‘Children should have power and agency to claim their rights’

JOANNE SAVAGE talks to Patrick Corrigan from Amnesty NI on how children should be empowered

Friday, 3rd September 2021, 8:00 am
Angelina Jolie is promoting a drive to empower children to know their rights

Angelina Jolie and Amnesty International have joined forces to create a powerful resource for children and young people to learn about their rights, with the publication yesterday of a hard-hitting new book which empowers teenagers to speak out against injustice.

Know Your Rights and Claim Them is written for children and is informed by them. It explains what child rights are, how they came into being, how governments are failing to uphold them, and it equips young people with the knowledge they need to protect themselves and others.

Know Your Rights includes how-to guides such as what to do if a young person is pepper sprayed at a protest, how to talk to the police if they are challenged or arrested, tips on being a trans or non-binary ally, and steps to take if a young person - or someone known to them - is being sexually groomed or abused.

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Written in collaboration with Professor Geraldine Van Bueren, a UK-based QC and one of the original drafters of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the book features the stories of incredible young activists who are at the forefront of human rights change around the world - from campaigning on climate change, to demanding access to education or speaking out against racial discrimination and violence.

New YouGov polling to accompany the book found that an overwhelming 83% of children in the UK aged 8-15 said they know little or nothing about their own rights.

Sixty-four per cent of children said they knew only a little about their rights, with a further 19% saying they didn’t know anything at all.

Four-fifths (80%) of children thought it should be compulsory to be taught about rights in school, while two-thirds (66%) of the parents agreed with this proposition.

Angelina Jolie said: “If governments kept their word, and if all adults respected children’s rights, there would be no need for this book. Governments signed up to protect children’s rights in 1989, yet many of them are still failing to listen to the voices of children. In some countries, girls as young as nine are forced into marriage.

Globally, more than 61m children don’t attend primary schools and in 2019 one in six children were living in extreme poverty - a number that rose significantly during the pandemic.

“Know Your Rights and Claim Them is the book some adults don’t want children to read, as it will arm them with the knowledge to defend their rights and those of others. Children have rights just as adults do and they should have the power and agency to claim them.”

Climate change campaigner and dynamo Greta Thunberg added on reading the publication that “this is the perfect book for young people who care about the world and want to make a difference.”

Here in Northern Ireland Amnesty is calling on schools across the province to commit to allowing children to take part in protests without fearing that they will be punished, even if they take place during school hours.

The human rights charity has this week launched a petition to education ministers across the UK, including Northern Ireland Education Minister Michelle McIlveen, calling for a guarantee that children will be protected from punishment for taking action in defence of human rights whilst in school.

Patrick Corrigan, Northern Ireland director of Amnesty International, said: “We’d love to see this book on the shelves of every school library in Northern Ireland. Young people should feel supported in standing up for a fairer future. That’s why we want principals and the Education Minister to let pupils know they can protest without fear of punishment.”

Corrigan refers to young human rights activists around the world taking a stand against climate change, as inspired by the firebrand that is Greta Thunberg, and on other issues such as racism, homophobia and other matters that cause them concern for their future: “The coming generation will have to deal with a future determined by how we deal with these issues and they should be empowered to know that they have the power to be able to take a stand through peaceful protest.

“During the climate change protests in 2019 we wrote to every school principal arguing that children should be able to make their voices heard on this core issue, encouraging them to facilitate the involvement of their pupils in such protests. Some schools did impose sanctions on pupils for doing so and we think this is wrong because children should be encouraged to know their rights and become empowered citizens of the world.”

How does Northern Ireland fare compared to other jurisdictions in terms of enshrining and protecting the rights of the child?

Corrigan continues: “The UK and therefore Northern Ireland were signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which underpins rights here. And obviously we have the Children’s And Young Persons Commissioner, Koulla Yiasouma, who is a great advocate for young people in helping them to know their rights.”

Given that one in four children in Northern Ireland, according to statistics by Save the Children, are living in poverty and have been for the past 10 years, a situation augmented by Covid, with the proposed £20 reduction to Universal Credit given approval by Chancellor Rishi Sunak, it could be argued that the Executive is failing Northern Ireland’s children and violating their right to live in economically viable circumstances.

“Children have a right to an adequate standard of living and we know when benefits are cut to the bone and children are forced into poverty that this has grave outcomes for their mental and physical development and wellbeing.

“No child should have to live in poverty and the NI Executive in tandem with governments across the world should indeed do all they can to mitigate against this.”

Obviously children below a certain age are not capable of grasping or understanding their rights, nor indeed spearheading protests against the injustices foisted upon them, so this is a book that must be read by parents, guardians and policy makers too: “Children are vulnerable and therefore their rights should be given special protection,” emphasises Corrigan.

Child protection in Northern Ireland remains an issue of concern, given the legacy of historical child abuse in children’s homes and elsewhere, but Corrigan is reluctant to comment on whether we have an adequate framework in place here to afford children iron-clad defence against the many forms of abuse children can be subject to.

“The world is facing a huge existential crisis and we all have a responsibility to make this a fairer place to live and I do think that children have an innate sense of fairness.

“However, with younger children, obviously it falls to adults to protect their rights. It is incumbent on adults and governments to listen to the concerns and voices of children. It’s arrogant to dismiss children’s voices just because they are young.”

Has enough been done to protect child wellbeing as a result of the disruptions to routine, education and social interaction occasioned by lockdown?

“There needs to be huge steps taken in the forthcoming school year and beyond to ensure that the damage to child wellbeing as a result of lockdown is sufficiently addressed because remote learning and the lack of social interaction certainly did have a negative impact on children’s psychological, emotional and physical wellbeing,” concludes Corrigan.

Know Your Rights and Claim Them, published by Anderson Press, priced £7.99, is available in the UK now. It will then be published in various other languages.