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12 December 2012 view online | subscribe | submit information


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This year's Human Rights Day, under the theme “inclusion and the right to participate in public life", comes at a moment in history when civilians around the world, tired of being shut out by their governments, have revived demands for participation to an unprecedented scale. They have done so by taking to the streets in their hundreds of thousands to demand respect for their human rights, including their right to have a say and for their voice to count.

The Day celebrates the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with this year's focus on articles enshrining people's political rights, including the right to freedom of expression and opinion, freedom of assembly and association, and the right to vote. Articles 12, 13 and 15 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child similarly uphold these rights for children. But in celebrating these rights, the Day also spotlights how some groups continue to be excluded from taking part in any decisions, even those that directly affect them and their communities. These disenfranchised groups include the poor, minorities and indigenous peoples, women, persons with disabilities, and children  who in some countries are even banned from taking part in public discourse altogether simply because of their age. 

Indeed, while in many cases the denial of political rights extends to the population of the country as a whole, in others, children – but not adults – are excluded from voting, from participating in protests and from forming or joining associations precisely because of their age. This situation provides yet more evidence of the fact that while children's protection rights are widely accepted, their civil and political rights are relegated to pariah status. In today's CRINMAIL, we look at the restrictions on children’s political rights, as well as exemplary cases of children's participation.  


Voting for the right to vote

The principles of democracy require that everyone should have a say in making the decisions that shape and govern their lives and communities. Being able to take part in public life is essential to the healthy functioning of a democratic society. When it comes to voting in elections, however, children have long been seen as lacking the capabilities to make informed decisions simply because of their age, and are consequently systematically denied the right to vote in most countries.  

Other opinions against extending the vote to children argue that they would be influenced by parents' electoral preferences rather than their own independent thought, and swayed more by the personality of electoral candidates as opposed to their manifesto – and that is even if they actually decide to vote, as most of them are allegedly ignorant to political affairs. These points, however, tread thin ice, as they also apply to adults, with many voting on the basis of the likeability of political leaders, and are influenced by their family's voting patterns, not to mention that many do not vote out of apathy.

In the context of schooling, US youth rights advocate, John Holt, said "what kills the process [of learning] are the people interfering with it or trying to regulate it or control it". This same principle applies to the reasoning that under-18s should not vote because they allegedly lack the capacity to do so, which inevitably ignores the stunting effect that regulating voting rights can have on children. Holt argues that if governments acknowledged children's knowledge of, and interest and involvement in political issues and their ability to discuss them, then their capabilities could be enhanced. Moreover, author Bob Franklin argues that "if incompetence [were] the issue, the stupid could grow wise, but children cannot prematurely grow old.”

Opponents also argue that allowing children to vote would not guarantee that they would actually vote. While this is true, it also applies to adults who do not vote. But the point here is the chance to participate, not the level of participation. "If, for example, you are having trouble getting women to vote," says Rhammel Afflick of the British Youth Council, "we wouldn't suddenly take away their vote because they're disengaged from politics." 

Some countries, however, have taken note of children's absence in decision-making, and have sought to reverse it. Argentina, for example, has become the latest country to grant 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote. Elsewhere in Latin America, citizens also vote from the age of 16 in Brazil, Ecuador and Nicaragua. 

At its regional summit in 2011, the African Union addressed why the legal age to vote in the region should be lowered to 16. With most States setting the minimum age at 18, The Guardian reported that governments are not acknowledging the existing social and political realities of the region, as the continent has the youngest and fastest growing population in the world.

Meanwhile in Scotland, children from the age of 16 will head to the polls in 2014 for the first time to cast their vote on whether they think the country should become independent. Similarly the Welsh government supports lowering the voting age to 16 for all elections and referendums in the country, noting that there are inconsistencies with the minimum age for marriage, joining the armed forces, earning the minimum wage and paying taxes - all currently set at 16. 

Elsewhere, other countries to have granted under-18s the right to vote - albeit at different levels (municipal, state and national) - include Austria, Croatia, Cuba, the Philippines, Indonesia and the Seychelles. 

Children's freedom of association

Children and young people are active in politics in every part of the world, working alone or in groups, in youth associations in their local communities or at a national level. Indeed, democratic governments should encourage its citizens, including children, to become informed about and engaged in the affairs of the country. Accordingly, Bob Franklin argues that “everyone should be allowed to vote or join a political party when their interest, knowledge and involvement motivates them to do so."

In some cases, however, while adults' freedom of association is well established, children are prohibited by law from engaging in political activity such as forming youth-led associations. For instance, in Japan, children cannot join an association without permission from their parents before they turn 18. In Costa Rica, the law provides that under-18s have the right to freedom of association, except for political or lucrative activities. And in Lebanon, the country's law on association currently prohibits children from participating in, creating, or being members of associations or organisations. 

Another blatant restriction on children's freedom of association is the imposition of curfews, which typically apply only to children. Such laws not only stigmatise and criminalise young people, but also obstruct them from building relationships and getting involved in social or political activities beyond a certain hour. Indeed, the ability to interact is especially critical for children's development. But if children cannot associate freely with one another, how can they be expected to build friendships, form views about the world, participate actively in society and stand up for their rights and those of others later in life?  For examples of curfew laws and how the challenge them, see CRIN's Global Report on Status Offences.

Despite these obstacles, however, there are a number of inspiring and pioneering examples of children participating in decisions that affect them, their peers, and their communities. In Iceland, for example, after it was agreed that civilians would rewrite the Constitution following the emergence of the financial crisis in 2008, the Young People's Constitution Project was established to make sure that the opinions of children and young people were also taken into account in the constitutional amendment process.

In Bolivia, where there are an estimated 850,000 working children, members of the country's largest union of child workers, UNATSBO, are active in lobbying to get their rights as workers, and more precisely as child workers, to be recognised in law. UNATSBO additionally calls for child-led social movements to be given legal recognition.

In a CRIN interview with four Lebanese representatives of Youth Clubs on the issue of freedom of association, the interviewees said that for them the most important right is freedom, "because it will allow children to speak more openly about all [other] rights.

An exemplary case study of child participation in politics and decision-making is found in the Dominican Republic, where a new and democratic political culture is emerging thanks not to sharp-suited adult politicos, but to politically- and socially-conscious children. Municipal councils, found across the country, are formed by, and elected by, young people. They deal with the issues that "fall through the cracks" of (adult) politics, such as the provision of safe drinking water in schools. Although the youth councils are not part of the official government, it is hoped that with this new generation of young politicians and voters, the legacy of corruption left by the Trujillo dictatorship will be overcome. "Unlike adult politicians, we can't bribe people and say vote for me and I will give you this," says a 12-year-old town councillor, adding that “we can teach them [adults] how to make a fair campaign." Notably, 85 per cent of teenagers voted in the last local youth elections. 

For a more detailed analysis of children's right to freedom of association, click here.


Children's freedom of assembly

The past two years have seen some of the most remarkable demonstrations of the transformative role of the youth movement. Young people's participation in the Arab Spring remains probably the single most significant example of their capacity to bring about change in their communities and their power to shape a better world.

One Yemeni youth leader reflected on the galvanising effect of youth involvement in her country's anti-government protests: "[t]he revolution gave us the opportunity to get out and speak about human rights and demand them. During the revolution we shared hopes and demands while becoming more aware of our rights and needs."

Speaking at an event on Human Rights Day, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said that "this groundswell is not simply a question of people demanding freedom to say what they think. They have been asking for much more than that: for their right to participate fully in the important decisions and policies affecting their daily lives, [in order to put] an end to a situation where governments simply decide what is best for their populations without even consulting them." 

But as in the Arab Spring, governments in other countries have also responded to protesters' demands with violent repression and strategies to curb youth participation. In one case in China, a 17-year-old girl was arrested and tortured for throwing leaflets in the air and holding slogans calling for freedom in Tibet, for the return of the Dalai Lama, and for the release of political prisoners.

In this year's massive anti-corruption protests in Russia, surprise school exams on weekends requiring compulsory attendance were made to coincide with key protest days, to prevent young people from taking part in the marches.

In Chile, university and high school students, who have been demanding equitable access to education for all students in response to the country's underfunded public school system, have been met with the use of tear gas and pressurised water hoses, while hundreds of protesters have been arrested. As a result of the unrest, a public order law has been drafted that seeks to increase punishment for unsanctioned protests.

State actors also threaten women and girls with sexual violence and humiliation to deter them from taking part in marches. In Egypt, for example, soldiers have stripped female protestors of their clothes, conducted forced virginity tests, as well as sexually assaulted female journalists.

Hearing children out, and acting on it

Central to children's political rights is their right to freedom of expression and opinion. It sets the basis of States' obligation to allow children to express themselves freely, create an environment of respect for children to do so, and take into account what they have to say. For children's right to participate in public life to achieve real meaning and significance, children must be included in decision-making processes. But as the Committee on the Rights of the Child stressed in a General Comment on the right of the child to be heard, "simply listening to the child is insufficient; the views of the child have to be seriously considered when the child is capable of forming his or her own views."

The Committee added, however, that States must presume that a child has the capacity to form views and a right to express them: it is not up to the child to first prove his or her capacity. Indeed, as Bob Franklin argues, "in democratic societies the presumption must always be against exclusion and the burden of proof must rest with those who propose to disenfranchise." After all, having adults exclude children from public life is unfair, as they are unable to change or  have a say on the conditions that exclude them. Government should guarantee children the right to voice their opinion and take part in public discourse and decision-making processes without shame, threat or fear.

Here at CRIN we are, perhaps unsurprisingly, especially passionate about children’s civil and political rights. Today’s CRINMAIL sought to shed renewed light on the main obstacles restricting these rights, and importantly, to also commend examples where children have persevered and which represent stories that could inspire others to follow suit. CRIN reports on cases of child participation that come to our attention; yet we realise that not all children and young people are given the merit they deserve for their efforts. We would therefore like to hear of more examples like the ones covered in this CRINMAIL from all corners and regions of the world. To send us your contributions, email us at: [email protected]

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CHILDREN'S RIGHTS WIKI: Spotlight on Gambia

In this week's Children's Rights Wiki, we look at the persistent violations of children's rights in Gambia:

  • Female genital mutilation;
  • Early and forced marriage, and discrimination between boys and girls in marriage laws; 
  • Violence against children, particularly domestic violence; 
  • Corporal punishment;
  • Low minimum age of criminal responsibility;
  • Inadequate and inappropriate juvenile justice system;
  • Inadequate health provision for children;
  • Inadequate reproductive health care and education;
  • Inadequate education provision and barriers to access education for girls;
  • Discrimination against girls and children born out of wedlock;
  • Sexual abuse, exploitation and the trafficking of children;
  • Discrimination against, and inadequate services for children with disabilities;
  • Inadequate response to poverty and low standard of living affecting children. 

For more information on these persistent violations, visit:

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Violence: Call for Applications for the Children and Violence Evaluation Challenge Fund 
Organiser: Children and Violence Evaluation Challenge Fund
Application deadline: 17 December 2012 
More details here.

Call for applications: Master of Advanced Studies in Children’s Rights 
Organisation: Institut Universitaire Kurt Bösch et al. 
Application deadline
: 6 January 2013 
Location: Switzerland 
More details here.

Maltreatment: International Conference on Child and Family Maltreatment 
Organisation: Chadwick Center for Children & Families 
Date: 26–31 January 2013 
Location: San Diego, California, United States 
More details here

Europe: European Youth Foundation reloaded - it all starts with You(th)
Organisation: European Youth Foundation
Date: 4–6 February 2013 
Location: Strasbourg, France
More details here

Education: International Conference on Inclusive Education
Organisation: Asian Centre for Inclusive Education
Date: 15–17 February 2013 
Location: Dhaka, Bangladesh 
More details here

Call for applications: Masters programmes in Early Childhood 
Organisation: University of Plymouth
Start date
: September 2013 
Location: Plymouth, United Kingdom 
More details here

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European Roma Rights Centre: Paralegal Coordinator
Location: Odessa, Ukraine
Application deadline: 18 December 2012
More details here

Plan International: Child Rights Policy Officer
Location: Woking, Surrey
Application deadline: 21 December 2012
More details here.


The Last Word 

The Facebook generation is showing a growing resolve to change our world – and a capacity to make things happen. They are bringing their energy and courage to some of the most difficult issues we face.” 

-- Joseph Deiss, UN General Assembly President


We are not armed. Our weapon is our verbal demand for freedom; our weapon is our thought, pen and camera.

- Anas al-Shogre, disappeared Syrian activist

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