Children's rights - how come nobody asked us?


Saturday’s poll promises to take the views of children into account, yet many haven’t even heard about it

A LINE IN THE booklet from the Department of Children, explaining this weekend’s Children’s Referendum, says if it is passed, provision will be made to ensure that in all proceedings taken by the State concerning issues relating to a child, “the views and wishes of the child should be taken into account, as long as the child is sufficiently mature to make this appropriate”.

It is perhaps ironic then that the views and wishes of children in this referendum are nowhere to be heard, never mind taken into account.

Do children even know there’s a referendum being held on Saturday? Until a group in one Dublin secondary school was told about it two months ago, none of them had known it was on the cards.

Josh Sherlock (15), Ellie Tyndall (14), Kirsty Nolan (14) and Lucienne Palmer (14) are all third year students at Newpark Comprehensive. It was their Civil, Social and Political Education teacher, Susi French, who asked them in September if they knew there was to be a referendum about them on November 10th.

“The reaction I got was, ‘What referendum?’,” says French.

“They knew nothing about it. They decided they had better find out something. It has been really interesting for me to see how passionate they are about the issues, and about the fact no-one was asking them what they thought about it. They are very good at asking serious and searching questions.”

Kirsty speaks for all four when she says she was “really shocked” to hear about it. “I had never heard there was one and then to hear it was about us. We weren’t even told. And it affects us.”

Lucienne too says she was surprised that a referendum was being held on children and that children weren’t being included in the discussion on it. “I was appalled too to realise that even in the Constitution children are just to be seen and not heard, not listened to.”

Josh says he thought children had rights in Ireland. “Our parents are always telling us how lucky we are to live here and not in Africa and then it turns out we don’t actually have rights here.”

The discussions in class about this lack of visibility of children in the Constitution appear to have prompted in them some self-reflection on why, beyond just saying they should be listened to, they should indeed be heard.

“Kids grow up having a lot of ideas,” says Lucienne. “We are very aware and come up with a lot of ideas older people might not have. You can see in the Young Scientists competition each year kids as young as 14 or 16 having amazing ideas.”

“A lot of older people don’t seem to have any opinion on anything and we do, we have a lot of opinions and we don’t have a voice and that’s wrong,” agrees Ellie, while Kirsty points out that in their CSP classes they are immersed in learning and thinking about rights and how they should be applied, while most adults aren’t giving such issues a second thought.

They are particularly vocal about how unfair it seems that young people don’t even have a voice in issues that impact crucially on their lives, such as whom they should live with if their parents break up. They say adults can’t truly know what is best for young people because they are no longer young themselves. Of course they must ask young people if they want to get the answer right.

“Adults talk down to us,” says Josh. “They think they have more experience so they know better, but they can’t know what’s right for us without trying to think like us.”

“If I could say one thing to adults,” says Kirsty, “I’d say ‘Don’t always think you know what’s best for us. Think about how a child feels, how a child is thinking. And if you can’t, ask a child.’ I think by voting Yes adults will think more about what a child thinks.”

‘Ireland has failed children’

Throughout the corridors of Newpark are posters, some hand-made and some from Unicef Ireland, proclaiming “It’s About You” and encouraging the teenagers to get to know what this referendum is about. Peter Power, executive director of Unicef Ireland, explains the concept of the “It’s About You” campaign has been to get children informed about the issues being voted on on Saturday.

Despite the fact none will have a vote in it, it is, he says, an opportunity to stimulate in children an awareness of themselves as important and valuable and worth listening to.

“If we can’t begin that then this referendum is really just lip-service. We realised the need to explain what’s going on in this referendum, in the words of children. So we engaged with children and youth groups all over the country and asked them to articulate children’s rights in their own words.”

A three-minute animation emerged explaining what the referendum is about and why it’s being held, and it’s not in juvenile or patronising language. “Ireland has failed children,” it tells us. “So let’s learn from these mistakes. Not all children get the same start in life. It’s about protecting the most vulnerable children. It’s about ensuring the State looks after the best interests of these children.”

A rap has also been written: “We have the right to be heard/the right to free speech/We want equality/And to have one of our goals reached/So listen up to what’s said/And plant a seed in your head/By voting Yes in this campaign you are increasing the spread.”

Unicef Ireland has also produced a tool kit, which can be downloaded from its website, to be used in schools and youth groups to foster discussion, debate and learning about the referendum and children’s rights among children and young people. By the end of last week it had been downloaded by almost 1,500 schools and youth groups.

Though they cannot vote this weekend, the young people at Newpark are proud to say they “can pester”, and have been to the fore in pushing the issues with parents, siblings “and teachers” they say. “My brother is 20 and he said, ‘Why would I bother with this?’ and I said to him it could affect me,” says Lucienne. “I persuaded him to talk to his friends too about it.”

“People think they’re grown up and it’s not going to affect then, but it will affect their kids,” nods Ellie.

All four favour a Yes vote and cannot understand why anyone would consider voting No. When asked whether they think a Yes vote could give the State too much power to intervene in families’ lives they say they hope a Yes vote would encourage the State to give greater help to families in need of support, because that is what would be best for the children.

“If you look at the news, Ministers are taking a lot of our money. We need to be able to trust the State,” says Josh.

“There isn’t just the one option of taking the kids away from families,” says Ellie. “The families might just need help with things. The kids would be able to tell them that.”