A group of young people flew to Geneva this week as part of a delegation visiting the United Nations to champion the cause of children’s rights in the UK. The unique two-day visit was the culmination of months of hard work by a team of 12 young people – who made up the delegation – as well as a network of more than 30 others who signed up for the Get Ready for Geneva project.
The initiative was launched last year by the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (Crae) which supported under 17s to carry out their own nationwide children’s rights investigation.
Children were involved in the reporting process in 2002, when the UK was last examined on its children’s rights record, but this time their participation has been at a much higher level. Selection for participation in the project was carried out by distributing competition flyers to schools and children’s organisations. On the back of applications received by Crae, young people were then recruited as members of a steering group, a website and communications team, or as children’s rights investigators or children’s rights champions.
Samantha Dimmock, the project’s programme director at Crae, says: “We provided training for the steering group and the website team. We also did visit training for our children’s rights investigators where they learned about research ethics and how to hold focus groups,” she says.
Further training was given in research analysis as well as writing the report – a key objective of the project is to present its findings to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, scheduled for 11 June.
Imogen Walsh, 17, was chosen to sit on the project’s steering group as well as deliver a presentation to UN officials in Geneva. She says: “Once we were chosen we all met up and it took at least two days to get our heads around what we had to do. Everyone has their own job to do within the steering group which is good as we all know what is expected.”
For Dimmock, working alongside children on the project, some of whom were as young as eight, proved rewarding and challenging. “The younger ones were involved in all aspects of the project as we didn’t have the capacity to split the age groups,” she says. “It seems to bring out much more enthusiasm where there is a range of ages among the children. The younger ones bring a freshness to it while the older ones act as mentors for the younger children.”
She says the project used online surveys and focus groups to gather research on children’s views of their human rights. For the former, seven surveys on the themes of education, respect, freedom, family and friends, crime, health and safety and play – mirroring those of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) – were designed and run every month on the project’s website.
Members of the children’s rights investigators team were responsible for prioritising which issues were important enough to require further research based on their own experiences and the UN Committee’s conclusions from six years ago.
Dimmock says the 48 focus groups, held out of school hours from October to December 2007, were important for reaching those young people who were unlikely to fill in online surveys, such as Gypsy and traveller children, disabled children, those who had suffered abuse or neglect as well as young parents. In total 346 children and young people took part in focus groups held around the UK.
Many of the young people involved in the project were struck by how much they had in common as well as how different their experiences of life were.
“In terms of children who are locked up [detained], this was so far out of their own experience they couldn’t comprehend why these children were not treated the same as other children,” she says.
From its research findings, the report makes 14 key recommendations to the government to improve the UK’s current performance on children’s rights issues.
The UN Committee’s concluding observations made in 2002 were very critical of the UK’s record and 78 recommendations were made for action on children’s rights.
The latest annual review by Crae shows progress has been made on 10 of these recommendations in the past year, but Dimmock emphasises that the report’s recommendations have come from the young people’s analysis of their own research.
“What’s very powerful about the report is the fact it has come from the children themselves – they would not necessarily have been aware of government policy,” she says.
However, she can draw parallels with some of the recommendations and issues that non-governmental organisations share major concerns about. “Negative media coverage of young people, age discrimination, bullying – there’s a lot said about it but very little done,” she says.
Both Imogen and Adam Roberts, aged 15, feel a key concern is ensuring young people are aware of their rights and the support available to them.
“Children should be taught more about their rights and citizenship so they would know if their rights were being violated and could do something about it,” says Imogen.
Adam agrees that the fifth recommendation – calling for the UNCRC to be a compulsory part of the curriculum for children (see panel, above) – is vital in addressing a knowledge gap among young people.
“Another of the issues I have been working on is how the media represent children. There are a lot of stereotypes of children and they are not always accurate,” he says.
Being chosen to represent the project as well as the voices of children in the UK at the UN is an opportunity both Imogen and Adam feel grateful to have been given.
“I’ve been nervous about speaking in front of UN officials but I was really happy that I was chosen,” says Imogen. “It’s a big responsibility. There’s not many 17-year-olds who can say they have done that.”
The 14 proposals
1. More needs to be done to help children feel respected.
2. Compulsory guidelines requiring fair representation of children in the media.
3. Tougher laws on smacking.
4. Children should be more involved in decision-making in their schools and communities.
5. Make the UNCRC a compulsory part of the curriculum for all children.
6. Ensure children who are locked up are treated with respect.
7. Government needs to do more to reduce the levels of stress caused by exams and workload.
8. More funding to support children who need someone to talk to.
9. More training for health professionals about working with children.
10. More needs to be done to stop police discriminating against specific groups of children.
11. Children in care must have their rights respected.
12. Disabled children must be more involved in making decisions about their lives.
13. More money for providing more and cheaper leisure facilities and youth activities.
14. Ensure parks and leisure facilities are well maintained and that children feel safe when using them.
Children’s commissioner view
Al Aynsley-Green on Get Ready for Geneva: “I’m impressed with the quality and the content of the project as well as the recommendations, which are powerful and hard-hitting. Each group within the project has done a first-rate job and they have used a first-rate methodology – adult organisations have a lot to learn from what has been achieved here.
“Many of the recommendations are similar to the sorts of things we have been talking about at 11 Million. In terms of the first recommendation, we need that at this moment in time particularly when there is so much demonisation of children. Less than 25% of the children we talk to feel they are respected.
“With regards to the second recommendation it would be difficult for the government to introduce compulsory guidelines but we support their calls for more good things to be published about children in the media.
“We also support recommendations 13 and 14 concerning places to go and things to do especially as there is so much concern about young people gathering on the street.
“There is no question that good things are being done since the UN made its concluding observations in 2002. But it is translating the work into practice and the UNCRC into legislation. We still have a long way to go.”