“A child is an insurgent”: 25 years of children’s rights

Alia Fakhry, translated by Lucie Perrier
3 Décembre 2014

The Convention on the Rights of the Child celebrates its 25th anniversary today. It gives us the opportunity to recall the work of UNICEF, the United Nations agency in charge of child protection throughout the world, but it also allows us to highlight one of the rights of children often put aside: the right to freedom of expression.

Crédit Unicef
Crédit Unicef
“Un enfant, c’est un insurgé” (“A child is an insurgent”) Simone de Beauvoir stated in Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée, 1958. (translated into English as Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter but more literally "Memoirs of a well-behaved girl").

What some understand as naivety or candid innocence is for others a perfect and terrible conscientiousness of our reality and of its incoherence. With her words, Simone de Beauvoir reminds us how the eyes of childhood observe the world that surrounds them: with intensity, wonder, emotion or fear and sometimes anger and contempt. And it is all of these feelings, this new look that we sometimes lose over time, which makes a child’s voice an innovative and necessary one.

Essential rights

Necessary on the one hand because a young person’s right to participation is one of the five fundamental pillars of their development, in the same way as is the right to identity, to education, to protection and to health. Developping his or her opinion and presenting it to others, even though sometimes contradictory, detaching themselves from their most intimate beliefs, prepares the child to become a grown-up and responsible citizen.

But it is also a necessity because favoring the participation of young people in exchange for ideas guarantees a democratic regime and a rule of law. To allow children to express their opinion is to open a constructive, plural and innovative deliberative process. As citizens, it is our right as much as our duty to participate in national debates, and the same goes for children. 

Respecting children's right to freedom of expression, inexhaustible sources of inspiration, thus does not constitute an option or some kind of luxury. It means encouraging young people to express their points of view on problems, which concern them, closely or remotely. Young people’s voices, which are only significant if authentic, sincere and preserved from any manipulation, must first of all be listened to and be taken into account by its interlocutors. Whether it is within families, at school, in associations, Young people’s Councils or even in front of the United Nations General Assembly, any place should encourage the expression of children, as long as their voice and their will are respected.

Still much progress to be made

The fruit of 10 years of negotiations between governments, international organizations and rights’ defenders, the CRC - Convention on the Rights of the Child - takes into account all rights and freedoms concerning childhood and constitutes the major legal tool protecting child welfare around the world, with which UNICEF has been made the guardian by Article 45.

However, while 193 States have ratified the CRC since its drafting in 1989, children’s voices are still ignored in too many countries.

Created in 1946 with the aim to help children affected by World War II in Eastern Europe, UNICEF - United Nations International Children Emergency Funds - was initially intended to be a temporary organization. However, the specific nature of child protection and the infinite dimension of this task devoted UNICEF as a key permanent agency in the functioning of the UN. It is in charge of the protection and promotion of children around the world, which it carries out through the coordination of actions of different organizations in the field, through solicitation of donors, cooperation with governments and public awareness through advocacy.

If UNICEF, NGOs and other organizations working towards the protection of children around the world have managed in the last 25 years to halve infant mortality rates, to enroll twice as many children in school or to reduce trafficking of children, it is still the case that 218 million of them are still working.

And if one is alarmed by the situation of children in so-called "Southern" countries, such as in the Middle East where the number of Syrian children refugees exceeded a million, there are still 30,000 children living in the streets and who are isolated in France. The right to freedom of expression is in turn harder to quantify and therefore harder to enforce. 

To mark this anniversary, UNICEF France gave the floor to 18 children across the world to express their dreams and wishes. “18” is the age at which they are no longer considered as children, or as human beings who require  special rights and duties and specific protection.

“But these children are well, they have shouted, you have heard them, they are even very well. We must quickly take care of those who no longer speak, of those who no longer cry” Françoise Dolto, quoted by Andrée Ruffo, Les enfants de l’ombre (“Children of the Shadows”).