Making Rights Real: Teaching the UNCRC
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, 75 Years of the United Nations Special Issue, 2020
By Nikita Griffioen
“What do you mean, we have rights as minors?” Thirty pairs of quizzical eyes met mine. Brows furrowed in confusion. “Aren’t rights made by adults, for adults?” I heard a student mutter. Even the most distracted of students gave me their full attention, convinced I was teaching about some mythical topic.
This was the response I received as I introduced my grade 9 social studies class to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). I made the decision on a whim to dedicate one lesson to the UNCRC, thinking (wrongly) that it would be quick to cover before moving on to further topics. It wasn’t long before I realized that I needed to spend much more time on this.
I can’t say that their reactions were surprising. Had I been one of those students, I’m confident that my reply would have been the same. Thinking back on my childhood, I too wasn’t told my rights at an age when it would most matter. The UNCRC was never part of the curriculum I learned in elementary or high school. Had I not taken a Social Justice class in university, I doubt that I would even be aware of a children’s version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
After the shocked response from my students, I talked to some of my colleagues regarding their experience with the UNCRC. Much to my chagrin, but not to my surprise, the overwhelming majority of my peers had neither heard about the UNCRC nor taught it. Similarly, I asked my other classes if they had heard of the UNCRC, whether in school or out in the world? Once again, the answer was negative.
The UNCRC is a treaty among countries designed to protect the rights of children. It was drafted in 1989 and ratified by Canada in 1991. By extension, UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) is an organization and charity that advocates these rights through humanitarian work. According to UNICEF’s website, the UNCRC embodies the most complete statement of children’s rights ever produced and is the most widely ratified international human rights treaty in history. On its website, UNICEF also explains that all the rights are connected; they are all equally important, and they cannot be taken away from children.
There are a total of 54 articles listed under the UNCRC. Here are the first three:
- A child is anyone under 18;
- There should be no discrimination regarding implementation of these rights;
- Best interests of the child should be of primary concern.
These are sensical and straightforward articles with which any reasonable person may agree. It is the fourth article where I must stop and reflect: “Governments must do all they can to make sure that every child in their countries can enjoy all the rights in this Convention.” In other words: “Making rights real.”
It is here, at just the fourth article that we are already failing our students, and thus the generations to come. How are we making rights real? How should students know their rights can be upheld, by law if necessary, if they have no knowledge of them in the first place?
Drawing from The Children’s Version of the UNCRC, children have rights as follows: the right to an identity (article 8); to contact with parents across countries (article 10); to respect for children’s views (article 12); access to education (article 28); protection from harmful work (article 32); and that the best law for children applies (article 41). This represents only six articles out of the entire document and they seem like basic things we take for granted, but they alone illustrate how many rights to which children are entitled. I know that my students couldn’t possibly imagine living without just these six rights so it’s important for them and all minors to be aware of all their rights.
Working at what is considered to be an inner-city school, I encounter students who often have their rights infringed upon (though I doubt this infringement is exclusive to inner-city institutions). Whether it’s an adult in their life not respecting their privacy (article 16), or a student feeling as though they can’t share their thoughts freely (article 13), minors are constantly dealing with individuals pushing boundaries. And most of the time, these children aren’t aware that they can do something about it. They don’t know that how they are being treated is lawfully unfair.
This issue becomes even more pertinent when considering rights such as “protection from violence” (article 19) and “protection from sexual abuse” (article 34). Children who find themselves in these terrible situations are often prey to adults who disregard those rights and instead, convince the child that it is they, not the adult, who is in the wrong. A child who doesn’t know his or her rights won’t have the means for defending themselves against adults who are in positions of authority.
Consider this a call to action, then. The forty-second article of the UNCRC states that “everyone must know children’s rights.” For everyone to know these rights, they must be taught, and preferably from a young age. Knowledge of the UNCRC will serve to help young people advocate for themselves—and each other—when adults in their life may fail to do so.
The one lesson I had planned for my social studies class turned into two full days of learning. My other lesson plans were pushed back as, instead, we dissected the UNCRC articles, discussed each one in turn, and talked about what it meant in their lives and those of young people around the world. Rarely had I seen such engagement regarding content, but then again, it’s not often that students encounter new material that targets their well-being. We also talked about what to do if just one of these rights was violated. Who could they talk to? What could they say? Students thought of adults they trusted and devised language that included referencing the UNCRC to make their voices heard.
Teaching the UNCRC did not halt at just my social studies class. When I realized that most students were not aware of their rights, I incorporated learning about some of the articles into my other classes as well. In English, students were assigned an article and wrote a short story incorporating it. While in art class, students created posters raising awareness of these rights along with illustrations specific to different articles.
Each time the UNCRC was introduced to students, it was met first with incredulousness. Rights—until then—had seemed something “adultish” and far-fetched. Once students realized that they held the power to maintain and advocate for their own rights, there was a transformation in attitude. Students began to approach social justice issues from a rights-centred perspective, talking about topics like foster care and school lunch programs in terms of the rights they upheld. They embraced the power and now had the ability to advocate for themselves and others.
I feel there is no excuse for any teacher not being aware of the UNCRC. Including it in today’s curriculum will empower minors to advocate should they find themselves in a situation with nowhere to turn. In an ideal world, adults would always uphold these rights as gold standards. Unfortunately, adults can’t always be trusted to do so. Since we don’t live in an ideal world, it is our job as educators to inform young people of their rights, the importance of those rights, and how to make sure they’re upheld, as the law states. I would never want any minors to feel compelled to advocate for themselves. Having that ability, however, is vital.
Nikita Griffioen currently teaches in Abbotsford, British Columbia. When she’s not in class, you can find her traveling, snowboarding, surfing, reading, or making art.