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A Bill of Rights for Children

In exploring the case of Clarence Osborne and looking at the children who were connected with him, it has become abundantly clear to me that ‘laws of consent’ or other legalistic manoeuvres that attempt to protect the child from sexual or social oppression by adults will invariably fail if for no other reason than the fact that they can never be enforced with any degree of effectiveness.

What really is needed in order to stop children being violated in social, economic and sexual ways is a children’s bill of rights which besides having legislative teeth, becomes part of the social climate of our community. Such a proposal, of course, is hardly radical as it has been suggested for many years by supporters of children’s rights.

The question is to decide what the major parameters of such a bill should be. While it is not my intention to give detailed submissions on such a bill the present discussion requires, at the very least, an outline of what areas such a charter should cover.  [*13]

To begin with there must be a right to self-determination so that children have at least some say on matters which affect them most directly. As it is now children are treated as the private property of their parents on the assumption that it is the parents’ right and responsibility to control the life of the child. Parenting should be seen as a privilege and not as some innate right allowing adults to dictate their children’s psychological, religious and social development. The implication of allowing children to have some say in their religious instruction, sexual behaviour and ethical conduct is, to most parents, quite frightening, but this right must be considered as a cornerstone by anyone seriously concerned with children’s liberation.

A second right which meets with more social approval than the first, is a right to a responsive environment. It is quite clear that parents are not always the best people to bring up their children and an estimated four million children are abused annually in the United States alone. It is obvious that alternative forms of parental care have to be designed. These forms should not necessarily be the bland institutional homes and orphanages which are the options open to children at the moment, but instead creative child exchange programmes, twenty-four-hour child care centres and various kinds of schools and employment opportunities.

A third section in any children’s bill of rights must deal with their right to equitable education. This means that the child must have the right to all information available to adults including, and perhaps especially, information that makes adults feel uncomfortable. Such a right would mean that the formal, mundane, and compulsory nature of many courses that operate in our competitive schools would have to be abolished in favour of an educational curriculum that is non-competitive, innovative, and which is at least partly designed by children to cater for their own and not adults’ needs. Education can change only through the achievement of new rights for those exploited and oppressed by it — the children themselves.

A fourth right relates to economic and political power. At the moment children are disfranchised and have no one to represent their constituency or to reflect on legislation that affects their day-to-day activities. Furthermore, children do not have the right to work to acquire and manage money or to receive equal pay for equal work. They never learn to use money adequately because they are never allowed to develop a credit record, nor do they learn what a binding contract means because children do not have the right to enter into such contracts. They must achieve financial independence and political power in order for them to be free of adult oppression.

A fifth right is their right to freedom from physical punishment. At the moment children are physically and sexually abused in the home and in schools by adults who feel that they have the right to treat ‘their property’ as cattle rather than as people. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the use of corporal punishment in homes and in schools which is often arbitrarily given with sadistic delight. A child should have the same rights as an adult has to be free from physical abuse and punishment which often comes under the guise of ‘discipline.

A sixth right is the child’s right to justice. The juvenile justice system originally designed to protect children from the harsh treatment of the adult criminal justice system has ended up as a system where children lack the legal right of adults and where they are subjected to paternalism and arbitrarily punished for activities which, if they were adults, would not be considered crimes. Children must have the guarantee of a fair trial with due process of law, a lawyer to protect their rights from over-zealous bureaucrats, a uniform standard of detention, and the right to be treated as adults with respect to questions of what offences, would be considered to be ‘criminal’. For too long children have been doubly jeopardised by the criminal justice system and are not only criminally liable for acts which, if they were an adult, would be considered crimes, but are also often charged with offences which would not be crimes if they were adults.

The seventh and final right is the right to sexual freedom. If one agrees with the other six rights that I have stated then it is only logical that children should have the right to conduct their sexual lives with no more restrictions than adults do. A prior condition to this right though is that children must be provided with all information about sex and related matters so that they are in a position to make reasonable choices concerning their present and future sexual behaviour.

If we as a community are genuinely concerned about the fact that children might be sexually misused by adults, then we have a moral, and indeed a social obligation, to provide young people with the most contemporary and most relevant information and the knowledge which will allow them to refuse sexual advances.

At the moment children are trained not to refuse adults anything and to accept all forms of physical affection as being the right of an adult to impose on a child. They are therefore not able to learn to trust their own emotional feelings and reactions to people and often become involved in physical relationships which they really do not wish to get involved in. We keep children innocent and ignorant and then somewhat hypocritically worry that they will not be able to resist the sexual approaches of people such as Clarence Osborne.

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