Making sure that children know their rights

The Ombudsman for Children is actively telling young people they have rights which should be respected. Is this a good idea?

‘We all have the right to rest from work and relax and if we didn’t we would feel very tired in the evening and in the night. If someone didn’t have any rights or didn’t know their rights, that means they couldn’t have a life. They need to have rights so when they grow they can know more.

“If someone said to me that I can’t practice my religion – if they said that you have to respect my religion before you can understand your religion – I would be really sad, and would say let me practice the religion I want to practice.”

– Abiidat, aged 5, senior infants, Educate Together National School, Navan

This five-year-old girl is being taught she has imprescriptable rights. So are thousands of other children across Ireland. It's all down to an initiative by the Ombudsman for Children's Office (OCO) to meet a statutory obligation to promote awareness of the rights of children under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and to consult children on the matters that affect them. It's an initiative that marks 10 years of the Ombudsman for Children, which was launched in 2004.


Last year, more than 1,500 young people from 17 counties, including children from junior infants right through to Leaving Cert students, from the most disadvantaged as well as the most privileged schools, visited the OCO in Dublin to learn more about their rights. Many schools included it as part of a “Citizenship Day”, which often also involved a trip to the Dáil.

The success of this initiative, as well as resource constraints, has led the OCO to develop a new iPad app, ItsYourRight, which young people in schools across Ireland can use to learn about their rights.

“Most of the age groups that come here range from third class to people on the cusp of college,” says Karen McAuley, education and participation officer at the OCO. “We tailor the programme differently for each group. There’s a lot of explaining to do around the notion of children’s rights. This usually involves breaking them into smaller groups and teasing out ideas through interactive workshops. It is about exploring what it means to have rights, what rights they have, and making connections between rights and their daily lives. Fundamentally, it involves listening to the children and facilitating ongoing dialogue. For us, it is an opportunity to consult with children and young people on the issues that affect their lives, which can feed back into our work. This focus shifts from term to term and year to year. We’ve spoken about childcare, health, bullying and more, asking children and young people what they want.”

The Right to our language from ItsYourRight on Vimeo.

Problem of bullying

Bullying is a constant theme. In a workshop, children and young people might talk about the problem of bullying and its causes. The OCO would help them relate the issue to their fundmental rights which would include, for instance, the right to non-discrimination (Article 2 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child), the right to freedom of expression and freedom of conscience (Articles 13 & 14), freedom of association (Article 15) and more – and then help them work out how the problem can and should be tackled.

In 2012, during school visits to the OCO, many children shared their experiences of and ideas about bullying. Their voices were included in the OCO’s submission to the Department of Education, which later released new anti-bullying guidelines and procedures for schools.

“Young people said early intervention and active prevention work is important when it comes to bullying, as is a need for schools to build awareness of bullying and its consequences,” says McAuley. “They clearly said that they want to be educated around bullying and its causes.”

Is there a risk that this campaign could create a generation of young people who feel they have rights and entitlements but without responsibilities?

“The rights education is not conceived as individualistic,” says McAuley. “Rights come with conditions, and we emphasise the caveat that one person’s rights should not interfere with those of another. As a practical example, we talk about how the right to freedom of expression comes with the responsibility to listen to what others have to say.”

During the visits, children tend to raise the issues that matter to them, even if those issues do not directly or very obviously relate to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. “You do notice certain patterns in what children want to talk about,” says McAuley. “In 2010 and 2011, for instance, children often brought up emigration or the impact of one parent moving abroad or to another part of Ireland for work.” A parent working abroad could relate to a child’s rights under Articles 9 and 10 (separation from parents, family reunification), and Article 27 (standard of living).

It seems like a relatively straightforward and innocuous project but, for a substantial proportion of people in Ireland, the idea of empowering children is highly subversive. There remains some opposition here to the idea that children have any intrinsic rights at all, as opposed to the rights of the family. In 2012, the Irish electorate passed the Children’s Referendum, which proposed greater rights for the State to take child protection measures – but by a smaller margin than opinion polls had predicted: 42 per cent of the electorate, on a low turnout of just 33.5 per cent, rejected the notion.

One of the referendum's opponents, former MEP Kathy Sinnott, said during a televised TV3 debate that the proposals were about "taking the rights of families to protect children, good families".

Initiated by parents

The OCO has received more than 10,000 complaints since its establishment, but Nikki Gallagher, a spokeswoman for the office, says 75 per cent of these are initiated by parents on behalf of their children and there has not been a single case in which the rights of a parent conflicted with those of their child. These complaints have related to the treatment of children in care, a lack of resource teachers for children with educational needs, the treatment of a pregnant girl in a secondary school, school transport, how bullying complaints are handled, medical decisions affecting children and more.

“There is, sometimes, a perception that strengthening the rights of the child weakens those of the parent,” says McAuley. “This is not the case and this is not how children’s rights are fashioned. We actually see parents as the strongest advocates for their children. They see that children’s rights can strengthen their capacity as parents and can help them to claim rights for their children.”

To those who think the idea of children’s rights mean increased state intervention in what the Irish Constitution calls the “inalienable and imprescriptible” rights of the family, McAuley says this has not happened. “We hear of the opposite: the State not meeting its obligations. And it is parents who are telling us this. Ultimately, we are empowering young people - and their families.”

The OCO’s iPad app, ItsYourRight, is targeted at children in schools and is free to download from the App store. For more information, see, which contains audio, video and images of children and young people talking about why human rights matter and how they are relevant in their own daily lives. Workshops at the Office of the Ombudsman for Children are free, open to school groups, children’s projects and youth services, and are around 90 minutes long. The OCO can subsidise transport costs for groups taking part in a workshop.

Upholding children’s rights Is Ireland playing its part?

“ The child should be fully prepared to live an individual life in society, and brought up in the spirit of the ideals proclaimed in the Charter of the United Nations, and in particular in the spirit of peace, dignity, tolerance, freedom, equality and solidarity” – From the Preamble to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989

Ireland is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the job of the Ombudsman for Children is to ensure that those rights are upheld. The Convention includes 41 individual rights which are often quite general in wording and have been interpreted differently by different nation states. One, Article 27, says that children have a right to a standard of living that is adequate for their physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development – the extent to which states have vindicated this right is arguable. In Ireland, for instance, figures from Barnardos show that almost 10 per cent of children live in consistent poverty.

Our ombudsman experience: Ellen and Carla

Sixth-year students Ellen O'Mahony and Carla Ryan (above with former Ombudsman for Children, Emily Logan), both aged 17, have been performing as Ellen & Carla for over two years, and their song Shields was recently chosen to accompany the Ombudsman for Children's It's Your Right campaign.

Shield - The Story from ItsYourRight on Vimeo.

“It’s about looking out for someone and trying to protect them, as the OCO seeks to protect children,” says Ellen. “They felt it tied in with what they were promoting.”

The girls worked with a composer to develop a string arrangement, and children from the local primary school sang on the recording. During the process, Ellen and Carla learned about children’s rights.

“If I’m honest, I thought that the Ombudsman for Children had always been there,” says Carla. “The rights of children are very important, particularly, for me, the right to express yourself. If someone told me I wasn’t allowed to sing, that would be really upsetting; this really struck a chord with me. “In our school, we have a really good guidance counsellor, but I know that other schools aren’t so lucky. It shouldn’t be down to luck. Every child should have the same rights.”