Today, children have got more means in which they can be heard. They have got social media and other ways to put their views across. Clearly, kids are trying to do that and doing it in a very demonstrable way in some areas. But it is incumbent on us as adults to listen.
Kids in Australia feel invisible, irrelevant and worthless, a new report has found. And now the UN knows about it.
The distinctive scrawl of children’s drawings and handwriting features throughout a document published by UNICEF Australia late last year. It’s a powerful design choice, which breaks up blocks of text from academics, lawyers, and policy writers who make a total of 190 recommendations as to what must happen to improve the lives of young Australians.
But the design does more than make the document, submitted to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in November 2018, visually impactful. It shows that the contents of The Children’s Report were informed by speaking to children and young people – more than 500 face-to-face meetings and 50 consultations in 30 different locations across the nation. The views of vulnerable children were also sought; the spotlight shone on their stories.
In a wealthy country such as Australia, the assumption is that children’s experiences of life are good. But where there is a disparity, The Children’s Report found that the gap in quality of life for Australian children was “shocking”. This included the experience of LGBTIQ children, refugee children, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in particular. UNICEF’s Freyana Irani, who co-authored the report, said that almost 30 years after committing to minimum standards for Australian children by signing the UN Children’s Convention, improvements have been incremental and isolated.
“We talk about a fair chance for our children, but one in six is living in poverty, one in seven has experienced a mental disorder, and youth suicide is the leading and increasing cause of death among children and young people today,” Irani said in November last year.
DLA Piper assisted UNICEF Australia to prepare The Children’s Report as part of a long-running pro bono partnership the law firm has with the organisation. The firm’s contribution involved 40 lawyers who spent 12,000 hours (totalling approximately $600,000 worth) researching and writing for the paper.
Amber Matthews, a Sydney-based partner at DLA Piper who also serves as General Counsel for the global law firm, has vivid memories of taking civic-engagement seriously from the age of 10.
“I remember writing to the Premier of New South Wales because I objected to the construction of the monorail,” Matthews says.“I think I got a letter in return that said, ‘Thanks very much’, but clearly they didn’t listen.”
While technology has given the youth of today many more avenues to have their voices heard beyond the snail-mail option of Matthews’ childhood, there remains the challenge of adults and people in power taking those views seriously. Matthews reflects on the recent rallies school children held around the world, “striking” from the classroom to protest the systemic failure to address climate change.
“Today, children have got more means in which they can be heard. They have got social media and other ways to put their views across. Clearly, kids are trying to do that and doing it in a very demonstrable way in some areas,” she says. “But it is incumbent on us as adults to listen.”
Over the last 20 years, several inquiries have considered and highlighted the chronic gaps in Australia’s child protection systems. Meanwhile, the number of Australian children who enter and remain in out-of-home care has more than doubled. According to UNICEF Australia, more than 14 inquiries since 2015 have condemned the inadequate youth facilities in Australia, where children have been subject to practices that may amount to torture, or cruel and inhuman treatment.
Given that [the issue of child protection] should be a nationwide focus for our youth and children, it was a little bit surprising that there is no uniform approach and no constitutional protections or the like.
Notably, the recommendations of The Children’s Report are not new. Sophie Devitt, a DLA Piper partner based in Brisbane, said all the recommendations have been highlighted, flagged and put forward by similar expert groups before. She added that she was surprised to learn that Australia does not have a uniform approach to child protection.
“Obviously, being a federal system, this happens from time to time – states take different approaches,” Devitt says.
“But given that [the issue of child protection] should be a nationwide focus for our youth and our children, it was a little bit surprising that there is no uniform approach and no constitutional protections or the like.”
When the question was put to UNICEF Australia Chair Ann Sherry why this apparent state of crisis had not been addressed by governments sooner, her response was blunt: because children do not vote, issues that directly affect their lives tend to be less political and governments subsequently less inclined to act. Matthews says it is a powerful point she had not previously considered.
“The people who vote and the people who are most vocal about issues in society tend to be middle-aged to older voters, and that’s where the politicians are looking to get their reflection – who they are getting their votes from,” Matthews says.
In March, the Federal Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support lowering Australia’s voting age to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote.
Having ratified the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child in 1990, Australia is required to periodically report to a body of 18 experts who comprise the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. The Australian Human Rights Commission submitted its most recent report to the committee last November, with the message that Australia needs stronger measures in policy, law and practice to protect children and advance their rights.
The Children’s Report is a civil society alternative to the government’s own submission and was published by the Australian Child Rights Taskforce, led by UNICEF. Its overreaching calls were for a national plan for children, a national children and families strategy, a Minister for Children, and a funded youth peak body.