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) – the most widely endorsed international human rights treaty. Over the past twenty five years, the UNCRC has changed the way that children are viewed and treated – children are now recognised as holders of a distinct set of rights instead of passive objects in need of care and charity. The unprecedented acceptance of the UNCRC across continents shows a global commitment to advancing children’s rights.
As we mark the 25th anniversary of the UNCRC, there is much to celebrate here in Scotland. Together’s 2014 State of Children’s Rights report welcomes the Scottish Government’s legislative commitment to the UNCRC through the Children & Young People (Scotland) Act. It reports on the many positive steps being taken in Scotland to ensure that children are seen as rights holders, from training programmes for teachers through to embedding children’s rights into the new national Play Strategy. However, it also acts as a reminder that a significant number of Scotland’s children go unnoticed within the very structures that are designed to protect them.
Many young people are overlooked because policy and support systems simply don’t take them into account. Despite welcome developments in recent years for men and women who are HIV positive, children like Kylie and Clare, who live in families affected by HIV do not always receive the support they need. Stigma around HIV means that many children often feel unable to be open about their parents’ condition, and the need for secrecy can be a burden that leaves them feeling ‘different’ and isolated.
Chloe also knows about feelings of stigma and shame. Her needs are also overlooked by support systems and policy makers. Chloe’s mother is in prison and, rather than support and recognition, Chloe has experienced isolation: she has stopped being invited to classmates’ parties and faces day-to-day bullying (“Stay away from her, her mum’s in prison!”). Chloe has done nothing wrong and yet is serving a hidden sentence of her own. No one asked about her care when her mum went to prison. Her right to the family life she had known was taken away without her needs being taken into account, or being given the opportunity to express her views.
Children with a disability are specifically mentioned within the UNCRC, but what about the siblings of those who are disabled? For these children, it can feel like all the focus and attention is on someone else, while the impact on them goes unnoticed. Every aspect of a family’s life with a disabled child is determined by that child’s needs (from daily meals and activities to holidays and social occasions), and other siblings can often feel that their own needs don’t matter.
Asylum seeking and refugee children face particular barriers to ensuring that their rights are recognised and protected. This is especially the case when they arrive in the UK alone like Maryam, with no one to help them navigate the complex legal processes that are involved in seeking protection and support. Children such as Maryam should receive equal treatment to every other child when it comes to the provision of services. Yet the linguistic and cultural differences, compounded by the trauma they have often suffered, means that they, too, often go unnoticed.
Negotiating their way through systems designed for adults is a huge challenge for children like the 13-year old who needed her own legal assistance. Despite the fact that a court decision would have direct impact on her (in this case regarding contact with her grandmother), no independent legal assistance was made available to her. She experienced a high level of anxiety about decisions being made about her that did not take her own views into account.
The good news is that young people themselves clearly have a lot to say and want to be involved in decisions that concern them; their engagement in this year’s Scottish independence referendum was proof of that. Young people debated, listened, spoke out, and acted – in a political arena from which they for too long have been excluded. As 16-year old Kirsty says, “I think it’s paramount that young people have a say in the running of their country and who represents them. We are engaged and interested and, despite what people say, we’re mature enough to make an informed decision.”
Children’s participation in decision making must no longer be an optional extra but instead should be at right at the heart of policy and practice, from education and health through to justice, environment and planning. Perhaps of all the Articles in the UNCRC, Article 12 is the one that should remain forefront in the minds of policy makers and practitioners: You have the right to an opinion and for it to be listened to and taken seriously.
The Children & Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 places duties on Ministers and public bodies that aim to ensure children’s rights are at the heart of decisions that affect them. However, culture change needs more than just legislation. It is up to all of us to challenge attitudes and practices to ensure children’s rights are respected. On this Universal Children’s Day – the 25th anniversary of the UNCRC – now is the time for all of us to recognise the rights of all children all the time.