Youth Liberation

September 21st, 2007 by Strato

In our period of history, when work is considered a virtue, and earning money is the aim of life, the non-working, expense-incurring child can only be considered an inferior being. Edward Brongersma asserts that this ‘unhealthy situation is not a natural condition, but is peculiar only to the last two centuries’. It was only after the beginning of the 18th century that society started to divide itself into age groups. “Under the disguise of youth protection, young people were expelled, set apart and made subject to special rules and regulations” (Brongersma, 1990). With the rise of industrialized society, the concept of ‘childhood’ extended further and further. Sex distracted people from study and work – a squandering of Victorian-era energy. Childhood sexuality was superfluous, hence society decided that it simply didn’t exist – and so emerged the myth of the asexual, pure, innocent child. Aristotle once taught that ‘a son or slave is property, and there can be no injustice of one’s own property’ – a convenient doctrine, which has prominence in contemporary society.

Many commentators would no doubt assert that there have, however, been ‘great strides’ in the progress of ‘children’s rights’ in the last two decades, particularly at the international level, which has served to create an ‘aspirational’ trend for world governments to follow.

Children’s Rights at the International Level

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990) (“CRC”) is described as “the most widely ratified treaty in history, the first virtually universal human rights convention, and the most far-reaching and comprehensive of human rights treaties” which has brought about “a qualitative transformation of the status of children as the holders of rights” – primarily since the treatment of children in earlier international legal instruments was “almost inexorably linked to their mothers in particular and to women in general, rather than being considered in their own right” (Alston & Tobin, 2005). The US is the only competent State who has omitted to ratify the CRC – due to a widespread misapprehension that it would “virtually undermine parents’ rights as we know it in the United States. Parents no longer would have the basic right to control what their children watch on TV, whom they associate with and what church they attend. Parents could be prosecuted and children be taken away, simply because they spank their children or refuse to honor the various rights that the children are guaranteed” (Klicka, ‘The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: The Most Dangerous Attack on Parents’ Rights In the History of the United States’). (Would that it were true).

Notwithstanding such superlatives about the ‘qualitative transformation’ wrought by the CRC, the Convention is arguably devoid of any practical significance, for two main reasons:

(1) The rights granted to ‘children’ (i.e. all those under 18 years of age) are impotent. Such basic rights as the freedom to seek, impart and receive ideas of all kinds; freedom of thought, conscience and religion; freedom of association and assembly, are all granted to children ‘except as States deem necessary’ for such nebulous reasons as the protection of national security, public order, public health, public morals, the rights and duties of parents and the responsibility of States to ‘protect’ children from neglect, violence, sex and drugs. Governments past and present have frequently shown that States will use any excuse to oppress their citizens on the basis of ‘protection’ or ‘national security’. More fundamentally, the CRC avows that States must protect the institution of ‘the family’ and must recognize the primacy of parents in determining the ‘best interests of the child’ (Preamble, Arts 5 and 18). Given that parents (indoctrinated by States) and authoritarian upbringing are the greatest sources of harm to children, inevitably the CRC is going to offer little more than rhetoric.

(2) States are demonstrably free to ignore the CRC whenever convenient. Moreover, many States have filed numerous reservations to the CRC. Malaysia, for instance, reserved the following rights (among others): Article 13 (Freedom of Expression), Article 14 (Freedom of thought, conscience and religion), Article 15 (Freedom of association), and even Article 37 (Torture and Deprivation of Liberty) – on the basis that such Articles “contravene the interests of the Malaysian Constitution, legislation and cultural and religious practices”, and furthermore, “to apply freedom of religion to the practices of children is extremely dangerous and against the teachings of Islam” (Shukor).

It is sometimes argued that accountability is to be sought principally within the domestic, rather than the international, setting. However, the ineffectiveness of the CRC against the will of national governments can be shown with one example. The Committee on the Rights of the Child, established by the CRC, has stated that the Article 27 right (“No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”) includes all forms of corporal punishment, whether in the home, school or other settings. And yet by March 2007, only 18 States (of the 192 State Parties to the CRC) had legislated to ban corporal punishment by parents. Such a provision was also deemed to be part of the European Social Charter. Nevertheless, in 2004, the UK enshrined in domestic law the defenses of ‘justifiable assault’ (Scotland) and ‘reasonable chastisement’ (England & Wales) for parents who hit their children. Yet somehow the UN Committee still feels able to maintain that ‘The Convention asserts the status of the child as an individual person…The child is not a possession of parents, nor of the State” (General Comment No 8, 2006). If international law cannot even operate to prevent children being assaulted in their own homes, what hope does it have for bringing about a genuine culture of positive ‘Children’s Rights’?

By the start of the 21st Century, it was apparent that “there was a period of reaction in which governments have sought to re-claim some of the ground that they fear was conceded in the 1990s” and also that “the post-September 11 syndrome in many countries has focused attention on a phalanx of security concerns, often at the expense of human rights….and an increased hesitance on the part of human rights groups to insist on the respect for human rights in the face of new threats, both real and imagined, and what appears to be a growing public tolerance of measures to limit the enjoyment of human rights in the name of security and related objectives” (Alston & Tobin, 2005).

Even national and international NGOs seem unable or unwilling to step in. Children’s charities have no qualms with the welfarist approach of ‘protection’, and regularly affirm that minors cannot give ‘true consent’ to sexual activity, that “there are certain sorts of materials they ought to be shielded from and certain types of relationships which they ought to be discouraged from having” and that even after they have passed the Age of Consent to sexual activity, they still “lack the mature judgment to decide whether or not to participate in [pornography]” (John Carr, NCH, ‘Theme Paper on Child Pornography for the 2nd World Congress on Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children’). The four UK Child Commissioners called for the prohibition of corporal punishment by parents, and the UK government rejected their recommendation. Among the 12 campaign issues given specific priority by Amnesty International in 2003, none were child-focused (Alston and Tobin, 2005); and Michael Males, author of ‘Scapegoat Generation’ and ‘Framing Youth’, made the point (interview, 2004) that Amnesty International’s position is to “equate youth with the mentally retarded and cognitively impaired…when it’s good for their immediate political argument”.

A Grass-Roots Solution

Evidently, the CRC offers no hope for genuine youth liberation, or even a meaningful enumeration of rights. It is worth making one final, yet significant, observation on the international measures: both the CRC and the European Social Charter provide for compulsory education to a certain level. This is not only an inappropriate imposition of ‘developed world’ values upon ‘primitive’ or pastoral cultures (certainly in the case of the CRC), but it also reveals the underlying desire of powerful States to maintain and strengthen their vision of children as purely economic entities who must be ‘processed’ and channeled as fluidly as possible to serve the existing power structures. It is hardly surprising that “Western youth is probably the most protected and the unhappiest of the whole world” (Borneman, 1977), when the ‘protection’ that they are subject to is societal oppression.

This was amply demonstrated earlier this year, when the UK managed to beat the US into ranking bottom of UNICEFs Report investigating child well-being in OECD countries, as the worst place for children to grow up in the developed world. It’s immediate reaction? A prompt, PR obfuscation: pledging 1 billion GBP to fight child poverty. This is despite the fact that UNICEF’s Report clearly states that “There is no obvious relationship between levels of child well-being and GDP per capita….The Czech Republic, for example, achieves a higher overall rank for child well-being than several much wealthier countries”. It is also inevitable that it is the richest (and therefore most powerful) States that dominate the international agenda: witness the US’s scuppering of the UN Children’s Summit in 2002 – representatives from more than 180 countries attended, yet the US managed to ensure that the final document represented its own position on child sexuality – specifically that abstinence was the preferred ‘approach’ to sex education and in opposing any suggestion of the availability of abortion to adolescents.

Wilson (1981) proposed a draft Children’s Bill of Rights which at the time he felt would guarantee (among other rights) sexual autonomy for children. However, even a mere generation later, it has become ever-more apparent that young persons cannot rely on international conventions, NGOs or national governments to protect the the freedom of autonomy to which they are entitled. International bodies such as the UN operate at the behest of powerful States and consequently, and repeatedly, they uphold the right of the State to protect “the family” as ‘the natural and fundamental group [read: economic] unit of society’; ever-expanding ‘child protection’ NGOs are too busy competing with one another for funding to want to ‘rock the boat’ and, finally, parents and States simply have no interest in granting meaningful freedom to young people.

Further, as Gough (in Tsang (ed), 1981) observes, under the present form of the State, it is guaranteed that in the application of such laws, nothing would actually change. The police, judiciary and parents will still do everything in their power to oppose children’s sexuality, since “the State apparatus would still be dominated by a class that had an interest in the perpetuation of children’s oppression.” Gough highlights the significance of the role played by age of consent laws in sustaining this oppression, in their implication “that children are not capable of consenting in an area where their strongest feelings are involved, and by extension, in all areas which are of greatest importance to the child itself”.

Accordingly, despite the flourish of international agreements, conferences and national measures, despite the Committee on the Rights of the Child’s, the Council of Europe’s and ENOC’s protestations, it is surely evident that the development of “Children’s Rights” over the past Century is a chimera. The position remains now the same as it was when the Declaration on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the League of Nations in 1924, openly declared: “The child must be brought up in the consciousness that its talents must be devoted to the service of its fellow men.”

A solution from above – international, regional or domestic – will not be forthcoming. Fortunately, there is movement at the grass-roots of which advocates of childhood autonomy should take note.


Organizations such as the ‘National Youth Rights Association’ and ‘Americans for a Society Free From Age Restrictions’ (ASFAR) exist to promote civil rights for young people. The University of the Poor (part of the PPEHRC) is working to challenge the oppression of young people (of all economic levels) and has adopted a ‘Proposed Young People’s Liberation Policy’ which recognizes that the heart of the oppression of young people is economic. Schools are used “to train us to fit into jobs that are economically profitable, and that keep our oppressive social structure in place”. Among the various freedoms they strive for is that of sexual autonomy for young people. They outline various steps for young people’s liberation – the first hurdle being to work at overcoming internalized oppression.

Various youth liberation strategies may be adopted, which Sven Bonnichsen in an interesting essay (on usefully divides into ‘youth equality’ (attempts to end discrimination), ‘youth power’ (attempts to gain political power, change existing power structures, abolish corporal punishment, etc), and ‘youth culture’ (reacting to adult repression by embracing youth culture). While such strategies would work in combination, the second of these would appear to be the most conducive to long-lasting social change; and is perhaps particularly effective at avoiding the tendency of youth to ‘shed their former selves’ and embrace adulthood when they finally come of legal age (as the hippy became the yuppie, or the 60s radical became the puritanical conservative, cf. Michael Males, ‘Scapegoat Generation’).

Individuals can assist in this grass-roots activism. The thing that the authorities most fear – modern mass communication technology – is also our greatest ally. And we have two things in our favor: young people are instinctively distrustful of authority, and are more technologically-adept than adults. Whether it be on YouTube, Flickr, MySpace, or whatever the next child-centric medium may prove to be, we have to stay one step ahead, and utilize such technologies to ensure mass-access. A brief statement of rights in the comment box of a blog or photo site might be read by thousands, or hundreds of thousands. We need to focus on providing young people with the information necessary to combat the oppression of their inherent rights by their parents and the State; provide what the authorities never will: the information (and the will) to make autonomous choices and determine their own human destiny.

3 Responses to “Youth Liberation”

  1. Viamund Says:

    I agree with much of what you say although it is regrettable to place an emphasis on the United Nations. It is an organization in dire need of replacement with something that is actually representative of all World Nations – as opposed to certain VETO empowered Global Powers -. Remember how the U.N. was responsible in part for the destruction of the once united same-gender oriented community and the creation of this new assimilation-bound Gay Community. Child suffrage seems to be the only true way to empower youth. Many who are opposed to this rely on fiction as a means to defend their position. Those who claim that youth are unable to think for themselves and will only vote as their parents command are just as incorrect as those who claimed that women would only vote as their husbands commanded. Perhaps, at first, this might be the case. Still with power comes responsibility and through a public education campaign it would not be long before youth voted as their hearts/minds desired.

  2. Daniel Lièvre Says:

    I don’t really have much to say, as the essay sums up quite clearly what was already obvious to me (having studied modules on the topic).

    It is clear that the influential children’s rights texts will have to be largely re-written, before any degree of sexual autonomy is achieved, even for the 13-18 group.

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